When Offred finds the Latin phrase “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” carved into the floor of the room where she’s essentially being held prisoner for the sin of not being pregnant, it becomes a tenous thread to sanity, even as she spends most of the episode unaware of what it means. Women writing in Gilead is an offense punishable by hand removal, so it is no small thing to come upon writing where females reside.
When she goes back to her illict meetings with the Commander to play Scrabble, she discovers it means, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” It’s certainly apt, since the daily grind is what is slowly unraveling Offred. This is the episode where her mundane reality, with all its repression and indignities, are doing their worst, just when she is most bereft of resources that would allow her to cope. Small wonder too, that the flashback involves her and her friend Moira being told just what their duties as Handmaids will be. It prompts her and Moira to take their chances and escape, with Moira being forced to leave Offred behind. It also continues the show’s success of making Offred less of the passive observer she mostly was in the source material.
However, The Handmaid’s Tale also never once loses sight of the fact that she is at the mercy of a powerful system which seeks to crush every bit of dissent and remake everyone in its image. Offred is merely the one whose suffering is the most obvious, with the fewest illusions. The Commander must hold up the image of the almighty head of the house, and also repress his own desire for a meaningful connection with those around him, even as his power of life and death over people’s lives isolates him. And his wife, the icily beautiful Serena Joy, must suffer her own dignities even as she clings to the illusion of power that allows her to make life hellish for Offred, the woman whom is herself forced to share a bed with Serena and the Commander. But Serena must daily face the fact that the world that she most likely had an active hand in shaping has left her unable to assist her husband intellectually, emotionally, and later, during the Ceremony, a quaint name for what is essentially a state-sanctioned rape, sexually. She probably helped shaped the country, but no longer has any say in its future, or her own.
So while Offred’s oppression means she has to negotiate with and manipulate the man who is essentially making her a sex slave for the privilege of leaving her room, the house, and interacting with others, it still feels like a triumph. Offred faces the most obstacles, and she has to summon the greatest strength and find a way to take solace from words scratched onto a wall and past memories of Moira, who carved truth to power and managed to, at least temporarily, free herself. Such things make small victories feel epic, and even inspires a moment of unity with other Handmaids. It is these Handmaids in her past, along with the present ones, both living and dead, are the ones who inspire Offred to utter the episode’s final, mic dropping line: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum bitches.”