This review contains spoilers.
2.10 The Last Ceremony
Clearly, the makers of The Handmaid’s Tale felt that their show was becoming too upbeat. They thought Offred’s brief escape and the trip to Canada had allowed the audience too much time breathing the clean air outside the Waterford house. Viewers’ blood pressure had returned to normal. Our fingernails were no longer gnawed to the quick.
The Handmaid’s Tale, it must have been decided, was in danger of turning into a feelgood Sunday night romp. A factory reset was required.
The Last Ceremony was exactly that – a reminder that the concept of rock-bottom is nothing but a comforting lie. Beneath rock-bottom are endless sub-layers of rock, one after another after another, each one ready to be hit. You thought June had reached her nadir when she spent an episode walking around in zombie numbness and silently suffering a miscarriage, but that was only her last worst day. There were plenty more to come.
A lack of zombie numbness was what made the Waterfords’ attack on June so harrowing to watch. Surprised—even now, after so much evidence of it—by the extent of Serena and Fred’s cruelty, June hadn’t the time to mentally absent herself from her body before she was raped. Instead of summoning her strength to lie passively and project herself out of the experience as we’ve seen in the past, she used her strength to fight back.
It wasn’t enough. It rarely is. Two against one, the Waterfords’ heavily pregnant victim stood not a chance. From June realising what was about to happen, to her tiny voice finally whispering “I’m not here”, the scene was The Handmaid’s Tale’s most excruciating to watch yet.
It should have been excruciating, because in truth, what we saw was no different to any other rape experienced by any other woman any other month in Gilead. Picture the sea of red dresses we see in this show—in the supermarket, walking two-by-two in the street, gathered around a birthing bed. Each one represents multiple attacks just as destructive and brutal as that one, just better disguised by the faux sanctity of scripture and ritual.
The rape was harrowing, but June’s reunion with Hannah was heart-breaking. That’s the clip they’ll screen at awards shows to prove Elisabeth Moss’ total supremacy. She balanced June’s simultaneous joy and pain and relief and fear at seeing Hannah like a master of her art. The character’s attempts to reassure and instruct her daughter as a mother would, while suffering such extremes of personal anguish were affecting in the extreme.
Earlier, Moss had perfected another of her tricks: June delivering the words “I’m sorry” to sound exactly like the words “fuck you”. We saw Gilead’s birth ritual for the second time, and from the cooing Wives and their playground roleplay to Aunt Lydia’s exhortations to prayer, it hasn’t become any less ridiculous.
The false labour humiliated Serena, but, unable to vent her frustration in front of her guests, Serena had to swallow June’s “I’m sorry, Mrs Waterford” and her quoting her mistress’ words about it being for the best if they don’t see each other again. Even if she, like the Commander, felt guilt about it afterwards, Serena took her revenge.
She wasn’t the only one. After the act of instant karma where Emily’s Commander raped her then dropped dead, she took the opportunity to stick the boot in. Would that every Handmaid was given the same chance.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Smart Power, here.