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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: Why The Show’s First Real Nude Scene Is Revolutionary

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The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale has never shied away from sex. Since Episode One, we have followed Elisabeth Moss‘s Offred (aka June) into the Commander’s bedroom and watched as they conduct “the ceremony.” Offred, still fully clothed in her red Handmaid’s robes, lays on the bed, in wife Serena Joy’s lap. The Commander (Joseph Fiennes), dressed to impress in a sharp suit, takes off his jacket, unbuckles his trousers, and gets to work. It is a methodical reduction of sex, designed at once to be “pious” and purely clinical. Sex is only for making babies and those who succumb to lust are dirty sinners.

SPOILER ALERT FOR THE HANDMAID’S TALE, EPISODE 5, “FAITHFUL”

Well, screw that. Episode 5 of The Handmaid’s Tale explores the very nature of love and sex. We follow Offred, or June as she should be called, as she repeatedly flirts with infidelity in all sorts of forms. We see a desperate Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) orchestrate a clandestine hook up between Nick (Max Mingella), the driver, and June. We get a glimpse of how June and her long-gone husband Luke fell in love via an extra-marital affair. We even see the Commander succumb to his darker desires when he breaks away from looking at his wife during the ceremony and seeks a real primal connection with June.

Gif: Hulu

The episode finally culminates in a true, and very naked, explosion of passion. June goes to Nick’s room under the cover of night. The two undress, embrace, and then have a swoon-y style of sex that ends with her coming while on top. We hear sighs and moans. We see — pardon me — butts and boobs. It’s not sterile at all, but down and dirty and scored with a swell of orchestral music.

If you found it titillating, then that’s the point. The scene’s deliberate eroticism is a profound statement on the power of love, lust, and consensual sex. In essence, love wins.

The romance — indeed, the almost clichéd romance — of the scene cannot be overstated. Director Mike Barker (Broadchurch, Outlander) shot this scene in low light and shadows. The quick cuts that zoom in on hands sliding over body parts only enhance the frenzy of the scene. It’s all intentional. We’re supposed to sit up and take notice and say to ourselves, “Whoa! A sexy scene!”  After so many awkward, clumsy, and covered up sex scenes, this one breaks the mold on purpose. It’s even important to note that June’s flashback love scene with her husband is sweet, but still relatively buttoned up. The plot of “Faithful,” and indeed, The Handmaid’s Tale, has built up to this moment. It’s a moment of catharsis for June and the audience, but it is at its core an act of rebellion.

Gif: Hulu

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian tale set in a world where women no longer have agency over their own bodies. Here, women exist to procreate and to yield. Desire is not a part of the equation. Ironically, women aren’t the only ones who find themselves under control of the state in this set up; Men, too, are told they can’t enjoy sex for purely recreational reasons. And so you have a dystopia where love, lust, and consensual sex is outlawed. So by sneaking into Nick’s room for an illicit hook up, June is rebelling not only against the control of the Commander and his wife, but also the nation of Gilead. Nick is, too.

The scene marks the end of an episode that meditates on the nature of love and lust (and what vows can be broken in pursuit of them). June remembers the importance that love and lust had in her life before Gilead. She succumbed to temptation and wound up with the love of her life. However, in the present day, sex is a means to an end. It is intended a joyless pursuit for all involved. It is a symbol of religious piety. And so, when Offred and Nick have sex, it most definitely becomes a symbol of all that Gilead is not. Everything from the positions to the sloppy kisses mean something. Even the nudity itself also has a purpose. It literally strips the characters down to their most natural forms. We see their lust, we see their pleasure, we see their “sin.” To put it plainly, we see their humanity.

Gif: Hulu

What’s even more interesting is the sex scene also pushes Elisabeth Moss even further away from her last major television role on Mad Men. Earlier in the episode, June gets a tête-à-tête with the Commander that leaves him just about quoting Don Draper’s philosophy from Mad Men verbatim. The Commander explains that in their new civilization, women are free to pursue their “biological destinies” in peace. That is, they get to have babies and not much else, for what else is there to live for? A stunned June argues for love. The Commander scoffs at this and says love was “never anything more than lust with a good marketing campaign.” It’s a line that echoes one of Draper’s most famous lines: “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” (I mean, hell, in this version of Gilead, which was preceded by The Breakfast Club and Tinder, good old Fred Waterford could have cribbed it from Mad Men.)

So when Moss’s character pushes away from the Commander’s control — as she straddles Nick in a tryst that’s her first real open act of rebellion – she’s also sticking it to the Don Drapers of the world, too. The argument is that passionate love is real and it matters. It may not be moral. It may be irrational. But The Handmaid’s Tale is arguing that love and lust and ardor and consensual sex are at the heart of what makes our lives worth living. You could say that June’s hook up with the driver might not have quite the same visual punch of Peggy Olsen strutting through McCann Erickson with shades down and a cigarette dangling out of her mouth, but it’s just as revolutionary a moment for the character in question. Elisabeth Moss is sticking it to the man once more.

Stream The Handmaid's Tale, Episode 5, "Faithful" on Hulu

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