Damn it, this episode of The Handmaid’s Tale shouldn’t be as relevant as it is. It isn’t just its themes of brutality being normalized, it’s the depiction of the powerless having their children and infants ripped from their arms while those in power smile and try to justify the unjustifiable. How could we have come to this?
It’s been a while since we’ve witnessed the ritualistic rape that Gilead dresses up in Scripture and holiness to make the perpetrators feel blameless. The episode “The Last Ceremony” strips it bare to reveal it for what it is, and it is among the show’s most difficult scenes to watch, which is a feat in itself. Many have said they intend to stop watching the show due to its dark themes, its lack of hope. That attitude misses the point, and feeds into the sense of complacency which makes dystopias dawn.
Serena’s and June’s ongoing animosity hits a turning point after June experiences false labor, and doesn’t seem the least bit unhappy about it. Why should she? It’s another chance to deny Serena her greatest desire, and she’s safely pregnant, with the full force of Aunt Lydia’s monstrous energy devoted to keeping her unborn child safe. When she also rebukes the Commander for the first time, the unhappy couple unite for another Ceremony. For the first time, June fights them and tries to refuse, but the Waterfords hold her down and force her.
It’s brutal in the way The Handmaid’s Tale refuses to sugarcoat what a nation like this would do to those it deems unclean. But this was the first such scene where I asked myself, is this really needed? We know the Waterfords are terrible people who have become even worse the more they immerse themselves in maintaining and furthering Gilead. It’s called the Ceremony rape from the beginning, and in this instance they two join forces, ostensibly to help the baby come, but it’s really to knock June down back into the place they’ve chosen for her. But why did the show need to hit it home this hard? Yes, it’s meant to strip the Ceremony bare, show it for what it really is, but we’ve aways known what it is. Is every Wife a willing accomplice to this, as this scene seems to suggest? At least one has tried to avoid it for a Handmaid’s sake, as one Wife endeavored to do for Emily in the aftermath of her horrific mutilation. Why does this continually need to be hammered home? Because the Waterfords have a backstory that might make them too sympathetic? Because they’re of a certain class?
Neither of them seem to regret their actions, but since Fred is the abuser with all the power, he decides to flaunt it more by giving June a sort of kindness in the aftermath. June is sent off with Nick to a deserted house, where her daughter Hannah is waiting for her. The reunion is beautiful but realistically fraught. Hannah may have been forcibly taken from her mother, but she still feels abandoned. She needed June, who wasn’t able to be there for her. In response, June proves herself capable of the greatest kind of love, the ability to parent above all odds. She lets Hannah be angry, and not only tells her to enjoy life, but to love and obey her new parents so she can stay safe. And when their time ends, and Hannah is torn away from her yet again, June does what is best for her child and tells her to get in the car and go home.
When Hannah leaves, another unexpected development occurs when other Guardians show up, and Nick is captured, unknowingly leaving June alone in the house. This could get messy for him, as he pushed Eden even further away earlier in the episode. It means June’s only real protector is gone, perhaps permanently, but it also leaves her with another opportunity to escape. Perhaps her unborn child will be able to experience life outside the toxic Waterford household after all.