The question of goodness is fraught in The Handmaid’s Tale. There are clearly bad guys and people who are all too willing to use abusive tactics to cling to power. But even those people we see as rallying points often have their own moral failings (and this guilt is often weaponised against them by the Gilead enforcers). What does good in such an oppressive world even look like? When does survival become bad, or resistance become the only option? Can resistance be classed as good if it is simply a means to survive and not based upon wider solidarity? Does motive matter?
The most curious character of them all has to be Nick. With so many of the women in the story, we see what they are going through. We know what they think and feel. We engage with them. The narrative is led by them. Nick is in the shadows. But his role is one which is vital.
Nick cares about June. That is one solid thing about the character that we know for sure. The only other scrap of concrete present-day knowledge we have is that he fathered a child with June and it’s something he does care about. Everything else that goes on in Nick’s head is often a mystery.
Nick is often central to so much of the story, not just through his interactions with June but because of his proximity to the Waterfords who are one of the most powerful families in Gilead. Through flashbacks in season one, we saw that Nick became involved with oppressive activism and politics before the United States was overthrown. He couldn’t find work so in typical style, a fascist preyed upon his sense of hopelessness and despair and weaponised it for the group’s own ends. Nick was recruited. Nick was in this before Gilead came to rise – just like Serena, and just like Fred.
Perhaps Nick didn’t really know what was going on or never imagined things would go so far. He drove the commanders as they discussed taking women and making them into handmaids by dividing them up among the men and raping them in a ceremony each month. He said nothing against this. He also worked as an eye, a spy for the highest people in Gilead to ensure that law and order was truly being followed. After the suicide of ‘the first Offred’, Nick seems to have made it his personal mission to try to keep an eye on his disgusting and abusive boss. But he did this bot by resisting Gilead but by upholding Gilead. He wasn’t a resistance worker. He chose to try to control Fred by weaponising Gilead against him, and not the resistance.
Yet, Nick displays glimpses of an ever-changing heart. He seems genuinely proud to have helped get the letters out of Gilead – letters which revealed the extent of the abuse of the state. He commented specifically that “I think it might make a difference” suggesting he wants change. He’s tried to help June escape multiple times now, and yet that is also due to his own personal feelings for her and not simply an act of rebellion.
Nick becomes the target of state abuse himself. When the Commander partners him with a child bride, his entire ability to consent is taken away. He is made into an abuser. He is not taking the role of ‘husband’ (and therefore rapist) by choice but because he is scared for his life. Neither Eden or Nick are in positions to consent for very different reasons. Eden even becomes a threat as she begins to believe Nick is gay – a crime under Gilead that would see him executed. For his own survival, he must acquiesce to her (unintended) blackmail. It is deeply uncomfortable. Eden is a child. She is being used by the state and has been brainwashed to believe that this is love and will save her soul – and yet Nick himself cannot possibly consent either. He doesn’t want to do it. He tries to get out of it but it is that or death (and this is very similar to the storyline focused upon rape in The 100 where Murphy is threatened with death if he does not ‘submit’ sexually to the Commander). Nick is not Fred. He’s not the Commander who wields power. He just wants to live, and he’s terrified of the repercussions of what happens if Eden claims he is gay. Eden may be under the age of consent (as we know it although Gilead wrongly threw out those laws) but in Gilead, any criminal accusations she makes about Nick would be believed. The series has already shown the brutal approach the state will take against ‘gender traitors’. It’s a complicated look at the issues of consent – and an instance where Nick is both violating and being violated. This storyline was perhaps the most important one Nick could have been given because there are so many moral complexities. Eden was a victim, but perhaps, so too was Nick as he could not in any way freely give consent. Nick’s story though is so often compounded in moral complexities and questions which may never have answers and that makes it difficult to truly judge his complicity and accountability in this society.
Is Nick a good guy, then? He too can be a victim of Gilead, just like Serena can be too. But like the woman he serves, he also helped establish this state and carried out its rule. Nick was complicit, even if he is not now. The moral greys are vital in such a story. They show how people that others can love or even depend upon, may actually have been complicit or may be easy to manipulate to dangerous ends. Nick was really just an every-day guy struggling to hold down a job, but look where that frustration took him. Nick is actively disrupting Gilead, and he’s a vital component to June’s story if there is to be any kind of hope at all. But he also helped start the empowerment of fascists and was happy to drive them around.