With many apologies for the lateness of the final few reviews of The Handmaid’s Tale, here is my review for “The Last Ceremony” which was directed by Jeremy Podeswa with the teleplay by Yahlin Chang whose other credits include Supergirl, Dirty, Sexy Money, and ER. Emotions run high throughout this episode. Elisabeth Moss is simply magnificent. There’s just no question in my mind that she deserves a second Emmy for her work this season. I like the play on the title throughout the episode. It seems like the last ceremony that June will have in the Waterford household will be the rituals surrounding the birth of the baby. We see Emily (Alexis Bledel) subjected to a ceremony – that turns out to be her last in that household – and then June is brutally raped by Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) is what will be her last ceremony with them (we hope).
The two rape scenes are mirror images and echoes of each other. June’s voice is heard over both, describing how the handmaid’s treat the ceremonial rape as a job – an unpleasant job to be gotten through as quickly as possible. Kissing is forbidden – because that would make the whole thing too personal. Emily’s rape almost seems like a job because Commander Roy (Lawrence Cotton) and his wife (Sally Cahill) are so calm and dispassionate about the entire event.
June tells us that you pretend not to be present – you leave your body. And that’s exactly what abuse victims do – and what often results in multiple personality disorder after being subjected to violence. Watching the Commander climax is quite disgusting and reminded me of a pig – so kudos on Cotton for a great performance! I can’t say I felt sorry for him in the least when he had a heart attack and died. I also loved the wife trying to get Emily to run for help and Emily telling her – quite as dispassionately – that she’ll have a better chance of conceiving if she lays still on her back! But perhaps the best part of this scene is Emily immediately getting up after the wife runs for help and kicking Roy in the side – and then stomping right on his penis!!!
At the market, June is concerned about Emily. Eden (Sydney Sweeney) is there, prattling on about what she’s going to make for dessert. June is utterly indifferent, but Isaac (Rohan Mead) leans right in and says it sounds good. What teenage girl isn’t flattered by the attention of a boy?
June is concerned about Emily and asks if she’s ok. Janine (Madeline Brewer) jumps right in to say Emily is getting a new posting. June quickly sees that Emily is losing home and tries to give her some by telling her that Moira (Samira Wiley) made it to Canada. She reminds Emily of her son, promising she’ll see him again, but Emily is convinced that she’s no longer his mother – is it because it’s been so long that she’s sure he’s forgotten her or that she isn’t worthy anymore because of what she’s done? Regardless, June finally gets angry and points out that at least Emily’s child is free in Canada with her spouse – and then June goes into labour – or so we think…
Back at the Waterford’s everyone is running toward their house as June is brought home in a van. Nick (Max Minghella) is waiting to help her off, and the two share a smile. He gently helps her all the way up to the house – as Eden watches, clearly disturbed, from the van.
Serena meets June on the steps and ignores her completely; sinking to her knees with her hands on June’s stomach, Serena prays to the baby. She finally stands and says to June, “We did it, Offred. This is the will of God.” June counters with “No one knows the things of God.”
And I love how these words play out to the end of the season. Serena here considers June a co-conspirator in the creation of her child – as if June actually had any agency in deciding her own role. Serena thinks that the baby is for her alone – that this is her reward for all her sacrifice, yet it’s the baby who will truly make Serena see what she has wrought and will make her and June real allies.
June is back in the master bedroom and comforts herself with thinking that it’s the last time she’ll have to be in that bed – how wrong she is. We get a beautiful moment of June having a last happy moment alone with her baby before Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) and the rest of the handmaids come flooding in. Emily and June share a knowing look as Aunt Lydia puts June to bed – whether she wants to be there or not. Once the baby comes, June will be back in the same position as Emily – a new posting and a new rapist.
Rita (Amanda Brugel) clearly enjoys directing all the other Marthas as they bustle about the house.
The men gather in the study, and even here the dynamics are interesting. We learn the Putnam’s baby has continued to thrive and put on some weight. We’re also introduced to Commander Horace (Adrian Walters) who was promoted after his wife got pregnant. Will status be tied to the fertility of the couple in future? Does this put Fred at a disadvantage? And would this be a way for Nick to move up the ranks? Meanwhile, Commander Grinnell (Chris Gillett) hints that he would like to take June for his handmaid – as the one he has is “near her expiration date” – once again treating the handmaids no better than any possession, like a carton of milk. Nick looks on, clearly disgusted.
Serena, meanwhile, is having the time of her life. She’s the center of attention, and her baby is on its way – with no labor pains! The wives helping Serena breathe through her “labor” is utterly ridiculous. Suddenly, Aunt Lydia interrupts them – and Serena is furious.
Everyone heads to the bedroom, where June is sitting – very regally! – looking smug and with her hands possessively on her belly. She’s not giving that baby up just yet – it was false labor. Aunt Lydia is not sympathetic to Serena and suggests that she time the contractions first next time. June tells Serena that she’s sorry – and is clearly NOT sorry, while Emily smirks in the background. Meanwhile, Rita tells Nick – who is pleased to burst Fred’s bubble.
While there are certainly other contenders for the Best Actress Emmy – I have a soft spot for Sandra Oh – I still have no trouble rooting for Elisabeth Moss. When it comes to the Supporting Actress category, I am really torn between Strahovski, Dowd, and Bledel – especially in these last few episodes, but I think I have to give the nod to Strahovski whose character undergoes such a dramatic development arc.
Serena is rabid that the Doctor (Kristian Bruun) induce June, but the doctor advises against it due to the earlier problems with bleeding. Aunt Lydia also resists any talk of inducing or caesarians. Let’s not forget her nephew and godson. She advises “the natural way” such as vigorous walks, mango tea or a spicy tea that she knows. June somewhat seals her own fate by continuing to taunt Serena, asking Aunt Lydia how spicy because heartburn isn’t good for the baby. This actually makes Aunt Lydia placate Serena a bit by insisting that the pregnancy will end soon. And then Serena gets some of her own back – June will then be going to a new posting – in a new District. June will be taken from her friends presumably. But June isn’t done either and says, “It’s been lovely, but it’s probably best if we don’t ever see each other again.” There’s no question that the two women simply hate each other. Aunt Lydia just shakes her head at June.
June, however, isn’t worried about being sent away from her friends, instead seeing an opportunity. She goes to Fred and tells him that Serena wants to send her to a new District. She points out that he’s going to be a father soon, and she needs his help. She tells him that she’s already lost one child and is about to lose another – he could make it easier if she could be posted to Hannah’s (Jordana Blake) district. June almost has him until she oversteps by suggesting that such a move might not be within his power. Fred quickly loses any sympathy he might have had and tells her that he’s been too lenient with her and orders her to get out of his office.
June is devastated. She turns to walk out of his office, but then turns back. She tells him she shouldn’t have expected him to understand what it’s like to have a child of your own flesh and blood – and then she drops the hammer – “And you never will.” Confirming that Fred is not the father. It’s another tiny victory for June that will shortly end in an horrific defeat.
Fred goes to Serena in the greenhouse. Serena tells Fred that she thinks June really enjoyed the false labor. Fred agrees that June has forgotten her place. Fred suggests that the baby might come out sooner… and Serena agrees that the best way is the most natural way. And yes. Sex will encourage labor…
Once again, alone in her room, June talks to the baby, telling her that she is her mother and loves her and always will. Rita interrupts her to say that Serena wants to see her. As she leaves, Rita tells June that she’ll tell the baby about her.
Serena is sitting on the bed and asks June to join her. June sits on the end of the bed, and when Fred comes in and shuts the door, Serena tells June that they need to help the baby come out naturally. It’s all about the baby for Serena, but Fred enjoys the rape way too much. It’s one of the most horrific scenes on television as Serena helps her husband rape another woman in the name of getting “her” baby more quickly. Moss is fantastic in this scene, and the voiceover helps us see how June pulls herself as far from the situation as she’s able. Afterwards, Serena does look like she regrets having done it and leaves the room quickly. Even Fred as he looks back as he leaves the room looks a little guilty. I have enjoyed how the show has shown this season how people get caught up in what they are doing and it slowly makes them do things that they would never have thought about – and that what they thought was the greater good inevitably, really leads them to a greater evil, almost forcing their hands. Yet in the midst of all this, we see people willing to risk everything not to give in.
Meanwhile, Nick is playing with his lighter and watching the window of June’s room – playing with a fire that won’t, in the end, burn him. Nick goes out to the balcony to have a cigarette and sees as Eden and Isaac come out into the garden from the kitchen and share a kiss. When Eden sees Nick, she runs back to the apartment and throws herself on her knees, begging his forgiveness. But she needn’t have bothered because Nick doesn’t care. Eden is even more distraught that he doesn’t care. She’s not stupid and she says “it’s the handmaid” – exactly what June warned him about. He denies it, saying it would be suicide to get involved with a handmaid. She does believe him, but that’s worse – he just doesn’t love her. Nick doesn’t deny that, instead apologizing. He asks her not to cry, and Eden immediately tries to smother her sobbing. Clearly, she’s never been allowed to express herself before. She knows what her duties are as a wife – they’re all she really has.
The next morning, June is dressed and lying on the bed. Fred comes in and tells her that he has a surprise for her that he thinks she’ll like. Is it his way of assuaging his guilt or is he worried that she will tell Aunt Lydia what happened? Fred gives Nick a note and tells him to be back in three hours – before Serena notices. He tells June that she “deserves this” – because she now knows her place again? In the car, June is too shut off to even speak to Nick.
The two end up at a huge estate house in the middle of nowhere. Nick gently helps June to the door. Inside, another guardian (Andrew Zachar) appears and tells them “10 minutes.” June walks into a room and there is Hannah! June rushes up to her crying and hugs her. Hannah is a bit freaked out and hides behind her Martha (Paula Boudreau). She comforts her and reminds her that they’d talked about who Hannah would see there. The Martha tells June that Hannah’s name is now Agnes.
June apologies to Hannah for being scary but explains she was just so happy to see her. She asks if Hannah remembers her. And Hannah’s initial silence is devastating. Wouldn’t that be one of the biggest fears for a mother – that their children would forget them? Finally, Hannah asks if it hurt – and it’s clear that she’s remembering them being attacked and separated in the woods. Hannah wants an explanation for why June left her. As a child, she would have no concept of how little control or agency that June had or has. June tells her that it’s ok to be mad at her. Hannah tells June that it’s ok because she has new parents now – and isn’t that also devastating – to be replaced.
But June has no problem putting Hannah’s safety and happiness ahead of her own. She asks if they are nice to her – or punish her. Hannah tells her only when she’s bad – and the Martha quickly clarifies that Hannah has only ever been punished twice. It’s clear that she, at least, has sympathy for what June is going through – and also clearly cares about and for Hannah.
Hannah then notices that June is having a baby. Is she worried that she’s being replaced? But she knows that June won’t be allowed to keep it either. June tells her that Hannah was first and will always be her baby. The Guard breaks in to say time to go. June begs for more time. June tells Hannah that she will always be her mommy and that Hannah’s mommy and daddy will always love her. She tells her to enjoy her life and to love her parents. She tells her that she needs Hannah to keep herself safe. To the Martha she says to keep Hannah safe and lover her for her. Hannah asks if she’ll ever see June again, and June promises to try. This time, Hannah is also distraught when she is pulled away.
Nick tries to hold June back, but she rushes up to hug Hannah again. She comforts her and tells her that it’s ok. She needs Hannah to be brave. She tells her to take her Martha’s hand and go home. We see the devastation on Moss’s face as she hugs Hannah, but then as June pulls back, she smiles and tells Hannah that she loves her, encouraging her to go. June remains kneeling in the snow, sobbing, as the car pulls away. Nick pulls her up into a hug and comforts her.
When another car turns up, Nick hustles June back into the house and tells her to hide. He goes out and tells the two guardians that he’s just there checking the house for the Commander. They clearly don’t believe him, there’s a scuffle, and they shove Nick into their car and drive off with his car too! June is left all alone!
Once again, the episode ends with beautiful cinematography and a crane shot as we see the red of June’s cloak against the white snow. This was such a powerful episode with terrific performances by all the women. I very much liked how they took us back to the ceremony and really underscored that this was rape – each and every time. It’s too easy to allow ourselves to simply take ourselves “away” and distance ourselves from the horrors around us. To forget what some women are perpetrating at the expense of other women in the name of the “greater good.” And now it’s on to the next episode! Be sure to let me know your thoughts in the comments below! If the Emmys were being decided on this episode, who would win? Were the rape scenes shocking for you too?