Elisabeth Moss
Photo: George Kraychyk

This post discusses plot points of The Handmaid’s Tale episode “The Last Ceremony.”

After last week’s diplomatic trip to Canada, and several episodes that have found the series spinning its wheels, The Handmaid’s Tale returns to Gilead and the heightened drama that opened the second season. When a contraction sends June doubling over in the grocery store, the wives and other Handmaids assemble for the prescribed upstairs/downstairs birthing ceremonies. But much to Serena Joy’s embarrassment, it turns out to be a false alarm, and the impatient “mother to be” must wait a little longer. This and Commander Waterford learning that his child is not his own lead the pair to justify committing horrendous violence against June. Later, in a scene resonant for its eerie timeliness, she’s taken for a clandestine visit with daughter Hannah, only to have the crying child pulled from her arms. Here’s what we thought about this difficult-to-watch entry in an already difficult season.

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Gwen Ihnat: I hadn’t cried yet over the horrific treatment of hundreds of migrant children in Trump’s detention camps, a news story I find impossible to turn away from even as I’m increasingly more terrified of what I’m bound to discover. It’s inspired me to donate and make some phone calls, but like the rest of the civilized world, I don’t know how anyone can possibly call this policy anything less than inhumane, one of the lowest things our country has ever done. June’s separation from Hannah isn’t the center of The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s a huge part of June’s story, so it was almost too-perfect timing that the episode this week showed her too-short reunion with the daughter who had been ripped out of her own arms as they attempted to escape to Canada. Almost a full week of pent-up bawling meant that I cried while watching the scene even more than June did, which I credit to Elisabeth Moss’s amazing performance—completely losing it on the inside, but having to keep it together on the outside for her little girl (she deserves another round of Emmy and Golden Globe wins just for that scene alone). Even Jordana Blake, the actor playing little Hannah killed it, initially distrustful of the mother she thought had abandoned her, but quickly latching onto June as her rightful parent. I found this scene more emotionally wrenching than the episode’s rape scene—which was incredibly brutal, made even more so by Serena tamping down the traces of her benevolent humanity that we know are in there. But for straight-up devastation, I may never get over June and Hannah’s time together, neither of them knowing if they’ll ever see each other again, amplified by the fact that this is happening right now, in real time, in our own country, hundreds of times over.

Elisabeth Moss, Madeline Brewer
Photo: George Kraychyk

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Caity PenzeyMoog: This was an extremely emotional episode. I think it would be difficult to watch regardless of its fortuitous timing, but Gwen, you can’t be the only parent who cried during June’s brief reunion with Hannah. I find it hard to turn off my critical eye and simply be pulled along by the story at the heart of a show, but between this and the rape scene, The Handmaid’s Tale excelled at a purely emotional level of storytelling. I can only hope that “The Last Ceremony” referenced in this episode’s title means this is the last time we will watch a rape scene, because this one was even worse than usual, in part because Serena and the commander weren’t raping June within the structure and reliability of the warped system they helped create to impregnate Handmaids, but to punish. These rape scenes, along with June’s brief reunion with Hannah, reminded me that the happiest of endings for these characters is still a grim one: Successful escape will be accompanied by enduring trauma. Which leads me back to this episode’s real-life parallels, and the sick inhumanity of people in our actual government.

Laura, we watched this episode together, and both of us voiced frustration that Nick and June didn’t seize the obvious opportunity they had to escape. Maybe we’re both too inured with the typical beats of these sorts of stories, but why didn’t Nick shoot the other guardian and escape with June and Hannah? This is likely the only chance they would have not just to slip away unnoticed, but also to leave with Hannah. To me, the overzealous guardians that just happen to swing by the house after Hannah has left smells suspiciously like deus ex machina. But Laura, you brought up a good point, which is: Of course this story has to involve June, at this point very far into her pregnancy, alone. It heightens the stakes and the drama beautifully. Did this setup feel at all contrived to you? And what do you want to see happen?

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Laura Adamczyk: Because I’ve found the season to be fairly inconsistent throughout, it’s been tough to fully connect emotionally with its most dramatic moments. Save for those first few episodes, wherein I felt the violence was extreme yet merited, the most brutal scenes since have not resonated for me, despite them feeling entirely plausible within the worlds of both Gilead and The Handmaid’s Tale. Which is to say that I don’t think the showrunners and writers always earn their drama. The characters have shifted too quickly episode to episode for their actions to always feel believable, though I certainly believe that Commander Waterford and Serena Joy are both capable of the horrendous rape they commit against June. And I completely agree, Caity, that that scene is especially notable for the couple’s desire to punish (despite Serena Joy trying to justify their actions as being a “natural” way to induce labor), and for the pure malice that rises to the surface without the cover of gentility under which so much of Gilead’s inhabitants operate.

And I think Nick didn’t shoot the guards for a couple of reasons: 1) He is so calculating that he plans out well in advance any big, potentially dangerous actions; and 2) it seems like he thought he could have gotten out of trouble merely by talking to them. What’s more, killing them didn’t have a benefit beyond saving him in the moment. He and June (and Hannah) wouldn’t have been able to escape to Canada unless they did so on foot (those border roads are heavily guarded), and given that she’s so close to giving birth, that would have been incredibly dangerous for June.

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I agree that the trigger-happy guards just happening to show up at this remote mansion seemed contrived, though I do like the way it leaves June to fend for herself in so precarious a state. It also sets up an interesting plot line: a pregnant “runaway slave” who can only find freedom by traveling north. I’m curious to see if this is something The Handmaid’s Tale, which has been criticized for not handling race as well as it could, is able to pull off.