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TV Review: The Handmaid's Tale (Season 1, Episode 4)

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After three strong, world-building episodes that have shocked and appalled, this week's instalment of The Handmaid's Tale seems a little slow in comparison. 

Still reeling from the events of last week, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovsky) has condemned Offred (Elisabeth Moss) to her room. Feeling more cut off from the world than ever before, the cracks in Offred's seemingly calm exterior begin to show, as the life of a handmaid starts to take its toll on her mental wellbeing.

This week's episode is very much focused on Offred and her situation within the Waterford household. Unlike last week, there are no detours to the trials of other handmaids, such as Ofwarren and Ofglen. Instead, we remain confined, much like the protagonist herself, within the house and other compact spaces. Throughout the episode, we feel the same sense of suffocation that Offred does, and though that is somewhat commendable in itself, the episode feels much longer and slower because of it. 

Trapped within her room, Offred finds solace in the closet - a safe haven in which she finds a hopeful inscription; 'Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.' A latin phrase - which we later discover to roughly translate as "don't let the bastards grind you down" - this message of solidarity and defiance was etched into the doorframe by Offred's predecessor. Shattered by Serena's unrelenting coldness, Offred becomes transfixed by this phrase and the ghost of the handmaid before her.

Even when Offred finds a reason to escape the confines of her room, after fainting on the day of the ceremony, Serena ensures that her captivity is enforced by sending her to the doctor in a darkened car. Offred's trip to the surgery proves to be a strange experience, as a faceless doctor tries to comfort her. Revealing that the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) is likely sterile, the appointment takes a creepy turn when the doctor offers to "help" Offred by impregnating her. Truly, the way that "help" is defined in this world is warped indeed.

As has become the norm, the episode also makes way for several intermittent flashbacks, giving us yet more insight into June's life before the Republic and the Waterfords. Most notably, Offred muses on her daring attempt to escape the system with Moira (Samira Wiley). Taking an Aunt captive and stealing her uniform, the two friends manage to make it to a train station - only to be separated when the guards restrain June and return her to the facility. Once again, Samira Wiley remains a welcome presence, offering prescient asides that echo the thoughts of the viewer ("this is fucked", indeed.) 

The episode also sees further development with the Commander's character, as he interacts more closely with Offred. An increasingly ambigious figure, the Commander certainly seems to be a likeable, sympathetic man who follows uncomfortably in the regime he is such an integral part of. During their scrabble rematch, the Commander seems to show a certain level of shame and sadness with regards to the plight of his former handmaid, who hung herself from the ceiling. Revealing that he would "prefer" it if Offred's life was "bareable", Fiennes' Commander continues to be a strangely positioned character who we cannot trust, but cannot hate either.

There is also a brief but powerful moment between the Commander and Serena, after the Commander fails to perform during the ceremony. Showing forbidden tenderness towards her husband, Serena attempts to help him - only to be stopped by the commander himself. Despite her hateful attitude towards Offred, one can't help but sympathise with Serena as well. Even a devoted wife, who wants only to connect naturally with her husband, is oppressed in this sombre society. 

Taking a slower pace and focusing in on a more singular plot thread, this episode is a little underwhelming following last week's heavy-handed chapter. It does however give Elisabeth Moss a chance to shine without distraction, as her performance continues to move and captivate.

The Handmaid's Tale airs on Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4.

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