Warning: This article contains spoilers for season 5 episode 3 and The Testaments.
There's no one more polarizing in 'The Handmaid's Tale' universe than Nick Blaine, and the reason for that is simple. We don't know him or anything that goes on inside his head. We have to glean clues from his actions and his words.
This began with Margaret Atwood's initial novel. In it, Nick and Offred develop a relationship organically, starting with a moment in Serena's forbidden sitting room. Later, after Serena orders Offred to sleep with him, they develop feelings for one another.
Offred doesn't understand him. People in her world kept to themselves. They didn't talk or get to know one another. That was too dangerous. But she thinks he is too casual. He's not stiff or scared like a Guardian. This leads her to believe that he is an Eye. She still opens up when they're together. She tells him about her life in the time before, Luke, and Hannah. There is intimacy, but he's still a closed book. He does seem saddened when he finds out that Offred is pregnant, especially since he won't be able to take part in the child's life. That showed us that he had compassion.
When Offred is dragged away by the Eyes near the end of the novel, he comes to collect her in her room, which seems to confirm her suspicions that he is an Eye. He reassures her, telling her that he is part of Mayday and that these men have come to rescue her.
Serena and the Commander ask to see a warrant. They want to know what her crimes were. They're told that Offred is being arrested for violating state secrets. It sounds made up, which also lends creedence to the claims that they are in fact Mayday.
In the epilogue, it's revealed that an audio tape was found in an old home. It's the fictional source material for the novel. Historians think she recorded it in a safe house at the border.
Good or Bad?
The mystery behind Nick's motivations has always been an integral part of the storyline. Even when we do get answers, they seem inconclusive or vague. The truth is that even the actor who plays Nick in the series, Max Minghella, has grappled with this issue.
In an interview with Deadline, he stated, 'It's been such a gift, to kind of wrestle with exactly what you're describing, and also the moral compass of the character. I mean you certainly think he's a good person and I think everybody wants to be a good person, but don't always succeed.'
'The Handmaid's Tale' was written to reflect the real world, not the world of heroes and heroines, and sometimes that's uncomfortable. We've seen this with June quite a bit over the past few years. Elizabeth Moss and the showrunners have stated multiple times that she is neither good nor bad; she is human, and it's the same with Nick. He is just a man.
That's the approach the show takes with everything. They don't gloss things. They breaks the rules of fiction, opting instead for human emotions, human struggles, and human ways of being. Not everyone understands that.
We want to stick people in one box or another because that's how we think. There's no nuance. But if we want to truly understand anyone, especially the motivations behind their actions, we have to leave room for shades of gray, nature and nurture, as well as the environment around them.
In the case of 'The Handmaid's Tale,' we also have to try to understand a world that is completely different from anything we've ever experienced. Those of us who have crossed hemispheres or visited foreign countries knows just how foreign things can get. Gilead would be a thousand times stranger than anything that exists today. The people that live there have to be understood in that context, especially Nick.
A Tainted History
Our first glimpse of Nick's past is in the time before. He goes to visit an employment agency where he pushes Mr. Price (soon to be Commander Price) into finding him a job. But he's already burnt through most of his opportunities.
The man in line behind him gets impatient. He tries to force Nick to leave, so Nick punches him, and also Mr. Price. Nick runs out of the office, and Mr. Price comes out to invite him to coffee. It's clear that Nick has anger issues. He's high strung, but he doesn't like to let that show. We see that in his manner of speech quite often. He's a good actor.
Nick tells Mr. Price about his family. Bad circumstances and a failing market have been wearing on them. They're lost, and Nick is just trying to survive. This defines his character going forward. Like the rest of us, Nick just wants to live.
In order to survive the transition from American citizen to a citizen of Gilead, you have to become someone else--a part of that culture. People in Gilead have a proverbial gun pointed at them at all times. For handmaids, bad posture and eye contact is enough to get them killed. Marthas are disposable punching bags. If you cut their throat in the middle of the kitchen, people will complain about the mess, not the loss of life.
In some ways it's worse for men. They can't be turned into handmaids. They are all disposable, especially Eyes. Eyes are always under suspicion. They have to prove that they believe. They have to talk a certain way and move a certain way. Nick has these skills. He knows what it takes.
When Mr. Price invites him to join the Sons of Jacob, he puts those skills to use right away. He also does something that most of us wouldn't notice. Price misuses a Bibie verse about idle hands being the devil's playground. Nick catches that right off.
False Biblical sayings define Gilead's culture. Their entire religion is based on them. Nick sees that. He doesn't believe anything they teach. We can be certain of that. When he joins the Sons of Jacob, it was because Price said that there would be a job in it for him. He had to pay bills, rent, and eat.
Instead he found himself in a situation where he was bound to these paranoid monsters, who had real power. They were planning a coup. He was privy to the details. We saw that in a scene where he was driving them around while they proposed the idea of handmaids to one another.
He couldn't just leave a group like that. They would have killed him. They killed most of the nation anyway. The lower classes were purged. Anyone who didn't talk right, act right, or think right, was slaughtered during the war and that days that followed. That's what Nick got roped into.
Later he joined in with the Crusades, which kicked off the war between Gilead and the United States. They initially began with the slaughter of Congress. It's easy to blame Nick for participating. Some people would've refused, but he's not the type to act out, run to the FBI, or try to get away. That's too much of a risk. He knew how powerful these men were, and he wasn't willing to take the chance.
Nick Doesn't Believe In Bravery
Nick's ultimate failing, and possibly his ultimate saving grace, is that he doesn't believe in being brave. Before June is questioned by the Eyes for being Emily's walking partner, he tells her to tell them everything. 'Don't try to be brave. Everyobody breaks, everybody.'
He believes in power structures, but he doesn't like them. He's afraid of them. This is a sentiment that has been expressed in Gilead before. They talk about how the Eyes know everything, how they can stamp you down, break you, and force you to be obedient.
The government employs brainwashing, torture, and every other technique imaginable to force its citizens into believing and doing what they're told. It's not hard. There are tried and true tactics that are enormously effective. He knows that, so he believes in giving in.
That's why he participated in the crusades. That's why he stayed on as a driver; he is smart, not brave.
There have been many times when he acted like he was trapped or he couldn't do the right thing because it was too dangerous. One of the best examples was in season 2 when he refused to take June to find Hannah and drive north. They might've been able to get away; Hannah wasn't protected at the time, but he wouldn't allow it.
This is Nick's modus operandi.
It's not exactly the most endearing quality, but we're talking about a culture on a perpetual quest to kill the unrighteous. It's what he has to do. When we watch the show, we don't see that. We see June getting herself out of impossible situations and children being flown across the border--not how dangerous it is. The citizens of Gilead walk a tightrope every day.
Nick Will Fail
Over the years, Nick's motivations have changed. His love for June caused him to step outside his comfort zone. He coordinate with Mayday to help her escape, and he consulted with the martha network to find her when she was on the run. He even pulled a gun on Fred to help get Nichole and June out of Gilead.
Ever since then he's been playing a balancing act, towing the lines between reasonable doubt and suspicion, while working behind the scenes to help find Hannah. Yet somehow he's managed to make a name for himself. He's a commander. He was just issued a wife, and he's rising through the ranks. Even Mark Tuello, an actual spy, was impressed. Nick has talent.
Out of all of the people still left in Gilead, it makes sense that he would survive, especially now that he's a commander. We think of commanders as untouchable. They can cheat on their wives, spend their nights at Jezebels, and nothing happens to them. But those days are about to end.
Both novels have talked about a new Gilead, where the power structure cannibalizes itself, scrutinizing everyone that steps into that role.
Here's how it goes down:
Imagine a bad pastor. He's sweaty. His hair is slick, and he's sloppy. Anyone with any sense can tell that he's drinking vodka out of a water bottle during his sermons. His face is bright red. He's dirty as sin, but the congregation is still eating up every single word he says. They're yelling out, 'Amen!'
They want to believe. Many of us have watched this from the outside looking in. We know what reasonable doubt looks like when it's coming from a pulpit.
Now imagine that this shining pillar of hypocrisy gets caught with a male prostitute and a bag of drugs--a situation that has occured many times over the years. We've all heard about the scandals.
The church board and the deacons have to smell the pastor's alcohol problem up close. They are well aware of his secrets, just like the other pastors in town, who are just as dirty as he is. But the ladies in church hats are shocked. They can't let that man continue to lead their righteous congregation. It rocks their faith. It makes them question. That's dangerous. A lot of what they believed came from that drunken fool.
Now imagine all of the pastors in town are caught in bed together at the same time. Let's say this is the deep South where everyone gets dressed on Sunday. They all go to church. They believe every word they hear, and they see their pastor as their shepherd.
That kind of incident would alter the culture of that community. People would stop going. They'd question. They'd change churches.
That's what it will be like in Gilead. The other commanders know about each other, and they know about Nick. They're pragmatic, dirty and hypocritical, the lot of them. But having their secrets out in the open would threaten the integrity of the faithful facade of their government.
They have to do something, and they still want to maintain power. So they go on witch hunts, point fingers, and ultimate push one another out, and they keep doing it, because everyone they put in place is a dirty hypocrite.
That will happen to Gilead, and Nick might be talented. But he will never survive that kind of political climate. His affair with June is an open secret at best, and those types of affairs--while they do continue throughout the nations's history--are one of the main things that kickoff the purge.
He's also Nichole's father. Baby Nichole will become a symbol of Gilead and all of the millions of people that have escaped across their borders into Canada. Her mother will be the archetypal sinner--the harlot of Mayday--that has robbed them of their children. She also represents the dreaded force that keeps the border open, allowing sinners to escape the all-seeing eye of Gilead.
They're not going to let the man who fell in love with this harlot continue to live, much less call himself a leader in their nation. He's either going to die or he's going to have to go on the run. The series still hasn't given us the full picture when it comes to Nick's life, but it looks like his downfall will come sooner rather than later.