Elisabeth Moss, Ann Dowd
Photo: George Kraychyk (Hulu)

Note: This review contains descriptions of sexual violence, physical violence, and child abuse.

Two women are raped. One woman prepares to say goodbye to a child, in two separate ways. Two people feel powerless, and compensate for that powerlessness with an act of unbelievable brutality. And others, several others, feeling similarly powerless, find ways to assert some small measure of control, even defiance, if only for a moment. That is what happens in “The Last Ceremony.”

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And a child is ripped, sobbing, from her mother’s arms, not once, but three times; not for the first time, but the second.

It’s difficult to write about The Handmaid’s Tale, week after week. From a technical standpoint, it isn’t always easy to analyze or evaluate. There’s a lot going on—politically, emotionally, artistically—and sometimes those things act in opposition. It can be counted on, week in and out, to be consistent in exactly three ways: first, it will look better than almost anything on television (and quite a few films); second, it will feature somewhere between one and six excellent performances from recurring or regular cast members; three, it will be bleak. It’s a good series, and an important one, but sometimes that last item, its bleakness, can make it challenging to appreciate. The brutality can overwhelm the rest of the show, making it difficult to focus on the good things and the bad.

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This episode is both bleak and brutal, but it is also very good. That managed to creep in past the part of my brain that can’t stop thinking about Hannah crying for her mother as she’s pulled into the back of a van by a man in a uniform. There are still some moments that don’t quite work—people are complicated, but June’s deliberate satisfaction after her Braxton Hicks contractions seemed like a choice that belonged to the June of “Other Women,” and the events of that episode shook our protagonist so profoundly that she had a pretty serious mental break. It’s easy to buy into the June we see spitting “And you never will!” at Commander Waterford, because that seems like an impulse—a calculated impulse, but an impulse all the same. The intentional needling of Serena Joy—who deserves needling, and worse—feels more like a relic of the person she was before.

Perhaps not. June’s notion that her pregnancy grants her a certain amount of safety isn’t wrong, exactly, but it’s far from the whole picture; maybe it’s the presence of Aunt Lydia, monstrous and evil protector of babies, that allows her to feel safe enough to act. It’s one of the sole off-notes in an otherwise carefully constructed, deeply affecting hour (credited to writer Yahlin Chang). Part of its power comes from the performances, as is nearly always the case, but much of the rest stems from the thoughtful way that all the brutality is used. Sometimes The Handmaid’s Tale shows us horrors because this world, and our world, is full of them; we see Emily’s nightmarish van ride in “Late” because we must. But there are so many horrors that, when executed less expertly than “Late,” they can start to feel like punishment for the viewer.

Chang’s horrors are nothing if not intentional. Punishing, yes, but with a purpose.

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The two and a half ceremonies we see in “The Last Ceremony” are linked, not through Gilead, but through their end goals: the abuse, subjugation, and dehumanization of women and children. Take the two “mating” ceremonies. In the first, June narrates what those experiences are like as we see Emily endure one. It’s terror made routine. It’s dressed up in the trappings of religion and cleanliness, but it’s terror nonetheless.

Director Jeremy Podeswa makes sure we see that terror—it’s in the intensity of the gaze between the soon-to-be-dead Commander and his wife, in the flickers of emotion that race across Alexis Bledel’s face—discomfort, hatred, disgust, panic, amusement, grief—and in the very trappings that are designed to hide the terror. But its twin, the vindictive rape of June at the hands of both Waterfords, points directly to the charade of the first and calls it what it is. Not hands linked in ceremony, but hands pinned down by a willing perpetrator of a heinous violation. Not ritual, but rape. Emily’s rape is no more justifiable. It’s just that the system is better hiding its barbarous nature than the Waterfords are at hiding theirs.

That leaves the halted birthing ceremony and its much less obvious twin. June’s false alarm isn’t just the point from which Serena’s rage is launched, nor the catalyst for the conversation that leads Waterford to set up June’s reunion. It’s grotesque tranquility is just another trapping. That reunion with Hannah (now called Agnes, because stealing a child is apparently just like adopting a pet and you get to pick a new name for your acquisition) underlines what it really is, just as June’s rape shows Emily’s rape for what it really is. It’s all a show designed to disguise the fact that this society is ripping babies from their mothers. If it’s all pretty and nice, maybe these monsters can forget what’s really happening.

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But Chang isn’t content to merely let this scene mirror the other. Instead, we get one of the finest sequences in this show’s relatively brief history, acted marvelously by Elisabeth Moss and company. Confronted with a reunion for which she was wholly unprepared, June reaches inside herself and finds the strength to parent. She pulls her shit together as fast as she can and makes the best use of her cruelly brief window with the child that was wrenched from her arms. It’s okay to be mad at us. It’s okay to like your new parents. It’s okay to be happy. I love you, your daddy loves you, we will try to find you, but please live your life. Love your parents. And be safe. Do as you’re told. Find a way to exist in this merciless world.

Chang, Bruce Miller, and the rest of the Handmaid’s writers room could not have known what would be happening in the United States as this episode aired. But even without the context of this exact moment, the scene would be a masterpiece of kindness and agony, and a reflection of not only the true nature of Gilead, but of global history, and the history of the United States. This isn’t our first at-bat when it comes to tearing children from the arms of their parents.

The scene isn’t hopeful, or happy, but there is some beauty to it, and strength. It doesn’t erase the horror, or soften the brutality. But Chang manages to make one of the most difficult-to-watch scenes of this difficult-to-watch series one of resiliency and gentleness. As her heart breaks, June is a mother first. She gives Hannah what she can.

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Stray observations

  • Something you can do.
  • Something else you can do.
  • Did it seem to you that the Commander intended for June and Nick (or at least Nick) to get caught? At first, I thought the “you deserve this” and seemingly kind gesture were out of place, but then it occurred to me that, knowing that Nick would have to be the actual father of June’s baby, it might have been a trap. Thoughts?
  • Ann Dowd is so damn good. Her subtle dig at Serena was expertly executed (much like her low-key flaunting of the luxury of writing/reading several weeks ago).
  • Congratulations to Elisabeth Moss and The Handmaid’s Tale on their TCA Award nominations.
  • Look for more on this episode from The AV Club later today. I also got the change to speak with Yahlin Chang about the episode this week; if you’re interested in hearing it, it’ll be a part of the next episode of TV Party, a podcast I co-host for Consequence of Sound. New episodes come out on Mondays. (Apologies for the self-promotion, but it was a good conversation.)
  • I’ll leave you with this.

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