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The Handmaid’s Tale goes darker than usual in another unexpectedly timely episode

Somehow, the biggest issue of the past several days has found itself into an episode produced months ago.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Is June about to give birth? Well, there are a few episodes left this season ...

Every week, a few members of the Vox Culture team gather to talk out the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and staff writer Constance Grady discuss “The Last Ceremony,” the 10th episode of the second season.

Todd VanDerWerff: June has been in the background of this season of The Handmaid’s Tale. She hasn’t disappeared — we’ve still seen most of its events filtered through her eyes. But the story’s center has shifted to other characters.

There have been good reasons for this, ones that we’ve delved into in recent weeks, like the need to build up the supporting characters and the fact that June’s story doesn’t have a lot of territory left to explore in its current setup. But an unfortunate consequence of that choice is how it back-burnered a lot of the horror of Gilead throughout the season’s mid-section. This is a country built around state-sanctioned, ritualized rape. The show didn’t lose sight of that entirely, but it became easier to ignore, became slightly easier to think of Gilead as just another TV setting, albeit one where men married teenagers they had just met.

Both “Smart Power” and especially “The Last Ceremony” seem designed to correct this trend, first by having Serena Joy and the Commander be confronted with the international opinion of Gilead, then by refocusing the story on June all at once.

“The Last Ceremony” is the most June-heavy episode since “Baggage” (the season’s third) and maybe since the early parts of the first season. And it’s as dark, despairing, and impossibly timely as those episodes.

This is another stunningly, accidentally timely episode of the show

The Handmaid’s Tale
Not that Hulu’s press photos want to give you a look at that scene.

Todd: It’s the timeliness that feels most pressing here. Somehow, entirely through coincidence, the back half of this episode is mostly about child separation, as June gets the chance to meet with Hannah for the first time in ... it has to be years by now. The scene plays a little expeditiously for my tastes. Hannah goes from being angry at her mother for not finding her to being sad she might never see her again very quickly, but the episode does just enough to make this feel real, as though Hannah (dubbed Agnes by her new parents) is suddenly realizing, all at once, what kind of world she’s been born into. It’s gutting.

But so is the scene where the two are dragged away from each other by agents of the state, Hannah calling out for June and June knowing that the only way to protect her daughter is to let this happen. Director Jeremy Podeswa even manages this shift cinematically. The early portions of this scene snap into the wide-lens close-ups that dominated season one, immediately recontextualizing this once again as June’s story, rather than utilizing the wider shots that have dominated season two.

Then June realizes she’s not going to be able to save Hannah, and the camera woozily sways backward from her, resituating her in a mid-shot. She has to protect her child by giving Hannah up. This always would have been hard to watch, but this week of all weeks ...

I am focusing on this part of the episode both because it plays so eerily on a week when this very topic is dominating headlines and because I’m always interested in stories about children being raised by people other than their biological parents. I do feel some of the same concern I felt at the Emily storyline earlier this season that this story that largely befalls Latinx folks in our reality is being shifted to white people — but I also understand how so much of the power (and problems) of this show is shifting things that “could never happen here” onto kindly white faces.

Of course, I’m ignoring half the episode to do this, and that first half of the episode ... Constance, how did you feel about the show reminding us so thoroughly that Gilead is a terrible place?

Constance: I don’t think you’re wrong, Todd, to be concerned that this show has been working with a lot of issues that are currently affecting Latinx people and effectively saying, “But what if this were happening to nice white ladies, though? Wouldn’t that be really bad?” (It’s worth noting here that Alexis Bledel is of Argentinian and Mexican descent and identifies as Latina, albeit a Latina who mostly plays WASPs.) And for all that time Bruce Miller and team spent the hiatus between seasons one and two assuring critics that this season of The Handmaid’s Tale would deal more with questions of race than season one did, that promised plotline hasn’t really materialized in the back half of the season.

But as lacking as Handmaid’s Tale’s engagement with race is, the show really has found new ways to remind us all of how horrific Gilead is in its latest episodes. What impressed me most about this episode was the way it turned what could have been a major disadvantage in the quest to make Gilead ever more unsettling into an advantage; namely, how familiar we are with everything now.

We know the Waterfords. We are used to them and their cult-like speech patterns. We are even used to the awkward creepiness of the ceremonial rape scenes. So the depersonalized, bureaucratized nightmarescape of the first season won’t quite land anymore.

And all of that is why the “Last Ceremony” of the episode’s title feels so brutal — because it is no longer depersonalized. It is a personal, intimate, vicious act of violence. And it is performed specifically to punish June, not just for the general sin of having a woman’s body and violating Gilead’s sexual purity laws, but for the specific crime of smirking at Serena and trying to manipulate Fred.

It’s that rape, combined with June’s wrenching reunion with Hannah, that makes the full force of Gilead’s horror felt in a way that it can’t be felt most episodes.

But that’s not the only rape scene we saw this week. The episode also opened with Emily’s current Commander collapsing just after coitus, and Emily getting in a few good kicks to his prone body. Do you think Emily had something to do with his collapse, Todd? Any chance she’s going after the Commanders of Gilead the way she went after Marisa Tomei?

How Eden has made Nick the most interesting he’s ever been

The Handmaid’s Tale
That’s what Aunt Lydia is asking June.

Todd: That’s an interesting theory, and I wouldn’t be surprised by it being the case. After building up Emily into a co-protagonist throughout much of the first half of the season, she’s receded a lot in the most recent episodes. Turning her into a conduit between Handmaids and whatever form the Resistance takes would be a smart move (even if it’s one I keep expecting the show to make with June).

You’re also not underselling the horror and brutality of the rape scene, which is only made more potent by how we’ve gotten to know the Waterfords (particularly Serena) so much more this season. They’re still bad people, but we understand them better, which makes us look for tiny flaws in their armor, places where we might better empathize with them.

The more we get to know Serena, the harder scenes like this can hit. She might be briefly tempted by offers to join the Resistance — but the temptation will only ever be brief.

I have been thinking about race as it pertains to this season more and more, especially recalling Miller’s promise to talk about it more thoughtfully this season. Maybe that will happen — maybe episode 11 is a gigantic flashback to Moira’s life or something — but even if there’s a full hour dedicated to the topic, it’s still going to feel like a punt.

But I’ve actually often felt that way about Margaret Atwood’s novel, which posits a genocide that happens off-page, then situates a bunch of things that predominantly affect people of color around the world on a group of white women. That is part of what makes the novel — which in the ’80s even more than now would have been published by an industry presuming a predominantly white readership — effective, since it visits atrocities that are usually obscured to North Americans by happening overseas upon those very North Americans, but it has never felt like an organic part of Gilead to me.

Yes, the white evangelical church is filled with a structural racism, but what’s crucial, to me, is that that structural racism is typically aimed at making so many people who come from different cultures into white American Christians (see also: The Child Catchers). By avoiding the specific trappings of overt racism, these churches can adopt a tone of moral superiority that neglects all of the ways they support systemic racism.

In its own lackadaisical way, The Handmaid’s Tale is doing this in its TV version. It’s a bit jarring to see, say, the Commander talking to a fellow Commander who is black, but this is often what happens within these organizations. People who are not white are more than welcome in leadership positions, so long as they don’t disrupt the white status quo. And throughout season two of Handmaid’s, we’ve seen more of this, even if I wish the show would be even a little bit more overt in talking about it.

This is, of course, not true of every white evangelical church, and there are some that are overtly racist. But the kind of church that might give rise to Gilead has always been far more obsessed with issues of sexuality and the idea that to live a virtuous life is to live a life that looks like a ’50s sitcom. I’m interested to see if the series can untangle this particular knot in a way that acknowledges its racist implications. Season two hasn’t, not really, but I get the sense the show is more aware of what it’s doing — if that makes sense.

That said, this was probably my favorite Nick episode ... ever? I kind of loved the way he smoked his cigarette while watching his wife make out with another man, then flicked it aside, like, “Eh, whatever.”

Constance: Oh man, Eden really has made Nick exponentially more interesting. Every so often, out of the blue, I’ll think of that exchange a few weeks ago when Eden wanted Nick’s approval on something, and he just bit out, “Mmm-hmm,” with barely concealed disdain, and it never fails to make me cackle. What’s so compelling about his plot this season is the combination of disgust, annoyance, guilt, and fear you can see on his face every time he looks at Eden — it goes a long way toward granting him some of the psychological complexity we can see in the rest of the Waterford household and which heretofore has been lacking.

Eden’s also a ticking time bomb of a character, profoundly discontented with her life and situation, and who could blame her for it? I am very interested to see what it will look like when she goes off: It strikes me as equally plausible that she could turn Nick into the Eye for impure thoughts or that she could decide to join the Resistance and become a freedom fighter. She is young and uneducated and unhappy, and all of that is a recipe for a volatile character.

Plotwise, we’re left in a pretty auspicious place for Eden to blow up. Nick has been taken into custody by the Eye, and June is abandoned in the middle of nowhere on the brink of labor. Shit is getting real, in other words, and the additional complication of Eden will only make it realer.

Todd: Absolutely. This whole season has been a really satisfying slow burn for me, but now, everything is turning up slowly but surely. This isn’t a show that really does cliffhangers. But June being left at some elaborate country estate, while Nick is dragged off by the state and everything at the Waterford house is going to hell, makes for a compelling “next week on” tease even before we get the actual one. Where is all of this going? At this point, I don’t really dare predict, except to say that it can’t be good.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alexis Bledel was born in Argentina. Bledel’s father was born in Argentina, but Bledel was born in Houston. We regret the error.