Ever since Hulu launched The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ve been waiting for the show to approach the topic of Jezebels, one of the most disgusting and heartbreaking parts of the book. Now that I’ve seen the episode (twice), I want to burn every Son of Jacob alive until their fingers stop twitching.
The episode, aptly named “Jezebels,” opens on Offred (Elisabeth Moss) distressing about the fact that her husband Luke is alive. Of course she’s happy about the news, but she’s also more depressed than ever, Because she’s still sleeping with Nick (Max Minghella), the secret Eye who’s also her secret lover, and has no intention of stopping. Sure, she could pretend it’s a “fuck you” to the patriarchy, but she knows it’s because she likes how it feels... and in a world where feelings have been perverted by purity, feeling good is all she has.
Later on, she heads back into her room, only to find the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) waiting for her. He tells her they’re going on a surprise trip, treating it like it’s the best day of her life and forcing her to feign gratefulness. Before they head out, he gets her dolled up... giving her a slinky dress and sultry makeup. This scene does an amazing job at foreshadowing the madness that Offred is about to stumble into. It frames the Commander in uncomfortable Dutch angles, hinting that there’s something “off” about what he is proposing. He holds up a mirror so she can put on the makeup, giving her the first glance she’s had of herself in years but still completely on his terms—the epitome of the male gaze.
Most importantly, he shaves her legs. This might not seem like a big deal, and Offred mostly comments on how he’s clearly done it before with his previous handmaid, but it’s a critical moment in the episode. It’s a perversion of the “Washing of the Feet,” when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Normally, it’s treated as a cleansing ritual, having masters prostrate themselves before their servants to show respect for their devotion. Only... the Commander isn’t actually washing her feet, he’s purposefully ignoring them. He’s technically performing a service for her, but on his terms and for his own benefit. Again, it’s a perversion.
If there’s one theme in this episode, it’s exactly that—perversion. This doesn’t solely mean sexual promiscuity, although holy hell that exists in spades here, but also the process of changing or distorting something to serve a purpose. We see this in flashbacks to Nick’s past, where he’s courted by a man named Andrew Pryce at an employment recruitment office (the name of the place is Worthy Path, indicating that it’s a recruitment facility in more ways than one). During his sales pitch to convince Nick to attend a Sons of Jacob meeting, the man boastfully says, “‘Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,’ as the Good Book says.” Only, as Nick points out, that’s not actually in the Bible. It’s a perversion of another verse, designed to further Pryce’s narrative.
We see this later during Nick’s first encounter with the Commander. It’s soon after the takeover, and the Commander is in a limo discussing what to do to raise the human population. Another commander named Guthrie crudely suggests pairing fertile women with men “of superior status,” which Pryce dismisses as a concubine caste before offering his own solution... why not involve the wives and make it some Bible-based sort of thing? They figure out what verse to cite, the Commander coins the term “The Ceremony” for “branding purposes” (his direct words), and thus the sexual enslavement of hundreds of women was born.
In the present, the Commander sneaks Offred into the city, a place where women are forbidden to go. During the entire ride, the Commander is basically giggling like a schoolboy, overly pleased with himself at the wonderful experience he assumes Offred is going to have. They arrive at their destination, enter through the back door, and that’s when “White Rabbit” from Jefferson Airplane starts to play. Offred has stepped through the Looking Glass.
There’s no reason to mince words: Jezebels is a government-sanctioned whorehouse. In a world where sexual purity is dictated by Biblical law, men of power have a secret brothel where they can privately delight in everything they’ve publicly deigned too sinful to exist: Drugs, nudity, BSDM, outright physical abuse. At one point, Offred sees a man doggy-style fucking a woman dressed as a handmaid while she’s making out with someone dressed as a commander’s wife (in full view of a crowd of men, at least one of whom seemed to be masturbating). That’s basically a Venn diagram of everything these righteous men have been maiming and killing others over, for the sake of purity.
It’s clear the Commander brought Offred to Jezebels as a power trip, securing his emotionally abusive rulership over her so he can try and keep her in her place. He constantly refers to her as property, saying she’s both “contraband” and “an evening rental.” And, while he’s raped her a number of times, this time felt especially cruel. In all the other situations, it was designed to serve a purpose. That purpose was wrong and horrific, but it was still a purpose. Here, he’s fucking her in a hotel room, for no purpose other than his pleasure, and ordering her to enjoy it. Only thing is... she doesn’t want to enjoy it. That wasn’t what it was there for, and any insistence otherwise shows how he sees her as a concubine more than anything else. It’s no surprise it’s the first time she’s cried while having sex with him.
However, Offred doesn’t have time to internally monologue about the painful hypocrisy of the situation. For there, in the midst of the crowd, is June’s best friend Moira, clad in red hotpants and Playboy-style bunny ears. She’s alive, and seemingly well. The pair sneak a couple of moments together, where Moira reveals how she was captured while trying to escape. She’s since resigned to her life at Jezebels, telling Offred there’s no chance either of them can get away. Moira’s tried too many times, and would rather drink and medicate herself into a stupor than get crushed under her failure again. Even though it’s tragic, it has some parallels to Offred’s experiences with Nick. They’re both sacrificing their ideals in order to feel good, because they fear that’s all they can hope for.
The episode ends with Nick breaking things off with Offred after we learn he could be punished for having an affair with her (in a flashback scene that reflects the inner strife and turmoil amongst the upper ranks). Then, Serena Joy presents Offred with a gift: A locked jewelry box, with a mirror, that plays “Swan Lake” as a ballerina dances. Offred hates the gift, seeing it as further proof of her incarceration. But it promises something more in the future. Even though it’s a girl in a box, forced to dance when commanded by her masters, it’s still something that can hold a secret. Only time will tell what that secret will be, though I feel the answer’s coming soon.
Sometimes, a book does a better job at conveying something than a movie or TV show can. Your imagination brings it to life, making it feel more real than someone else recreating it for you. Other times, holy crap, a show gets it right... burrowing the tragedy, horror, and rage deep into your bones until you can’t feel anything other than blinding pain. “Jezebels” falls into the latter category. It’s an episode that will burn your blood.
- When Offred first “presents” herself to the commander, she had to balance herself against the wall to descend the stairs in her new high heels. That was a small detail that worked really well, showing that it’s clearly been a long time since she’s needed to wear heels... as well as hinting her discomfort at what was to come.
- Andrew Pryce was one of my favorite parts of the episode, and a welcome addition to the series (sadly, he’s only in one other episode, at least this season). He’s a religious zealot whose ideals could cause problems for the Commander later on. He perverts the Bible just as much as anyone else, but he does it for different reasons, signifying major strife in Gilead. At one point, he tells Nick, “We’re going to clean up Gilead, son.” This clearly hints at what we can expect next season, as inner conflicts threaten to destroy what they’ve created.
- Well, now we know what Gilead does with educated women: It forces them into prostitution. Many of the women at Jezebels were working professionals, like lawyers, CEOs, and professors, who “couldn’t assimilate” into Gileadean life. Punishing their intelligence by making them sex slaves feels like the ultimate metaphor for how much men can fear educated women.
- I couldn’t tell if we were supposed to sympathize with Nick this episode, but I really didn’t. He was clearly hurting over Offred going out with the Commander, but every look and word he gave indicated that he was equally blaming her, instead of recognizing that she doesn’t have a choice in the matter. Even when she points that out, pleading with him to not breaking things off with her, he acts like it doesn’t matter.
- When the Commander told Offred he’d get her home “before you turn into a pumpkin,” I wanted to throw up in my mouth.
- President Trump is planning on rolling back ACA birth control provisions, which would allow any and all employers to refuse covering birth control for religious reasons. Just your latest reminder of how we’re slowly becoming pre-Gilead.