Nick Blaine, International Man of Mystery in 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Margaret Atwood is a fiction writer, but she's not concerned with fantasies and intricate lies. There's no expectation of a happily ever after in her work, no matter how badly the fans need it. She'll have us trudge through these bleak, horrific circumstances until we're begging for relief--something normal and wholesome, a world where things work out the way they're supposed to. We loved every second of it, but it's still torture. How could we possibly get a glimpse into these worlds and live without a positive resolution? She doesn't care. She's more concerned with realism and plausibility. If she creates a reality that's broken beyond the point of no return, she's not going to put it back together. She's going to show us the hard truth, make sure we understood, and eventually--if it makes sense, she might throw us a bone.
Her original novel The Handmaid's Tale was the perfect example of this. We saw all goodness bled from the world, replaced with a dread nation cannibalizing itself to make a profit and maintain control. There was no escape, just pain and paranoia. It was a look into the daily life of a modern slave. Her existence was unbearable, and in many ways--though we relished every single word--the reading experience was just as difficult.
We couldn't live without seeing Offred escape. She deserved freedom, justice, and relief, and we felt that succinctly. We also needed to see the fall of Gilead. Things needed to go back to the way they once were. But that's not how the world works. History has taught us that democracy is not the norm. It is rare and short-lived, and it requires constant maintenance to survive. Harsh dictatorships tend to last. So instead of getting the ending we desperately needed, we saw the most likely scenario. Gilead endured, and Offred's fate was left open. We learned that the cassette tapes she used to record the novel's contents were found in the safe house, but after that, things got a little blurry. She might have been raided and dragged back to the Commander's house. She could've been executed, or she may have escaped into Canada or the UK.
For a moment, everything rested on Nick and his loyalties. When the eyes came for Offred, he walked into her room and told her that the men were a part of Mayday. He said she should go with him, but that posed a number of questions. Was he an eye? Was he trying to calm her down to keep her from resisting, or was he actually a part of the resistance movement? Those types of questions were intrinsic to life in Gilead for several reasons. They needed to enact a depopulation campaign to make the country easier to rule, and they needed to build up a constant flow of slave labor to support their economy. They also had to scare the public into submission. So they created a culture of witch hunts and purges. People were constantly turning one another in to get into the good graces of the regime. They'd watch their neighbors, hoping to find some useful indiscretion or they'd make things up--anything to maintain a veneer of piety. The result was crippling--a nation paved with eggshells, where citizens would walk around tense and stunted, pushing themselves to conform. They didn't have friends or allies. They couldn't trust anyone, least of all a driver with a pair of wandering eyes.
June saw Nick watching her from the beginning. He was careful, and he kept his distance. But his head would still turn when she walked by. Her initial reaction was healthy. She didn't want anything to do with him. It was too dangerous for a handmaid to interact with her driver, and there was always the chance that he could be spying. She was also intrigued by him. He was good looking. He had taken some sort of interest in her. Maybe he wanted her. She didn't seem to mind that, and why should she? She had been thrust into a sexually repressive culture. Even within marriage, couples were only allowed to have sex for procreation, and those rules were strictly enforced, which meant that everyone was starving for it.
We don't know what was going on inside NIck's head at the time; we rarely do. As an eye, he was primarily assigned to report on his own commander. It was a purge tactic, meant to help Commander Pryce find the necessary ammunition to thrust himself to power. That meant that the handmaid would also be watched, especially after the last Offred killed herself. Maybe he was simply playing the part, hoping to get her to open up.
The initial chemistry between Nick and June was playful, like two kids who simply couldn't help themselves. June would say that she did it to build a life for herself, but it was more than that. Gilead didn't make it easy for its citizens. Conforming to their strict moral code required true devotion, body, mind, and spirit. It was suffocating. She had to rebel just so she could breathe. She did little things--the kind of gestures meant to spark a larger flame. She lifted her skirt once above the knee, staring into his eyes as she did. She'd walk close to him, watch him, and smile. It might not seem like much to an American, but in Gilead it was everything.
While this was happening, June was finally making headway with Emily. Shopping partners were supposed to be companions, but they were really meant to spy on one another. It was a part of the culture of distrust, so they were very careful about what they said, sticking mostly to the Gilead approved greetings that had taken over daily speech. But Emily was attentive and helpful. She did what she could to help guide her fellow handmaids, and she saw that June was having some trouble coping with her life at the Waterfords. She suggested they take the long way home. It gave them a chance to finally speak openly and connect. In a world where kind faces are rare and brutality is the norm, it must've been like finding water in the desert. June had an ally, and Emily seemed to know things. She'd talk about the progress of the war and different territories. At one point, she confessed that there was an eye in June's house.
There were only two men in the home, and one of them was a commander, which meant that Nick was the eye. If that was true, he couldn't be trusted. But he was also taking an interest in June. He was concerned when she came back late from shopping. He warned her about Emily. He told her not to get too close. It wasn't safe. That was genuine concern. It couldn't be mistaken. This setup a conundrum that has come to define Nick's character. Did he believe? Was he really taken in by the Sons of Jacob, or was he just like June, a modern, progressive millennial, forced to watch as the world crumbled around him?
A Life... of a Sort
The initial mindset of the series was black and white, us versus them, good versus evil. How could it possibly be anything else? The founders of the regime brought back slavery. They rounded up fertile women, enacted history's most bloody holocaust, and staged public executions. They were intentionally depopulating the nation. There was no good in Gilead, which meant that if Nick was a part of that brutality, he was evil too. He first revealed his hand after Emily disappeared. On the way home from the Putnam's, he started to prepare June for a visit from the eyes. He told her that she needed to tell them everything. He said that everybody breaks, everybody. It was clear that he was acting out of care for June. He even said that he tried to stop them, but it was also proof that he was more than just a driver. He knew things. He had sway. It was jarring.
Life got much harder for June. She was forced to undergo the psychological torture of solitary confinement after Serena was disappointed by a late period. She was starting to become dependent on Fred. She needed his attention and affection, and she was so desperate she was willing to grovel. It disturbed her. He made her agree to kiss him just so he could humble her, and then he told her to leave. She ran into the kitchen sickened by what had happened and Nick came walking in. She decided to confront him. She needed him to tell her the truth. Was he an eye? Was he one of them? He didn't want to say at first, but when she pressed him, he admitted it.
He was part of a secret organization tasked with hunting down candidates for slavery and execution. They were modeled after one of history's most infamous groups, the Russian Secret Police, famous for their ability to find dissidents even if they never verbally expressed hatred for the regime. To this day, there are people who swear up and down that they could read minds. But Nick cared about June. Their relationship escalated into quiet sexual affairs. She'd sneak into his guesthouse at night. They'd make love and spend their time lying together talking. It was one of her greatest comforts--a light in absolute darkness. They'd share secret kisses, hold hands behind their backs, and talk dirty. June had something that she could hold on to, something to get her through. She needed that.
June told Nick everything about herself. She talked about Hannah and Luke, her job as an editor--everything. But Nick stayed quiet. He didn't even tell her where he was from until she confronted him about it. We don't know exactly what was going through his head, but he was perpetually concerned with staying alive, and part of that meant hiding his true self. That didn't stop with June. Getting involved with her was dangerous, and he knew that. If she got caught, she could talk about his past and his secrets, and the authorities would have everything they needed to prove that he had opened up to her. He might also have been afraid of getting too close. He was breaking every rule in the book. Why deepen their attachment? Why put more forward? It would be like digging his own grave.
Whatever his reasons were, his stance remained the same, even years later. June never learned who he was or what his life was like in the time before. It made very little sense considering the breadth of their affection for one another. He told her he loved her, and he said so every chance he got. But he was a closed book.
We didn't learn much about Nick either. In episode 8 of the first season, he visited Worthy Path Career Counseling Center where he badgered the future Commander Pryce to help him find work. He had tried everything, but he couldn't hold a job. When one of the other workers got upset and told him to move on, they got into a fight and Nick whipped around and punched Pryce in the face, nearly breaking his nose.
Before the revolution, the commanders focused on building a social movement to back up their new regime. This occurred on many levels. There were political pundits, Christian broadcasters, and pastors. Public figures like Serena emerged from the woodwork lecturing about the falling birthrate and climate change. They also built chapters of the Sons of Jacob, the main organization that included both commanders and followers of their movement. They were the ones who slaughtered congress and suspended the constitution, and they were likely the force that fought in the war and led the takeover. Many of them were oligarchs and executives at large companies. They were the guys in ten-thousand-dollar suits, hobnobbing with corrupt power players. They handled the logistics and made the decisions and left the rest up to fighters and grunts. Commander Pryce seemed to be responsible for finding wayward young men who could be indoctrinated and manipulated into following orders.
He was probably inspired by Nick's short fuse when he invited him out for coffee and asked him about his life. Like many people in the region, Nick was a steelworker who had been laid off. His family fell apart. His brother turned to addiction. He'd go on alcohol binges and disappear for weeks at a time. He was struggling to keep things together, and he was troubled by it. His hair was disheveled. He'd stare into space, eyes so wide that they were ready to pop out of their sockets. It made sense. He couldn't even get a job as a dishwasher. He was looking at the worst-case scenario, and there didn't seem to be any way out. He was exactly the kind of person that Pryce needed. He was vulnerable and desperate, which meant that he may have been pliable enough to accept Gilead's message. He was also jumpy enough that he might be willing to commit acts of violence if he was properly motivated to do so.
We never saw into Nick's head, and we probably never will. He is a perpetually closed book, and while this scene might seem telling, it's filled with mixed messages. Pryce misquoted scripture, saying that according to the good book idle hands are the devil's workshop. Nick caught on immediately. He said that wasn't really in the Bible. This might seem like a small detail, but it's very significant. Nearly all of Gilead's propaganda--the foundation for their beliefs--was taken from twisted verses. June would often point this out. They'd omit certain things, lie, and take things out of context. It was an integral part of their faith, and Nick saw through that. He also knew his scripture, which means that he was probably a Christian before he joined the Sons of Jacob. He did seem receptive when Pryce said there was a verse about idleness making the house fall apart. Pryce went on to quote Gilead's main talking point--essentially, the infertility crisis was God's curse on man. Nick said there was nothing Pryce could do about it. This can be taken two ways. Many Christians do believe that God punishes sinful societies. Much of the Old Testament is devoted to that principle. Nick may have agreed with Pryce. He could also have been dismissing Pryce as an idealist wasting his time on a lost cause. Pryce went on to tell him about the Sons of Jacob, a group intent on cleaning up the country. Nick stared down at the table, shifting around uncomfortably. He squirmed a bit more when Pryce asked him to come to a meeting, saying he might be able to get Nick a job. There seemed to be a bit of skepticism, or maybe Pryce struck a note. It's hard to say. If we could just get into Nick's head at that moment, we'd have all of the answers we're seeking. Instead, we're forced to fill in the blanks. Many fans have used this scene as proof that Nick was an indoctrinated believer, but there's more to it. Pryce made the Sons of Jacob sound like a Bible group, not a front for insurrectionists. He never told Nick that they were going to hand him a gun and tell him to overthrow the government. Pryce was jolly and clean cut. He's the last person you'd expect to incite violence, and Nick was desperate for work. He had to find a way to stay afloat. He made it clear that he was willing to do anything to make ends meet.
Things get murkier when we take a look at what happened next. Nick took a job as a driver for the future commanders. He overheard terrible things, including the initial proposal for the concept of handmaids. They talked about gathering up fertile women and turning them into slaves. They went over branding and how to make the concept palatable for wives. He knew what they were planning, and he just stared out at the road, navigating their limousine without saying a word.
Nick's involvement with the Sons of Jacob has become a serious source of contention within the fandom. Some will say that it means he was a bonafide believer. He did in fact take part in the crusades, the initial coup against the American government. They say he could've left or gone to the authorities instead. Others say that the matter is more complicated, and there are signs that this was the case. In the third season, he said that if you make a deal with the government it's not so easy to get out of it. By the time the commanders were willing to trust him enough to drive them around, the American authorities had already heavily infiltrated. Even if he managed to contact a group of sincere FBI or CIA agents, he couldn't just expect them to protect him. That's not how it works. They can't even be relied on to do that in situations that call for it. Witness protection isn't something you're offered; it's something you fight for--and the Sons of Jacob were notoriously paranoid. They wouldn't let someone like Nick, who had been privy to those types of conversations, walk away. These men were ruthless killers. They took down anyone who disagreed with them. It was do or die. There's no question of that. He also had to think about his income. He was dependent on these men for everything--rent, food, electric. Even if pigs learned to fly and he found a way to walk away, he couldn't just magically pay his bills. Like most people, Nick would lose everything if he quit his job. He'd be right back where he started. That's something we often forget about when it comes to fiction. Real-life obligations tend to get in the way of the hero's journey, so writers avoid them.
At a certain point, Nick was in too deep to leave. The real question is when. What was his mindset like when he joined the Sons of Jacob? Did he support them at any point in time, or was he simply looking for a job? Did he support violence and insurrection? Where did he draw the line? We can't look at his past actions and draw a definitive conclusion.
When Nick was first asked about the concept of handmaids, he said that it was better not to get attached, and he truly believed that. People had a way of disappearing in Gilead. They'd be framed for a crime or punished for some imagined sleight. Loss and suffering became a way of life, which meant that love was a masochistic affair. It was also dangerous. When you fall in love, you let your guard down. You say things that you shouldn't, and you betray your true feelings. That would mean giving someone ammunition they could use against you. It was even worse when you fell in love with a slave. He could get sloppy, let his affection show, or someone could find out and get him executed.
Falling for June must've felt like jumping off a cliff. Nick knew what was happening and what it could mean. But he was powerless to stop it. All he could do was watch. He probably did everything he could to avoid it, but early on it was made clear that he couldn't help himself, and neither could she. June became his main motivation. She was all he cared about, and there's no denying that. He put himself at risk at the beginning of the second season and reached out to the resistance to help her escape. He had her posted up in an old newspaper building, and he'd visit her every day, bringing her food and supplies. He was lucky he didn't get caught. Someone must've noticed that he was disappearing. When she was allowed back into the home, he stayed by her side. He spoke out in her defense. He even went to Serena with his concerns for her mental health, tipping her off to their relationship. He must've been beyond caring at that point. Serena could've had him executed on a whim, and she was unpredictable.
As the story moved forward, he grew more and more brazen. Their relationship became an open secret in the Waterford household. Fred knew. Serena knew. Rita knew. It wasn't something they could hide. When he was forced into marriage, it didn't take long for Eden to find out what was happening. In season 3, he showed up at the commander's house in DC to see her. In season 4, he went to the Martha network to ask about her. He talked openly about his feelings with Commander Lawrence. He even pulled a gun on Fred to make sure June could escape with Nichole. There wasn't a single person who could possibly deny the sincerity of his feelings. It was like her face was superimposed over his. Every time he let his attachment show, he risked execution, and at some point, it didn't seem to matter to him. All that mattered was her safety and her happiness.
June was a great liar. She could stay quiet when necessary and say the right thing. At one point, Fred marveled at her skill. But when it came to real injustice, she let it show. It was intentional. She saw these disgusting individuals capable of justifying human rights atrocities, and it disgusted her. She couldn't imagine how they could live their lives knowing that they were culpable. She would hunt down their weaknesses, whatever blindspot they refused to look into, or some misguided mindset, and she'd rub their noses in it, forcing them to see the truth. It worked. She pushed Serena into reading the Bible in front of the council. She pulled the wool off of Lawrence's eyes, and she got to Nick.
Whenever she'd do it, she'd loosen up, let her body move around a bit like she was mocking her target, and she'd get this disgusted expression on her face. She asked him if this was all he wanted, this bullsh*t life. Was he happy? Didn't he want more? She had honed in on something, proving that he had grown complacent with his position. It's one of the few times we were able to get a look inside his head. It touched a nerve with Nick. He could survive. He knew how to stay off of the wall and rise through the ranks, but it wasn't fulfilling. It wasn't enough. His life would be empty and cold, and man cannot live off of bread alone. He had to make a life for himself, and he might even have to look beyond his current circumstances to do so.
She changed him, and he loved her for it, but it was more than that. She pulled out the decency in everyone she came into contact with, and the result was radical action. She inspired Serena to give up Nichole. She had Commander Lawrence help her with Angel's Flight. She even had Aunt Lydia second-guessing herself, and Lydia was made of steel. It became Nick's life's mission to protect this redeeming angel, even if he knew that they could never be together. He couldn't live in a world without June. He had to know that she was safe, and he was willing to risk everything to ensure that.
When June left Gilead, it didn't seem possible for her to maintain a relationship with Nick. She reunited with Luke and her old friends, and she did everything she could to regain her old life. Nick tried to move on as well. He settled into his new position as a commander. He began instituting reforms with Lawrence, and he married Rose. But he never forgot about June. He spent his time obsessing over Hannah, gathering every single piece of information he could find, hoping to one day reunite her with June. He was able to pass the information along when June contacted him to set up an in-person meeting. They tried to keep things platonic, but ultimately they found themselves embracing, their lips locked. Their love wasn't about to die.
This continued into the next season. They kept telling each other goodbye. But June kept reaching out to him, and he kept answering. He pushed Commander Lawrence to keep her safe. He stayed current on her situation in Canada. He even went to visit her twice--once when she was attacked in the finale. The showrunner Bruce Miller said that season five was meant to be the most romantic. It was proof that they couldn't give up on one another. Even when she was in Canada and he was in Gilead, they would never stop. They couldn't. Their feelings for each other were too strong.
Nick also developed a working relationship with Tuello, and this is where things get strange. Tuello pointed out that Nick was an eye. He might not have been able to cross the border with June, but there were places that he could've taken her where she would have been safe. It adds to the persistent mystery. Was he loyal to Commander Waterford? Did he want to conform and obey? His answer was that June didn't need him. She had other people that could help him. It makes no sense. So while we can be certain that Nick loves June, we can never fully understand his motivations or his beliefs.
Who is Nick Blaine and Where is He Headed?
In a series of interviews in September, Max Minghella talked about Nick and his identity. He said that Nick never really had a sense of self before Gilead. He was troubled and drifting aimlessly, just trying to survive. He hadn't found himself. Maybe he blindly signed on with the Sons of Jacob because it sounded like a good idea and he needed a job. Maybe he was complacent and bitter and he simply went along with things. Maybe he got caught in the hysteria. We will never know. We want to believe that he is good, and in his own way, he obviously is. But the worst case scenario could very well be true, and we might have to learn to accept that. Can we feel comfortable with an early believer? What about his actions during the crusade? Can we forgive him for helping to bring about the fall of the United States? Many of us have trouble looking aside from a character's past actions. But at this point in the series, it's obvious that he wants to do the right thing, and he's definitely headed in the right direction.
After the finale of season five, Bruce Miller talked about Nick's future and what keeps him going. He only cares about one thing: June. He said that Nick will receive a slap on the wrist for punching Lawrence, and he will follow his heart. He'll separate from Rose, similar to the way Serena separated from Fred after their house burned down, and he'll go exactly where we think he's going, which is presumably Canada where he'll work with Tuello. That will probably end with him finding June and rekindling his romance