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TV Review: The Handmaid's Tale (Season 1, Episode 8)


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Continuing to add a grim, but poignant dampener on our Sunday nights, this week's episode of The Handmaid's Tale takes us to dark new places, with more than a few revelations on the way. 

Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) continues to show an eerily vested interest in Offred (Elisabeth Moss) while his wife is on a brief excursion, while Nick ponders his life before Gilead came into place. 

The episode opens with Offred's latest contemplation, as she sits thoughtfully besides Nick after another night of forbidden passion. Following last week's revelation that her former husband, Luke, is alive and well, Offred ponders on her situation and the pull she feels between both men.

Lonely and in need of some form of escape from the horrors she is put through as a handmaid, her secret rendezvous' with Nick provide her some solace - something that "feels good." At the same time, she feels guilt and remorse for Luke, who is "fading day by day, night by night" from her memories. As she wanders back to her room, she finds Waterford waiting for her.

Upon revealing that Serena is away for the night to visit her mother, Waterford puts Offred through an ambiguous (and undoubtedly creepy) beauty regime; he shaves her legs, instructs her to put on make-up (from a small hand mirror that he holds) and then hands her a sequined gown and heels - all of which serve as a reminder of the traits of femininity that Gilead has snuffed out in the name of righteous faith and religious oppression.

Our disdain for Waterford has been growing for some time now - ever since he was revealed to be the grand architect of Gilead (alongside an unwitting Serena), he has appeared more and more menacing in every episode. This week, he is downright creepy as he ogles, touches and 'sweet talks' Offred with possessive nicknames ("my little one", "Mrs Waterford") and unwelcome attempts at romanticising the evening he has planned. Joseph Fiennes' quiet, pervading performance is truly as impressive as it is unnerving. 

Waterford leads Offred to the car, where a pained Nick watches on. Following a few awkward scenes within the car, Waterford reveals the location of their outing - a private whorehouse in which Commanders and State Officials take out their sexual frustrations on jezebels.

At Offred's request, Waterford explains where the jezebels come from - ranging from former working girls to lawyers, doctors and journalists. To avoid the colonies, these woman have compromised their values and exchanged prestigious careers to conform to their only other option in this society - to serve as sex objects. As Offred looks across the hubbub of sordid exchanges and nudity, she notices a familiar face - that of her best friend, Moira (Samira Wiley).

The brief reunion of the two women is touching, and a welcome respite from the repugnant activities of all these godawful men. Moira explains that after abandoning Offred at the train station (as seen in a flashback a few episodes ago), she was later caught and - after being deemed too corrupted to return to the Handmaid program - was forced to choose between Jezebels or the Colonies. Resigned to her fate, Moira - now a deflated shell of the feisty woman she once was - tells Offred to give up on their dreams of escape. 

Alongside this plot thread, our #FlashbackOfTheWeek (a narrative gimmick that eight episodes in, we've come to accept) is provided to us by Nick, who ponders on his life before Gilead. In the retrospective scenes, we watch as Nick - a so-called "loser" who "can't hold a job" - is recruited by Commander Price on behalf of the Sons of Jacob.

Within the flashbacks, we gain further insight into Gilead's conception, which - surprise, surprise - amounts to a group of men deciding what to do with the lives and futures of America's women. Set in the back of the car, the extremely aggravating scene sees Waterford, Price and another Commander arrogantly determine that fertile women must be "captured and impregnated."

Following Price's objection to "concubines," Waterford suggests the basis of the Ceremony as a "branding" scheme to placate the wives. Though the wives seem to have the best of a bad lot, this misogynistic, inhumane conversation - as well as the episode itself - highlights the male-enforced oppression of every sub-group of women in the Republic of Gilead.

Elisabeth Moss once again offers a sterling performance, worthy of her recent Emmy nomination. During the scene in which Waterford 'seduces' her, the single tear across her cheek and the sad, hopeless look in her eyes really sell the inherent pain of the moment. 

Though well-composed and brilliantly performed, one can't help but feel disgust by the end of the episode. By it's very nature, this show isn't afraid to delve into the dark places that we, as viewers, back away from in horror. In my view, only a sadist would enjoy this series - but with the amount of thought-provoking content it provides, one can certainly learn to appreciate it. 

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

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