It was impossible not to think about what’s happening to immigrants at our country’s southern border when watching this week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. June and her daughter, Hannah, share an all-too-brief reunion that ends with the two ripped apart all over again. It’d be a difficult scene to watch under normal circumstances, but the fact that this is happening, thousands of times, to desperate families coming to the U.S. for asylum and better lives makes The Handmaid’s Tale’s fictional story all the more devastating to witness.
When Yahlin Chang wrote “The Last Ceremony” months ago, she had no idea the context into which it would be released. “At the time I never thought that that would be happening in America. It’s just so insane,” she told The A.V. Club in a phone interview. “And not only that, but justified—people using biblical justifications for it.” (Last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Bible passages equating the word of law with the word of God.) “It’s just so insane, and so Gilead-like to say, ‘The Bible says! The Bible says we should enforce the law!’”
Chang brought up a scene from earlier in season two that also saw government officials citing no specific law, but the law, to enact atrocities, much like how President Donald Trump and his administration insist they were just upholding existing law with their policy of forcibly separating families. “When they are trying to separate Emily from her family, and she’s saying, ‘What law?’ And he’s saying, ‘The law forbids it,’ and she says, ‘What law?’ And he says, ‘The law.’ To remember that—it’s just crazy,” Chang said.
While it’s jarring to see the warped logic that leads Gilead officials to separate Emily from her wife and son shared by our current administration, The Handmaid’s Tale is a deeply affecting show on an emotional level as well as a logical one. “The Last Ceremony” demonstrates the power long-running TV shows can have: We’ve spent many hours seeing June’s horror show unfold, and the amount of time spent in her company makes viewers sympathetic. Seeing June and Hannah together again—Chang said it’s been three years since they were torn from from each other in the woods—after getting to know them over two seasons makes the scene especially painful.
To write the scene, Chang spoke with an expert from the United Nations about the reality of children forcibly separated from their parents. “You know,” said Chang wryly, “in those horrible dictatorial overseas places far away from here.” So when June tries to give Hannah advice, she’s mirroring what parents do in those situations. “That all comes from research into what really happens,” said Chang. “[Parents] will cram all the last-minute advice they can give about how to survive… At the time I never thought that that would be happening in America… I thought, ‘Well, okay, I’ll be telling this story about what happens to people very far away.’ And unfortunately it turns out it’s happening here. So it’s really uncanny and bizarre.”
The way Hannah reacts to her mother is also pulled from Chang’s research. Hannah is standoffish at first, then angry at her mother. “What I was told is that what the mother fantasizes is that it will be this joyful reunion with hugs and kisses, but more often than not it just doesn’t go well,” she said of parents reuniting after separating. “I think that June and the way Elisabeth Moss brilliantly performed this scene really shows ultimately so much about her resilience, and the triumph of the human spirit. Because she has sunk so low in this episode, she has sunk to unimaginable depths. But the moment she sees Hannah, she snaps back into being a mother, an amazing mother, where all she cares about is making Hannah feel safe, and loved, and reminding her that her daddy loves her, too, and that she will always be her mother, and she will never stop loving her.”
Along with her research, Chang drew from her own experience as a mother of three. “The way Hannah acts in this scene is just knowing my kids really well. I’m writing how they would react, things they would say, knowing them. So while I do want it to be representative of a very unfortunate experience that I know happens to parents and children, it’s also a very specific experience, because it’s very painful for me to write. I had to really go to some dark imaginative places that maybe I’d rather have not entered into. But I’m so, so lucky it was just in my imagination, and not in my reality. My kids would instantly confront me and say, ‘Did you try to find me? Why didn’t you try harder?’ They would be on me.”
Read the full interview below.
The A.V. Club: The timing of this week’s episode—as we’re learning about parents and children being torn apart on the border—gives June’s brief reunion with Hannah a lot of extra impact. What did you think of the timing this week, and with writing a scene like that for a future dystopic TV show considering the context it’s being seen in now?
Yahlin Chang: I know, and not only that, but justified—people using biblical justifications for it. Have you seen The Handmaid’s Tale? What are you doing? I mean it’s just so insane, and so Gilead-like to say, “The Bible says! The Bible says we should enforce the law!”
There is even that in episode two of this season, when they are trying to separate Emily from her family, and she’s saying, “What law?” And he’s saying, “The law forbids it,” and she says, “What law?” And he says, “The law.” To remember that—it’s just crazy.
I really wish that our world was not like Gilead. I wish that we were further away from Gilead than we are. When I wrote this scene—I think I started writing it in November and December—I talked to an expert in the UN about what happens in those horrible dictatorial overseas places far away from here. You know, in those foreign countries where it’s wartime and they rip children away from their parents and what happens in those scenes.
She was super helpful, this woman who works for the UN, in telling me that they will cram all the last-minute advice they can give about how to survive, and so when June says to Hannah, “Love your life, listen to your parents, do what they say,” she’s trying to give her advice to Hannah to survive this terrible totalitarian regime. So that all comes from research into what really happens—I did a ton of research about what really happens. At the time I never thought that that would be happening in America. It’s just so insane. I thought, “Well, okay, I’ll be telling this story about what happens to people very far away.” And unfortunately it turns out it’s happening here. So it’s really uncanny and bizarre.
One thing that’s coming out now is reading about the incredible trauma this does to children at a young age, how it causes brain damage, that it will continue for their whole lives. And in the scene that we shot you can kind of see that there’s something off about Hannah—she’s been through terrible trauma. The very last thing that she saw was her mother being ripped away from her. So in the scene where she asks, “Did it hurt when they hit you on the head?” That is one thing that came from research, too. Right away child will ask about that, because she’s been confused about that. She’s been thinking about that over and over every night since mother left her. And so it lands on Offred that “My poor baby has had to relive this trauma constantly.” That stuff, it doesn’t go away. It will mar her for the rest of her life.
And the other thing that child development experts told me is that even though Hannah saw her mother ripped away, she would still be angry at her mother for abandoning her—that all she knows at that age, all she can understand is that she wanted her mom and her mom wasn’t there. So that anger is in the scene, too—she goes straight to, “Why didn’t you try to find me? Why didn’t you try harder?” She blames her mother. There’s all this anger and resentment. And that always happens.
What I was told is that what the mother fantasizes is that it will be this joyful reunion with hugs and kisses, but more often than not it just doesn’t go well. I think that June and the way Elisabeth Moss brilliantly performed this scene really shows ultimately so much about her resilience, and the triumph of the human spirit. Because she has sunk so low in this episode, she has sunk to unimaginable depths. But the moment she sees Hannah, she snaps back into being a mother, an amazing mother, where all she cares about is making Hannah feel safe, and loved, and reminding her that her daddy loves her, too, and that she will always be her mother, and she will never stop loving her. So even though there’s so much darkness in this show and in the world, I think ultimately the message is that love survives and love can triumph and it’s a sentimental and gooey message [Laughs.], but I think it’s also true. And even in context of this terrible, complete awfulness, that humanity—the good side of humanity—can prevail.
AVC: Do you think seeing this on TV can connect people to what’s going on in the real world? Viewers have gotten to know and care about June over the course of two seasons—perhaps it’s just easier to see emotional devastation when it’s someone you feel you know, even if it’s a character, versus people you don’t, even if they’re real.
YC: I would love for that to be true. [Laughs.] It is my sincere wish that seeing this will move some people to action or shame people into action, of course. That would be amazing. I think that just telling—what we really try to do with The Handmaid’s Tale is try [to tell] the truest story possible, which sounds funny in the world of dystopian fiction—but I do think narrative has a way of hitting people in the heart. And just the act of watching a show or reading a novel and really caring about the characters—that in itself, if you think about it, is a radical act of empathy.
Our show’s very strict point of view is Offred, and if we can make you feel like you’re Offred, and if we can make you go through what Offred’s going through, and have you have the emotional experience that Offred is having, then I think that that is a good thing. If you’re able to experience—if you’re just crunching numbers and looking at a spreadsheet and looking at immigration numbers, only thinking about people in the abstract—if we can get you to really experience just one person’s feelings and struggles and despair, then I hope that that leads to just greater and greater acts of empathy and compassion.
I’m well aware it’s just a TV show, and that it is hard for one little TV show to change the world, but I think that if everyone tries to have a positive impact, and that telling true stories and honest stories and stories that make you feel, and stories that make you experience what a lot of other people are experiencing—if people watch that scene and cry because they’re feeling what it’s like to have your child ripped away from you, or your mother ripped away from you, then I think that that is a good thing. It’s painful and hard to watch, but that’s also a good thing because I think it is a truly painful experience.
AVC: Margaret Atwood used all real historical examples of atrocities when she was writing her book, and it sounds like that emphasis on real-world parallels and examples is carrying through in the writers room, which is now going beyond Atwood’s original story.
YC: Oh yeah, absolutely, I completely agree. When I was working on this scene—when I first knew I was going to write this scene—I thought, “Okay, this is a scene about Gilead kidnapping your baby, and then you only get 10 minutes to talk to your kid after not having seen her for three years, what a crazy scenario in this dystopia.” That was my first thought. And my realization was very quickly: This happens all the time. Mothers and children are separated in all different contexts. The government takes children away, there are wars, there are children orphaned, there are parents who are shot and killed. So yeah, unfortunately, this happens all the time. It’s a huge shame that it’s happening when it doesn’t have to be happening.
AVC: Was it difficult writing this scene?
YC: I don’t really start from perspective of trying to make a huge comment about the world. It starts from a personal place. I have three kids—12, 9, and 7—so the way Hannah acts in this scene is just knowing my kids really well. I’m writing how they would react, things they would say, knowing them. So while I do want it to be representative of a very unfortunate experience that I know happens to parents and children, it’s also a very specific experience, because it’s very painful for me to write. I had to really go to some dark imaginative places that maybe I’d rather have not entered into. But I’m so, so lucky it was just in my imagination, and not in my reality. My kids would instantly confront me and say, “Did you try to find me? Why didn’t you try harder?” They would be on me. [Laughs.] They would be curious about what had happened when the scary men dragged me away. So one thing that people say about writing fiction or screenplays is that the specific is universally relatable, and I hope that’s true in this case. The specifics are very true to my experience being a mother and with my kids and hopefully that’s universally relatable.
The other thing I want to add is that Lizzy Moss is so extraordinary. And Jeremy Podeswa, who directed the episode, is top-notch, first-class, unbelievably talented. And that’s everyone on the show—the costume designer, Ane Crabtree, and Colin Watkinson, the director of photography—they all took this script and executed it in ways better than I could have imagined.
AVC: There’s another notable scene in this episode, and if we weren’t seeing families forcibly separated at the border we’d be talking about that. Serena and the commander rape June, but it’s even more brutal than the normal “ceremony” scenes, which are already brutal.
YC: I think it is harder, and I think what makes it hard is just that Offred has a real and honest reaction to what’s going on. If you were going to write about it, I just want to say it is brutal, and all ceremony scenes should be brutal, and Gilead has normalized rapes, but in a way it’s the most honest rape ceremony scene we’ve done, because the Handmaid is not dissociating and not making it easy on us by pretending that she’s not being brutally violated. Offred can’t pretend in that moment. She’s not able to fully dissociate. So I do feel like the takeaway from this episode is that, you know, our viewers know that it’s really wrong to rape people, and it’s really wrong to rip children and parents away from each other.
AVC: Do you also do research on rape for these scenes?
YC: Yes, and that is also something that unfortunately happens all the time. I think it’s important to shake people out of their complacency about what’s really going on. It is rape, Gilead is a system based on rape, and it’s very much embedded into the fabric of that society, make no bones about it.