“You treat it like a job, an unpleasant job to gotten through as fast as possible.”
This is probably the hardest review I’ve written.
Watching a TV show can sometimes be a passive experience. As an audience, you can still engage with its plot and its characters, but as soon as the end credits appear, it’s back to reality. However, there are shows which achieve far more than that, shows which are profoundly moving that it affects you in extraordinary ways. The Handmaid’s Tale is a definite contender. It has never sugar coated or shied away from challenging subjects with its dystopian ugliness and realistic magnification of reality. There is no joy from this episode unless you count Emily’s (Alexis Bledel) commander going into cardiac arrest, followed by her stamping on his private parts. But with ‘The Last Ceremony’, The Handmaid’s Tale has made its strongest point to date and left this writer emotionally and physically broken. If you encountered the same reaction, then The Handmaid’s Tale has accomplished its aim.
Season two has been a deep dive execution of Margaret Atwood’s book and its panoramic accuracy of season one. Tales of torture, abuse (both psychological and physical) and subservience have been theocratic tools for obedience and control. But the one aspect that dominates this entire regime is rape. Not to take away the emotional significance behind it, but when The Handmaid’s Tale previously tackled ceremony days, it was the Gilead perspective and rationalisation of the practice as a monthly, mechanical operation with its forced cooperation that is devoid of human emotions for their beliefs on procreation. ‘The Last Ceremony’ might be treading on ground already covered and aspects we already know, but it significantly deconstructs and strips bare that ideology into a visceral, traumatising and sickening practice by restoring that emotion back into the equation. The devastating circumstance surrounding this episode is that we witness this through the eyes of Emily and June (Elisabeth Moss).
The idea of ‘detachment’ is not unfamiliar to readers of the book with Offred describing the ceremony as a “close your eyes and think of England” scenario. Atwood’s vivid description is recreated as part of ‘The Last Ceremony’. Jeremy Podeswa’s direction is a chilling representation of that ‘out of body’ experience with its muffled, male orgasmic sounds while a handmaid stares into nothingness, desensitised for its endurance. For Emily and June, it’s the uncomfortable close up of their suffering which left me in tears.
I could easily detach myself and write this objectively but I can’t. Some would argue if the show has gone too far, crossing the line between suffering and realism and entertainment. But The Handmaid’s Tale is not entertainment but more of a mirrored reflection of society. To deny the strong reaction I had with this episode, would not give this review the complete clarity it needs. It is utterly horrific what happens to June with its eerie resonance of the sexual assault accounts unearthed via the #MeToo movement. It’s the desolate emptiness you feel watching a character being violated, not only adding to the continual hypocrisy about Gilead but puts into perspective June’s siding with the enemy to ensure the safety of her child in ‘Smart Power’. But the worst emotional feeling to be had with ‘The Last Ceremony’ is that false sense of security and being led down a rabbit hole thinking June’s pregnancy was keeping her safe. There is no respite for a handmaid, reminding the audience once again how handmaids are walking soldiers of sexualised crimes, suffering in silence.
However heartbreaking ‘The Last Ceremony’ is, it makes a reflective point about society and the excuses made in an era of fake news, blame culture and ‘whataboutism’. Rape doesn’t escape that debate with ignorant commentary about what someone is wearing or their attitudes that somehow constitutes as a reason to blame the victim. But let’s make something clear; June did not deserve that – nobody does. Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) made an example of her, lured her into a honey trap that became less about their delusional reasoning to see “their” child, but more of a vile punishment after the humiliating false alarm birth.
This was a power play, pure and simple, re-establishing June’s place in the Waterford household. Fred’s violent sadism remains evident in his sham ceremony to make his rape act “legitimate” and whatever subsequent feelings we’ve had for Serena Joy in the past few episodes have all but evaporated. The paralleled circumstances between June and Emily only relay that no matter how it is dressed up, rationalised, who is involved or whether you hear the screams or not, rape is rape. It can happen to anyone as a repetitive subjugation of someone’s will where one can’t even begin to imagine the continued pain and distraught from real-life victims who suffer from this on a daily basis.
Granted how ‘The Last Ceremony’ is built upon a raw and emotional standpoint, Eden (Sydney Sweeney) almost seems irrelevant at this point. Eden’s side story is exactly that, a side story! Given how the naive, indoctrinated young girl has been living in a fantasy life about marriage and her role as a wife, her subsequent cheating and her discovery of Nick’s (Max Minghella) secret was predictably inevitable.
But in essence, Eden is still a child, placed in an isolating situation, trying to make sense of the world. In her defence, she learns fast. But the impact of children starts to come to the fold when Emily questions whether she is still a mother to her child after a long absence. The idea of forceful separation is frighteningly placed into context thanks to the reintroduction of Hannah (Jordana Blake). Bearing a similar resemblance to Trump’s recent zero-tolerance policy on child separation, The Handmaid’s Tale gift of prophecy re-emphasises the shocking current reality of parents never seeing their children again. Ten minutes is all June gets to explain to her child about abandonment, her pregnancy and the horrors of Gilead. Ten minutes to understand Hannah’s adoptive parents whilst gently grazing Hannah’s arms for wounds. Ten minutes before the guards take her away again, all done with uncomfortable false smiles and a tearful desperation that will break you.
Podeswa’s direction once again stands tall. With the help of Colin Watkinson’s cinematography, they administer a cinematic quality of impending doom that David Fincher would be proud of versus the juxtaposition of June’s traumatised mindset.
‘The Last Ceremony’ is a soul-destroying episode that epitomises horror, not as a monster or a ghost but the wickedness of humanity. Whatever happens next (especially if the episode’s title is taken literally), ‘The Last Ceremony’ was a significant breaking point by refusing to be ignorant by calling out Gilead for what it represents. Just like its bleak ending, Elisabeth Moss gives a brave, tour-de-force performance which will go down as a career-best and this bold and endearing show persistently asks the moral questions about the real world as a dangerous warning sign against the continued normalisation of such crimes.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 is now airing on Channel 4. Let us know what you think of it.