The Handmaid's Tale: The Last Ceremony

"False labor fools the best of us."

I don't usually use profanity in my reviews, but it's called for here.

The Waterfords are sick fucks.

June went into labor at the market, and the Waterford house sprang into action. Food and flowers everywhere, wives in the living room, handmaids in the master bedroom, marthas in the kitchen, Fred passing out cigars to other Commanders in this study, a thrilled Serena in a white birthing dress with her hair down ready to steal her brand new baby, and all of it ruined because June dared to have Braxton Hicks. It probably didn't help that June looked so smugly pleased, lying in the Waterfords' bed and holding her still pregnant belly, that she had thwarted Serena. You'd think June would know by now that it's never a good idea to thwart Serena.

The monthly rape of handmaids is a horror clothed in a faux-biblical ritual that attempts to make it all seem hey, not so bad. Here, in "The Last Ceremony," we see it for exactly what it is. In their dying greenhouse, which is such an obvious metaphor for the sick society of Gilead, Fred and Serena talked about how to induce labor and steal their baby in order to get June out of their house. Serena insisted on doing it the "natural way," and she wasn't talking about spicy tea. She was talking about intercourse, which can sometimes bring on birth.

I think this particular rape was so much worse because June didn't see it coming and had no time to prepare herself emotionally. She screamed for help and specifically pleaded with Serena to release her, and instead, Serena held June down even more brutally for Fred, and not in a ceremonial way. June tried to detach herself from what was happening as she used to do, but this time she couldn't. Honestly, the Waterfords have never been more despicable, and that's saying a lot.

Hard to believe that this horrendous rape in the master bedroom wasn't the most upsetting part of this episode, but there you go. June's brief meeting with her daughter Hannah was absolutely heart wrenching, because it felt genuine from beginning to end.


Hannah didn't rush into her mother's arms. She was angry and confused at first, almost as if she didn't believe June was real. She asked why June didn't try harder to rescue her, which was absolutely the most crushing thing she could have said, and even though Hannah clearly knew what a handmaid was, that June was pregnant and wouldn't be permitted to keep the baby she was carrying.

Hannah could express her feelings, but June could not, because her primary motivation had to be helping her daughter. In the last episode, June asked Rita and Aunt Lydia to act as godmother to her baby because she wouldn't be there, and that's exactly what June did this time: she asked Hannah's sympathetic Martha to care for Hannah. What else would a good mother do? June has no power in this situation and she knows it. June's parting words for Hannah, who is now called Agnes, was to love her new parents, to be good, to be happy. After all, her new parents have only hit her twice.

And I was thinking, at least June has Nick. But now she doesn't. After Hannah's departure, two Guardians drove up and took Nick away, along with his black Guardian-mobile. June is now alone and pregnant, in winter, in that huge closed-up house in the boonies. Why is this happening?

Earlier, Serena had decreed that June should be moved to another district after the birth, and June agreed. June then went to Fred privately and begged him to send her to the district where Hannah lived. His response was anger and rejection. How dare his possession make such a demand? June responded to that by telling Fred that her baby wasn't his. Serena had told Fred before that he wasn't the father, but maybe he had decided Serena was lashing out, that it wasn't true. I think he believed it this time. Fred's motivation for later giving June the wonderful and terrible gift of a few minutes with her daughter Hannah made me think at first that he felt guilty about the rape. But instead, it made sense that Fred realized who the father of June's baby had to be, and that he decided to get rid of them both, as well as the baby.

Until the end, Nick was on the sidelines for much of this week's action. He was standing in Fred's study listening to that gray-haired commander talking around the possibility of having a prettier handmaid, i.e. June, assigned to him next time around. Then Nick stood in the courtyard flicking his cigarette lighter on and off (no visual symbolism there, huh?) staring at June's darkened attic as she was being raped in the master bedroom.

And then Nick saw Eden kissing Isaac, the Guardian who clearly wants Eden's chocolate chip cookies for himself, which led to a marital confrontation. Eden begged for Nick's forgiveness on her knees. I suppose Nick could have Eden executed for infidelity or something, since men have all the power in Gilead, but he simply doesn't care – he told her not to worry about it.

So of course she confronted him with her perfectly accurate conclusion that he was in love with "the handmaid." Nick responded, "I'd never get involved with a handmaid. It'd be suicide." Was that why Nick hasn't tried again to run for the border with June?

This show is always visually bleak, just as it's thematically bleak, but this episode seemed even bleaker than usual. The rape scene in the master bedroom was extremely dark which (thankfully) made it more difficult to see, and so was Nick and Eden's confrontation in their room over the garage. I was struck by the scene on the front stoop of Serena kneeling and praying in front of June's pregnant belly, with Nick standing behind Serena; it sort of reminded me of the Ceremony, but in reverse. When Fred came into June's room to tell her to get ready to leave, her face was backlit, like a halo.

I have to close with the obvious. "The Last Ceremony" aired during a week when the President of the United States said it was absolutely fine to rip babies and children out of their mothers' arms as part and parcel of his current policy of dehumanizing immigrants. It was rather amazing timing. Although actually, the timing of the entire series is right on point, since the President and his party are misogynists that long to take away the rights of women. I'm not usually political here on Doux – that's something I reserve for my personal blog – but you know, this week, the political news has been so devastatingly awful that I just don't care to make the distinction.

Bits:

— "The Last Ceremony" began with Emily's new Commander dropping dead after the Ceremony. When Emily refused the Wife's order to get help because she was supposed to lie on her back to increase her chances of getting pregnant, I actually laughed out loud. I laughed again when Emily literally kicked and stomped the Commander while he was down. It was wonderful.

— Aunt Lydia has been an almost benign presence in the Waterford household lately. This time, she showed just a bit of disapproval that Serena and June can't seem to get along.

— Commander Horace, one of the guests in Fred's study, has a pregnant wife. No handmaid. I was wondering about what would happen in that situation.

— In an uncharacteristic flash of anger at the market, June told Emily that at least her son and wife were safe in Canada.

— Not as a by the way, but huge gold acting stars for Elisabeth Moss and little Jordana Blake in that reunion scene. Every second of it rang true. I'm sure I'm not the only viewer who cried through it. Exceptional even in a series where all of the performances are excellent.

— Title musings: at the very least, I hope that this was indeed "The Last Ceremony" for June. Isn't there a way she could be working for the Resistance in Canada during season three?

Quotes:

Wife: "Get help!"
Emily: "Chances are better if I lie on my back afterwards."
Wife: "What?"

June: "At least this is the last time I'll have to get into that fucking bed."
Sadly, no.

June: (to Fred) "You have no idea what it's like to have a child of your own flesh and blood. (pause) And you never will."
Loved her expression. Even though saying this might have put June and Nick in their current danger.

Eden: (distraught) "Please forgive me for I know not what I do! I've sinned against you and God and I beg for mercy!"
Nick: (casually) "Don't worry about it."
I don't know why, but that made me laugh, too. Maybe it was the contrast.

Even though it's terribly bleak at times, I feel that The Handmaid's Tale is an important series, and one that I want to write about. That doesn't make it easy. This was a difficult episode to write about, which is why my review is a day late.

Four out of four premature congratulatory cigars,

Billie
---
Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

5 comments:

Lisianpeia said...

This really was a very disturbing episode, from the rape to the meeting with Hannah (I think it's impossible not to comment on the timing of this). I'm still processing.

The scene with Hannah was incredible because, as you said, it was genuine. I'm not sure why, but I laughed when the Martha told June Hannah had only been hit two times. It was heartwarming to see her trying to assure June her daughter is fine - or, as fine as one can be here -, but it seems so out of place in a world where nothing is actually fine. I thought June would ask who where Hannah's new parents.

I think there's another reason this rape was worse than the others (if one can say that at all). The whole system is abviously cruel to women, in many, horrendous ways. But, in the other times, Serena and Fred seemed to engage in the Ceremony as a duty (Fred could get his fun at Jezebel), as a means to an end. This was different. They can say all they want about forcing labor, they were being cruel for the sake of it. They were asserting their control over June and taking revenge. Fred didn't even try to disguise he was liking it. Urgh. No forgiving Serena after this.

I also laughed with Emily's "Chances are better if I lie on my back afterwards."

milostanfield said...

I'm confused now about Fred's motivations concerning Nick. I had assumed that when Serena jabbed him in an earlier ep with the fact that his rape child was not his own, he believed her then. That would explain why Eden was "married" to Rick by Waterford's fiat. But your observation, Billie, that Fred only believed it after June told him in this ep, would explain what happened at the "ghost mansion".

Problems with that: If Fred had indeed sent the guardians to do away with them both wouldn't they have known about June and taken her too? Would Hannah have even been there to begin with in that case? And wouldn't Fred want to keep June safe as long as she was pregnant even if June's child was just his "trophy baby" to gloat about while passing out cigars to the other commanders?

But then if Fred didn't send the guardians, who did? Because this is a drama and not reality we expect cause and effect, not "the guardians were just driving by", which might be seen as a questionable dramatic move, sorta "deus ex machina".

But whatever the causes of the "ghost mansion" scene, it set up a very different situation for June. She is now on her own and completely alone after suffocating for years under nanny managed tyranny. Similar but very different from the end of Season One. But with June standing alone in that cold front yard, her situation looked more like King Lear than freedom. Another no win for June. Sigh.
---
Yes this is indeed a very hard series to watch, especially when you turn from it to news in the increasingly similar "real world". But it has to be hard given the incessant personal oppression and no wins for the good girls. So go ahead and curse, Billie. Was I alone in shouting out when Nick was driving June to "ghost mansion": "Goddammit! Just keep driving until you see license plates that read "Ontario"?

Billie Doux said...

Lisianpeia, I'm glad I wasn't the only one that laughed. It's almost like laughing at a funeral. Emotions are so heightened that you can't help it.

milostanfield, I have no idea what happened. :) Maybe Isaac the Guardian had Nick kidnapped because Isaac wanted Eden?

Kelly said...

I listened to a podcast interview with the writer of this episode, and she said that the meeting with Hannah was set up by Fred out of guilt for the rape. In his sick mind, if he arranges this nice surprise for June, then it lets him off the hook for the terrible act he committed, and he won't feel guilty about it anymore.

I also think it lets him show off his power at the same time, a bonus for him. But that hubris is what leads to them losing their pregnant handmaid here. Fred took a risk arranging this meeting in a place no one was supposed to be (another Waterford house, from what Nick mentioned) that apparently was also regularly patrolled, since they kept pressing that time for this reunion was very limited.

I have many thoughts on that beautiful yet heartbreaking reunion, but mostly here I wanted to clarify the situation above. Also, based on other comments from that interview, you hit the nail on the head Billie that this last Ceremony was intended to show the horror that has been happening all along in all its ugliness for once.

Juliette said...

I laughed at all those moments too :)

And I think it's impossible not to think about what's going on in the world while watching this. The previous episode reminded me of my attempts to explain to American friends and family why we in Britain were protesting the President's visit - in the hope that it might make some kind of difference, or if not, because it's all we can do. (I didn't go myself, but several friends did).

Another thing I noticed in the Canada episode was the mention of Gilead negotiating to have illegal immigrants deported back to Gilead - I hope that doesn't mean Moira or Luke get sent back, since neither entered Canada through an official border, though they seem to have been granted refugee status.