The Handmaid's Tale is a story heavy on symbolism in their storytelling. The costumes are probably the most obvious part, with Handmaids, who are able to carry a new life inside them forced to wear the color of blood, while the Wives, who are infertile, are forced to wear green, both as a symbol of their husband's wealth and their own infertility. Marthas and Econopeople wear grey, Guardians wear black, etc. But this week's episode ups the symbolism to a new level when Offred is confronted by a lone wolf. What does the wolf in The Handmaid's Tale symbolize in this episode?
Obviously, the wolf means something. If nothing else, animals are expensive to film with, and the show wouldn't have randomly stuck in "and then Offred was menaced by a wolf" just for random giggles.
Wolves symbolize many things. According to Pure-Spirit, a site on animal symbolism:
Among the various peoples and tribes of North America, wolf represents not only creation, but also death and rebirth.... Wolf is a symbol of guardianship, ritual, loyalty, and spirit. Wolf has the ability to make quick and firm emotional attachments, and often need to trust their own instincts. Thus they teach us to do the same, to trust our hearts and minds, and have control over our own lives.
All of these things pertain to Offred's situation as she stands alone, outside the abandoned house, in a panicked moment of trying to figure out how to escape. She's heavily pregnant, and her contractions are starting for real this time. She's on the precipice of a moment of creation, of birth.
But there's also the part about "quick and firm emotional attachments." Offred's done that in her time in Gilead, with Nick most of all, but also with Janine, with Emily, and even with Serena Joy for a time.
Then there's the part about trusting instincts. This is what's to come for Offred there at the house. Her brain tells her to hide, to escape. She doesn't want to go back with the Waterfords and be punished for what the Commander did. She also doesn't want to undergo the horrific ceremony of birth, where the wives pantomime giving birth in a clean and bloodless way, while she upstairs is denied the dignity of a hospital or an epidural, only to have the baby snatched away the second it is born and handed to someone who did nothing to deserve it.
If she's going to be forced to give birth naturally, then she wants to do it her way, alone, where no one will see her bleed or scream. It's also the only way she'll be able to stay with her baby in the hours after it is born.
Of course, the wolf also symbolizes something much simpler. The reason Offred exits the house after Nick drives off is to maybe walk to the road, wave her arms, get help, and have someone take her to a damn hospital. She's in labor, for god's sake. But she can't. The wolf is blocking the path, keeping her there, forcing her to find other ways to escape. Or, in this case ultimately, to stay.
Offred's decision means she doesn't escape. Like most of the "big" moments this season, it's a small personal triumph. Offred giving birth like a lone wolf is a taking back of her ability to bring life into the world from those in Gilead who literally created this world (and in Serena Joy's case, gave up everything) in order to exploit it for personal enrichment.
In her case, the lone wolf doesn't die. But it's probably good the pack came for her at the end of the episode anyway.