The Handmaid’s Tale
Almost any ritual can start to seem normal after a while. “You treat it like a job,” begins the voice-over in this episode’s opening scene, “an unpleasant job to be gotten through as fast as possible.” It’s June’s voice, but Emily is the one lying on the bed, quietly enduring her Commander’s monthly “duty,” grimacing as he works his way towards a finish. June’s voice is measured: All this is now commonplace. The Handmaids have doors in their brains that they open up while their Commanders invade their bodies, places where they can sink away and turn off their senses. Fiery and obstinate as she might be, when Emily’s Commander keels over dead it doesn’t throw her off. She stays reclining while his wife screams for help: “Chances are better if I lay on my back afterwards.” Which is true. Of course, she gets a few good kicks in on his dead body, too.
“The Last Ceremony” is an episode divided in two: The first part deals with the rites and rituals of life in Gilead, and the second studies what happens when those practices are upended. The Gilead machine hasn’t been running precisely according to plan — there was that small matter of a blown-up Red Center and dozens of dead citizens. But enough time has passed for the Gileadeans (Gileadites?) to have settled into routine. If nothing else, autocracies like these are notable for their dedication to pomp and protocol in the face of adversity.
When June goes into labor — or at least, believes she goes into labor — every person knows his or her role. The Handmaids prop pillows just so, unfold sheets, and ready bowls of ice. June changes into the requisite white gown, which one can only imagine would be stained beyond repair by the end of an at-home birth. Serena, too, is in white, gracefully mimicking the deep breathing of a standout Lamaze devotee. The other Wives surround her in support, offering words of praise (“You deserve this” being the most egregious) and lavishing her with pampering. There’s even a goddamn harpist in the corner. Meanwhile, the Marthas scurry importantly, doling out food and floral arrangements, and the Commanders gather in Waterford’s study, knocking back whiskies and chomping cigars. In Gilead, an event as momentous as a birth is practically a sacrament, with all the accompanying pageantry.
Lying sedately on the floor, happily breathing in the adoration and attention of the Wives around her, Serena is obviously displeased to discover that her starring role is being cut short. With June’s immediate dismissal, the spotlight would have stayed on Serena and her new baby, blessed and chosen by the Lord to bear his fruit. But yet again, June has humiliated her, and when Serena walks in to find June lounging on her bed, posed like a virgin queen surrounded by her ladies, something inside her snaps. No spicy tea, no matter how goddamn spicy, will do to get this baby out.
(FYI, Aunt Lydia’s suggestions aren’t anything to turn up your nose at, no matter how much Serena insists that there’s only one “natural way” to encourage labor. On January 21, 2017, I walked nine miles for the Women’s March in D.C. The next day, I went into labor at 11 a.m., two-and-a-half weeks early. Walking, along with spicy food, and yes, consensual sex, are the three most common recommendations on inducing labor. They could have just cooked up some hearty Thai food for June.)
Serena and Fred have been at odds since he lashed her with his belt and humiliated her, but they find something to reunite them again when June pushes him a bit too far by asking if she can be sent to Hannah’s district after the baby is born. The request, admittedly, is a big one, and it’s hard to believe that June expects the Commander to really pull strings. This is the same woman who ran away and was seconds from entering Canadian airspace with what he believes is his baby on board. She hasn’t given the Commander a lot of reasons to believe she’ll sedately watch her child grow up in another family’s home. But June also has next to nothing to lose. Why not reach back and see if she can tug on his heartstrings just a bit?
Her mistake isn’t in asking. It’s in asking, “If it is at all within your power,” instead of implying that she knows he’s powerful enough to make anything happen. After his hospital stay and Serena’s capable substitution in his place, the Commander is determined to prove himself, to remind Serena — and June — that it is he who holds the reins in their house.
When June is called into the master bedroom and Serena waits calmly on the bed, the scene is set like a horror movie. The Commander stays in the dark, his face entirely in shadow, until exactly the moment he is pulling apart his pants. The camera zooms in on Serena’s tight hold on June’s hand. Even Serena’s, “We need to help the baby come out naturally,” has the air of a madwoman in the attic — someone who has totally lost touch with reality. June screams and writhes, and she calls out for the first time, verbally protesting as she hasn’t in the past. This isn’t a part of the job that she has resigned herself to. She cannot slip away to that mental place. This isn’t a state-sanctioned atrocity. It’s a brutal rape organized by a husband and wife so that they might lay their hands on a stolen baby more rapidly. It’s more than likely painful. And yet Serena’s eyes are alive for the first time during a “ceremony”: She gazes hard at her husband, and for a brief moment, just as he climaxes, it almost appears that they might kiss.
Then comes the After, with June’s body heaped on the bed like a corpse, then reclined on her own bed, her limbs hanging like weights. The rules governing how Gilead functions have been broken, irreparably, and routine is no longer a buoy she can cling to.
No matter what has happened in her past, June is a victim anew. The debate over rape on television has raged on for the past several seasons of some very high-profile shows — most notably, in Game of Thrones, in which a female lead was brutally raped by her own husband on their wedding night. Rape, critics say, is used merely for shock factor, and far too many narratively unnecessary rape scenes are now included on TV just to rile up viewers. The Handmaid’s Tale has, at times, been guilty of brutalizing its female characters to a questionable point. And this scene can be read in a troubling way: Why is it so much more upsetting to watch a rape in which a woman screams and begs than one in which a woman lies silent, as Emily does? Are we meant to view one as more emotionally damaging than the other? Because we shouldn’t. With any other show, I might be tempted to worry, but here, the second rape feels purposeful, as if the scene is trying to shock us, but only so we might remember just how profoundly important it is that we do not cede any ground to gender bias, that we continue to treat every threat to a woman as valid, that we never forget just how brutal it can be when men decide how women’s bodies should be handled.
And yet, June’s rape was not the hardest part of the episode to watch.
I watched the scene of June’s brief reunion with Hannah three times. The first time I sobbed so hard and lost myself so emotionally that I knew I needed another viewing. The second time, despite bracing myself, I still teared up and felt a physical ache in my chest. The third time, I must admit, I watched to make sure I wasn’t exaggerating the scene’s intensity in light of the current policies the U.S. government is enacting at our own border — policies that rip children from their parents’ arms and house them in cages as a form of “deterrence” against illegal immigration. It’s a strange thing knowing that your democratic nation is committing atrocities that we once only imagined took place in distant lands or in the pages of history books, and that our Attorney General is using the same faulty and delusional thinking as the officials running Gilead — that the Bible sanctions such behavior. This is the danger of blind adherence.
June has surely played this scene out over and over in her mind — the beautiful, tearful reunion with her abducted daughter, in which the two would embrace and reassure one another and shake with profound joy. Instead, Hannah (who is played here masterfully by Jordana Blake) hides behind her Martha, fearful at her mother’s sudden reappearance after years of separation, then furious with her mother for leaving her, and then curious about her mother’s pregnancy. Imagine the confusion any child would endure after being hoisted over to two strangers she’s told are her new parents, and then suddenly seeing her real mother return.
June’s offerings to Hannah are some of the bravest any parent could muster: She tries to prepare her for a future that she believes she won’t be there to witness. “I just want to tell you that I will always be your mommy. And daddy and I will always love you,” might be the only words Hannah will be able to cling to as she grows up. When Hannah’s emotional walls finally come down and she lets out one plaintive, “Mommy,” the damage that Gilead has wrought reaches new heights. June’s calm is a testimony to how much she knows, as a parent, that it is critical for her daughter’s emotional well-being that she make their parting as unlike their separation in the woods as possible.
There couldn’t be a better time for Americans to be exposed to the fundamental evil of separating a child from her parents. Yes, this is a television show, a dark fantasy borne out of one genius’s worried mind. But art exists to unclothe and redress reality in garments that will make its truth more apparent.
When Nick is dragged away by two unexpected Guardians and June is left alone, nine months pregnant in a mansion in the middle of snowy, rural New England, the suspension of that moment is comparatively insignificant.