Previously on The Handmaid’s Tale, “Smart Power”
When this season of The Handmaid’s Tale debuted, a common refrain from many critics (mostly male) was that the show was far too dark to keep watching. That it had become an even rougher hang than in its first season, and, therefore, simply wasn’t worth their time. These comments, specifically the ones from men, frustrated me, to say the least. Most of these critics were perfectly fine watching other shows with a similar violent nature, but for some reason they felt the depiction of Gilead and its horrors crossed a line.
After hearing these hot takes, I reached out to the women in my online and IRL communities to get a sense of how they were feeling about the show. A few of those women did express that The Handmaid’s Tale was simply too brutal, too real for them to watch, and I completely respect that. Sorry, men, but because this show is predominately tackling violence against women, I feel it’s only fair we get to decide whether it’s too tough to watch.
For the most part, though, the women I spoke with felt the show was worth watching. That it wasn’t perfect – it still fails to address race in any meaningful way – but that it had something important to say about oppression, misogyny, and sexual violence, and that they weren’t surprised to hear how men thought differently. I have always felt the same; as heartbreaking as this show can be, it shines a light on the dark nature and danger of a complacent and complicit society.
After the events of “The Last Ceremony” I’m curious to see what the reactions from the women still watching will be, because I myself am feeling incredibly torn.
On the one hand, the violent rape of June at the hands of Fred and Serena was horrifying. It was repulsive, gut wrenching, and disturbing, and a million other words that do their best but ultimately fall short of describing the enormously visceral reaction it provoked. I winced with every “no,” every “please” from June. When she fell silent, I foolishly thought the scene might offer some reprieve, but the terrifyingly authentic dialogue in her voiceover was equally painful.
It was really fucking hard to watch.
My immediate reaction was thinking the show had gone too far this time. I was so close to joining those aforementioned critics in declaring The Handmaid’s Tale had crossed the proverbial line. But the episode continued, the initial shock subsided, and I started to really interrogate why that scene should make me feel any differently than all the other rape scenes on this show. This wasn’t the first time we saw June raped; it wasn’t even the only rape in this very episode.
June’s active resistance to what was happening definitely heightened the palpability of the scene. The Ceremony has become so commonplace for these women; we rarely ever see them oppose it, at least not outwardly. As June’s narration explains, they’ve been forced to treat it like a job, to detach themselves from their flesh, to pretend it’s not really happening to them. So to hear June pleading, to see her struggling to break free, added several layers of trauma to the whole ordeal. But can we really quantify something like rape? It’s a sickening, demoralizing attack no matter how you slice it. In a way, I believe The Handmaid’s Tale was attempting to emphasize this point. To remind us that just because Gilead won’t acknowledge what this really is – even the regime’s leaders know that to label this ritualized assault by its accurate name, rape, wouldn’t garner them as many followers – doesn’t mean the show won’t, or that we shouldn’t.
After viewing its barbarity numerous times, The Ceremony, and Gilead’s other condoned acts of violence against women, had begun to feel slightly normalized. If only because the show did such an excellent job of building this world, and showing us what passes for expected behavior. It’s not that we’ve forgotten the reality of what we’re viewing, but the longer the show goes on, the easier it is to feel somewhat desensitized to this behavior. This scene, though, this puts the violence directly in our faces and forces us to stop allowing this normalization to continue occurring.
Perhaps more importantly is the fact that this scene had a greater purpose than just depicting more brutality; something a lot of TV typically fails to offer in these situations. If nothing else, it makes a definitive statement about Serena. This season has been playing around in a grey area with her, trying to introduce redemptive qualities or at least suggesting she might feel regretful about her choices. This attack, the fact it was her idea, puts an emphatic stop to all of that.
She hasn’t changed. Not from her warmer relationship with June, not from her experience in Canada last week. She is still grasping at what little power she has left in Gilead, and June’s false labor, which took away her desired status of mother for just a little longer, enraged her. She’s still capable of advocating for the egregious: that she and her husband should rape a woman under the guise of just using the “most natural method” for inducing labor.
Whether the show has been successful in its attempts at gathering some semblance of sympathy towards Serena is completely subjective. However, this act made it abundantly and unquestionably clear: there is simply no coming back for her. Serena saw this as a power play, a way to get what she wanted, June’s welfare be damned; she is as much to blame as Fred. For anyone who was even just open to considering that Serena might be worthy of redemption, this was your sign to forget about it. Forever. And if The Handmaid’s Tale ever tries to provoke sympathy from us towards her again, this scene will, retroactively, feel very much in vain.
As uncomfortable as it was, I’m thankful the camera lingered on June, as she lay curled up in a ball, trying to cope with what just happened, instead of following either Serena or Fred. I couldn’t give any less fucks about how the Waterfords were feeling in that moment, and I’d bet most people felt the same. Too many shows explore how the assaulter feels about their crimes, which this show is still at risk of doing in future episodes, but, for now, The Handmaid’s Tale made the right choice by leaving the focus where it should be, with June, with the victim.
With all that said, I do wonder how much of a negative impact this scene had on the episode in general. I had forgotten entirely about June’s trip to the market and her conversation with Emily, before going back over my notes. Part of me can’t help but also wonder whether the sequence with Hannah would have hit even harder if we weren’t already feeling a little bit numb.
That’s not to say the sequence didn’t pack a punch; it was as heartbreaking as they come on The Handmaid’s Tale. (It was also yet another instance of this show having an almost unnerving prescience, in depicting the horrors of estrangement between parent and child.) Every aspect of it felt so genuine; from Hannah’s initial hesitance towards her mother, to the way June fiddled with the strings on her daughter’s robes, as a means of keeping herself composed despite the multitude of emotions running through her.
Jordana Blake was most impressive as Hannah. For just a moment, it seemed as though she may have forgotten who June was. Emily’s doubts from earlier in the episode, about whether or not her son would know she loved him, were surely ringing in June’s ears. Instead, Hannah was struggling with what she perceived to be abandonment by her parents, which felt devastatingly real and completely justifiable for her age. As was Hannah’s relatively quick softening on the situation.
There isn’t much left to say about Elisabeth Moss’ performance that hasn’t already been outlined before. We all know she’s a force, and though she damn near broke me during her assault, her pain was tangible in an entirely different way here. The way she tried to keep her shit together was admirable, as were the words she offered Hannah. Telling her daughter to enjoy her life and keep herself safe feels ultimately futile, but what else could she have said? The moment she learned her child had been beaten – “only twice” – Moss made it clear June felt as though a thousand knives had just shredded her insides, but forced herself to stay unruffled on the outside for Hannah’s sake. It’s a wonder June wasn’t screaming as Hannah was ripped away – I certainly wanted to scream for her – but it’s only further evidence of how strong this woman remains.
At the end of the day, most people should know by now what they’re signing up for when clicking play on an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. This show is no picnic, no walk in the park, and to some extent we’ve started to preemptively shield ourselves before hitting that play button. However, if this episode crossed a line for you, don’t let anyone tell you that’s wrong. We all have our thresholds, and only we can decide when they’ve reached a critical mass. I’ll continue watching, at least for the rest of this season, but the show has its work cut out for it. It needs to continue proving the brutality of June’s rape wasn’t all for naught, for spectacle. Perhaps some kind of cathartic moment is in order, and soon.
Under His Eye
So, where are the storylines about race? Bruce Miller, and his team, spent a lot of time between seasons assuring critics and fans that questions of race would be better addressed in season two, but I don’t see the evidence. There are only three episodes left to the season and a meaningful effort has yet to be made. I do think more people of color have been cast in tertiary roles and as extras, but that really doesn’t count.
I’m not sure there’s a right or perfect way to transition from that rape scene, but the show chose to take us to Eden and Nick’s storyline and that baffles me. It’s already been difficult to care about Eden – perhaps I’m just at capacity for complicit White Women – but I cared even less this week after seeing what June had just gone through. In a theoretical sense, it’s hard not to feel some compassion for Eden, she’s still a child after all, but her place in this overall narrative remains largely unclear. If nothing else, she has allowed Nick to become a little more interesting.
Nick is gone and that means this entire secret trip to see Hannah is going to blow up in Fred’s face (and Serena’s by association), right? It should; maybe he’ll lose a hand like Commander Putnam. Maybe she’ll get sent to the colonies. That still wouldn’t be enough punishment, of course, but it’s a start.
I really do love the possibilities this ending has set up for the final three episodes. I honestly have no idea where June goes now, or how she gets there. Is she far enough on the outskirts of Gilead that she could find one of the MayDay safe houses? She is very pregnant at this point, so getting anywhere is going to be tougher than usual, but I really think both June and the viewers could use even the tiniest of wins right now.
The Handmaid’s Tale S2E10 Review Score
"The Last Ceremony"
Starring: Elizabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd, Max Minghella, Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski, O-T Fagbenle, Samira Wiley, Madeline Brewer, Amanda Brugel