Warning: Spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” below!
If there’s one constant in Gilead, it’s the knowledge that life can always get bleaker.
As we head into the final stretch of “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2, it’s inevitable that something will go very wrong for (at least) one of our beloved protagonists. After months of carrying on a love affair with June (Elisabeth Moss) and helping Mayday in the process, Nick (Max Minghella) is taken away in a black van by two Guardians.
But before those final harrowing moments, a lot happens in Episode 10, ominously titled “The Last Ceremony.” Eden (Sydney Sweeney) reaches her breaking point with Nick, and June goes into false labor, enraging Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and later making the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) feel impotent. Instead of continuing down the road of resistance and compassion, Serena heads the opposite way, aiding Commander Waterford in a brutal rape of June.
This “ceremony” is framed as a way to induce labor, but June’s loud, clear, anguished protestations lay bare just how violent and violating every “ceremony” in Gilead truly is. Rape in Gilead isn’t about a fertility crisis. It’s about power, dominance and savagery.
The one bright(er) but truly heartbreaking development is that June is briefly reunited with her daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake), whom she hasn’t interacted with since the family was captured trying to escape to Canada. At first, Hannah is nervous around June, even resentful toward her. But eventually, the young girl breaks down, calling June “mommy” again and wailing for her mother as her Martha whisks her away.
As the episode makes clear, few things are crueler and more immoral than separating parents and children.
Emma: This episode absolutely wrecked me ― and not in a cathartic way like the last few have. There was no promise of revolution or suggestion that powerful women might one day rise up alongside their less powerful sisters. Watching “The Last Ceremony” was a deeply painful experience. I found myself asking yet again how the writers of “The Handmaid’s Tale” got so damn prescient? Perhaps they just understand how to tap into America’s darkest impulses.
During a week in which our government leaders are defending a policy that indefinitely separates immigrant children from their parents at the U.S. border, “The Handmaid’s Tale” explores the cruelty of family separations and the lasting pain these separations cause both parents and children. I know this show always feels a little too real, but I felt sick to my stomach at just how real this episode seemed.
Laura: It is insane how closely this entire season has mirrored our crazy news cycle. This week, as all eyes are on the atrocities at the border, “The Handmaid’s Tale” somehow releases an episode that brings that experience to life ― of a mother being ripped away from her child. It was almost too difficult to watch.
Let’s start at the beginning. This episode brings the rape ceremonies back from the first season, except they are extra twisted now because the two rape victims are a lesbian who endured genital mutilation and a woman who’s nine months pregnant. This show keeps pushing the boundaries of abuse and torture.
Emily’s scene is first. We see her wincing in pain as her commander makes the most disgusting sounds imaginable. He, for some reason, dies raping her (yay?!), and she gets one semi-satisfying moment of revenge as she stomps on his groin ― but she is clearly losing any modicum of hope and resolve. June mentions Emily’s child [with her wife pre-Gilead] to her, and she says that she’s no longer his mother because they’ve been separated too long. This kicks off the theme of family separation that runs throughout the episode. June says, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” And it’s clear that Emily has had to essentially leave her own body and detach herself from her humanity and her former identity, including her child, in order to cope with being treated like an animal.
Emily had been one of the strongest, fiercest characters in the show, so to watch her become emotionally conditioned by her enslavement feels like a new low point for the Handmaids.
Emma: It was a stark reminder that the “ceremonies” ― it feels so wrong to even call them something so sanitized rather than what they are, ritualized rape sessions ― are vital tools in Gilead’s system of oppression. We hadn’t seen the ceremony all season, something that I didn’t realize until it came up twice in this episode. I had forgotten how viscerally horrifying it is.
Emily and June both struggle with the best way to cope with these unthinkable horrors. Emily oscillates between detachment (laying quietly on the bed, eyes up at the ceiling), as you mentioned, and railing against the injustices before her (kicking her rapist’s limp body right in the dick). June, who has regained her inner fire, used to detach also. “You treat it like a job,” she says in voiceover. “One detaches oneself. … Not me. Not my flesh.”
But she’s been pregnant for nine months and therefore spared from the ceremonies. In the interim, she’s developed relationships ― twisted ones, but relationships nonetheless ― with both Commander Waterford and Serena. They are not strangers to her, and she is not a stranger to them. June and Serena have been enemies and frenemies and intellectual jousters and colleagues ― which makes it all the more brutal to see the (completely fucked-up) intimacy that has been built be violated so brazenly.
June experiences Braxton Hicks contractions, false labor, which causes the community to go into a “baby is on the way” mode and then retreat from it. The embarrassment of beginning that ritual and then having to wait longer, while June remains in her space, is too much for Serena to bear. She is furious at June and wants her gone. Commander Waterford reaches a similar level of anger at June when she asks him to move her to her daughter’s district after she gives birth. He feels manipulated and rejects her request, leading June to lash out and imply to him that the child she’s carrying isn’t actually his and that he will never experience what it’s like to have a “child of your own flesh and blood.”
The commander is tired of being made to feel impotent by the more powerful women around him, and Serena is tired of having to confront her own complicity and unhappiness every time she sees June. The only way for them to feel big and strong and justified in their actions is to put June back in her place. And the way they decide to do that is through the mechanism Gilead has always used to put unruly women in their places: rape. It’s a brutal reminder that in Gilead and in our world, rape is not about sex. It is about power and control.
Laura: Yes, good point ― the commander is literally impotent in the show, but the worse kind of impotence for him is the feeling that both Serena and June are challenging his power. He beats Serena when she circumvents him to sign documents in his name, and he rapes June after she suggests that he may not have the power to move her to her daughter’s district. Serena comes up with a flimsy excuse for the rape ceremony, which is that sex could be a natural way to induce labor. But unlike in the first season, where the people of Gilead can use the Bible to justify these rape ceremonies and make them about procreation, this rape of a very pregnant June is clearly just a way for both Serena and the commander to reassert their power over her.
What’s interesting, then, is that the commander arranges for her to see her daughter ― an unexpected and confusing act of compassion and kindness after a brutal sexual assault. He seems to be battling with his own demons, wanting to be a good and humane person and possibly even caring for June, but ultimately corrupted and limited by his own thirst for power.
Serena, meanwhile, feels impotent too. She lives in a society that only values women for their fertility, and she is unable to have a baby. She was smart and talented once, too, but those talents have no place in Gilead. So her only way to feel power and agency is to assert power over June.
Can you finally agree with me, though, that Serena is no longer a sympathetic character? The image of her hand gripping June’s wrist and holding it down on the bed is burned in my brain forever.
Emma: Fine, yes. I knew I was being too optimistic in thinking that Serena could ever be even a partial ally. Deep in my soul, I knew she was irredeemable, but who doesn’t want their problematic fave to become less so? But I’m still fascinated by Serena. And I do believe her eyes-wide-open depravity in the moment she ignored June’s screams of agony, holding down her wrists harder instead of helping her, will haunt Serena in the weeks to come. She’s irredeemable, but she’s not a flattened monster, which is exactly the point. People who commit atrocities are also capable of compassion, which makes them all the more fucking terrifying.
“You don’t have to do this. It doesn’t have to be this way,” June screams as the Commander wrenches her legs open and Serena pins back her wrists. June is correct: Serena doesn’t have to do it and it doesn’t have to be this way. What Serena makes is a choice ― a barbaric one. And she knows it, which is why the minute the Commander finishes, Serena lets go of June and leaves the room. Out of sight, out of mind.
To switch topics a bit, we need to talk about Eden. I know she’s a character we’ve really only danced around in these chats because we don’t quite know how to feel about her, but this episode felt significant in her character’s development. We saw the flirtation she developed last episode with Isaac, the somewhat more age-appropriate (though violent) Guardian, come to a head. After being ignored and belittled by everyone in the Waterford home for weeks, Eden latches on to Isaac’s attentions and kisses him. The kiss, we later learn, is her very first one. Nick sees the pair making out, and Eden freaks out when she realizes, though you get the sense that she’s hoping this will maybe be the thing that makes this man ― her HUSBAND ― give a shit about her. But he still doesn’t.
“You don’t look at me,” she says through tears. “You don’t touch me unless you have to. You don’t kiss me. I’ve never been kissed until tonight. I’m your wife. You just caught me cheating on you. You should care.” This moment broke my heart. It reminded us that as suspicious as we may have been of her ― and perhaps still should be ― she’s a teenager, a child. She has no support and no one to talk to and no ability to explore life’s little pleasures, like kissing a boy that made you feel butterflies in your stomach for the first time.
Laura: Eden is an interesting character because she’s the only teenager we’ve seen in Gilead, trying to navigate its sex-negative culture. She is way too young to be in a loveless, sexless marriage, or any kind of marriage. She is just starting to be a sexual person in a place where women are punished for experiencing sexual pleasure of any kind. And she naturally wants Nick to want her, wants to feel attractive as all teenagers do, but is incredibly frustrated and confused and hurt when that doesn’t happen.
I think we have always seen Eden as a kind of snake in the grass. We are pulling for Nick and his romance with June, and Eden is in the way, noticing Nick’s lack of interest, finding the letters he was transporting to Canada and noticing the way he looks at June ― all things that could get him sent to the wall. So far, though, she hasn’t betrayed him or suggested in any way that she wants to turn him in. She’s just a girl at the cusp of womanhood who wants to be wanted and is stuck in the shittiest possible society.
It’s interesting to me that Nick is completely unable and unwilling to comfort her. She sobs and sobs, and he gives her short, cold answers and refuses to even hug her or give her any kind of reassurance that it’s not her fault or anything she lacks. Maybe he is afraid that if he gives her any affection at all, it will give her the wrong idea about what their relationship is going to be, or maybe he is just overwhelmed by guilt because he is married to a child. At least June tried to soothe and comfort Eden, though, recognizing that she’s just another victim of this patriarchal world. I like Nick, for some reason, but he has the personality of a wooden stool.
Emma: He really does. A very, very attractive wooden stool. It is the curse (and blessing) of this show that the women characters will always be infinitely more complex and compelling than the men. Though perhaps the man who is the most fascinating to me is Commander Waterford. After raping June, he seems to feel guilty, perhaps? I agree with your earlier assessment, Laura. I think he fancies himself a generous and moral man, so when he does something heinous to a woman, he follows it up with an act he would consider magnanimous. After beating Serena, he builds her up as a “strong Gilead wife” and asks her to accompany him as an equal on a diplomatic trip. After raping June, he gives her a way to see her daughter again ― if only for 10 minutes.
And this is where we see the monstrosity of family separation laid bare. Nick drives June, at the Commander’s behest, out to an unnamed mansion in the woods. Everything is covered in white snow, so June in handmaid red stands out against the backdrop. They go inside, and Hannah is there with her Martha.
“My baby,” June cries out, immediately running up and embracing her daughter. But Hannah, after at least a year or two of not seeing her mother, is startled by June’s presence, afraid of her and confused by her and angry at her. Finally, June gets to the crux of the issue. “Did you try to find me?” asks Hannah. “Why didn’t you try harder?” Not only did Gilead destroy June by taking away her child; Gilead destroyed Hannah by making her wonder why her mother and father had abandoned her.
Laura: There are few things worse for a young child than being abandoned by her parents and few things worse for a mother than being forcibly separated from her child. And adding to the horror, June asks Hannah if her new parents are treating her well, if they’ve ever punished her, and the Martha says they’ve “only” hit her “twice.” So not only does June have to live without seeing her baby, but she has to live with the knowledge that her child is being physically abused in the hands of other people.
A version of this is, as we mentioned earlier, currently happening at the U.S.-Mexico border, and it’s impossible not to see this episode in that context. Hannah has a new name ― “Agnes” ― and she’s trying to embrace her new parents and forget her mother, but of course she will never forget her mother or the trauma of being ripped away from her. Even if they are reunited at some point in the future, which June is determined to make happen, irreparable harm has already been done to that child. And it’s been done, ironically, by a society that was enabled by an infertility crisis, that claims to value motherhood over all else.
Emma: Exactly. Time and time again we are reminded how little Gilead respects mothers and children, and how much they revel in using those groups for the gain of the ruling class. And, of course, because this is “The Handmaid’s Tale,” one tragic separation just isn’t enough.
After Hannah is ripped away from June yet again ― side note: the Marthas are the unsung heroes of this society, seeing everything and nurturing these children ― June just loses it. As she’s breaking down, cars approach and Nick gets her inside the mansion and goes back out to talk to the Guardians that pull up. But they know no one is supposed to be there and don’t buy his obviously bullshit excuses. So June has to watch from afar as her second love interest/partner/baby daddy is knocked out and taken away. June is left all alone, in the middle of nowhere, about to give birth at any moment. Par for the course for Gilead, and enough stress to make me want to leave my TV room and vomit.
The final note I took on this episode about sums it up: “Fuck.”
Laura: Yeah, this ending was bleak. They didn’t even give us a song. They better make up for this next week.