What’s worse: Thinking that you had endured that awful thing for the last time, only to have to go through it again without any emotional preparation? Or unexpectedly getting to experience something truly wonderful, and then not knowing if it is the last time you’ll do so? The Handmaid’s Tale poses these wrenching questions as it heads into the final arc of season 2, something of a ticking clock based on June’s soon-to-be-born baby.
Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale 2×10 “The Last Ceremony”
First off—fuuuck, I hate it when I’m right about a plot point on this show. I was trying to parse out whose Last Ceremony it could possibly be, and at first it seemed as if that misfortune would fall upon poor Emily, who has already been through enough before having a Commander croak while inside her. But that would have been too easy, and when the Waterfords begin dropping hints to one another and talking around “the most natural way” to induce Offred’s labor… I wanted to nope right out of there. But instead, we watched as the Commander and his Wife lure their Handmaid into their bedroom, a space she was supposed to inhabit again only for the birth, forcibly hold her down, and rape her.
Of course, every Ceremony is a rape. But there’s something different about this one: Offred cries and pleads all the way through, instead of enduring it silently. She fights, too, or at least as much as she can thrash without worrying about harming the baby. Fred and Serena aren’t their usual selves, either: She looks on the verge of tears, maintaining eye contact with her husband in a desperate attempt to convince herself that they’re doing the right thing. He… oof. He is enjoying this far too much.
Let’s consider the events leading up to this Last Ceremony. Offred’s false labor is low-key humiliating for the Waterfords—after such a dramatic pregnancy, she makes fools of them right underneath their noses. Despite it being Braxton Hicks and out of her control, the smug way she looks at them makes clear that she is well aware of her power as a pregnant, untouchable Handmaid. Holding her swollen stomach while Serena stands there in her pitiful matching white gown, June even seems to enjoy having the upper hand, to yet again be the only person who truly knows what this baby is up to because it is her flesh and blood, neither of theirs.
Obviously Serena knows this, but I’ve been unclear all season as to how aware Fred is that he is [Maury voice] NOT THE FATHER. If I remember correctly, Serena had alluded to it last season or earlier in this one, when Offred had escaped during her first trimester; but I don’t think Fred truly believed it until a furious Offred stared him in the eye and said it. This after she begs him to relocate her to Hannah’s district; it is the only concession she asks for, knowing she will be severed from her second baby. Instead, his response is that “I’ve been too lenient with you, too indulgent… I’ve spoiled you.”
So, the Waterfords are in agreement: They must put their Handmaid in her place. It is an awful, ugly sequence to watch these two restrain and violate a body just because it isn’t under their control. But the worst part is how clearly Fred enjoys reasserting his dominance over Offred, how this is the most animated he’s ever been during a Ceremony because he’s actually getting off on it as opposed to treating it like a duty. This has to be illegal in Gilead, right? Pregnant Handmaids are supposed to be holy vessels; I can’t imagine that Aunt Lydia would rest easy knowing that this baby was brought about by force.
At any rate, the damage is (supposedly) done… and this is when Fred decides to be indulgent, because it’s on his own terms. He arranges for June to see Hannah, in secret and all-too-briefly, out on the fringes of Gilead. A lot of this seemed either fishy or downright cruel: He gives her and Nick a window of several hours (before Serena will notice), but it takes so long to drive out to the meeting spot, an abandoned mansion, that they get only ten minutes together? After Serena was able to do a drive-by of Hannah’s actual home last season and drop in on her as if it were no big deal? If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that this was some sort of setup.
Ohh, my heart broke for June watching this reunion. It was only slightly less awful than last season, when she was locked in the damn car, pounding on the window, sobbing. Because I was ready for Hannah—a.k.a. Agnes—to either have forgotten June entirely, or to waste the precious ten minutes being angry. Which she would be justified in! A child will not receive a satisfying answer to “Did you try to find me? Why didn’t you try harder?” because what could June even say that would justify her powerlessness without communicating the full extent of Gilead’s horror to her poor daughter? At least Hannah is young enough to be (mostly) protected. What I was most worried about was that Hannah would register her mother as being pregnant and assume that she had been entirely replaced. But thankfully, they get to reconcile and hold each other for as long as their scant time allows.
All too soon, the Guardians in charge of this secret reunion are dragging Hannah and her Martha away, back to their district. And this is where the notion of “the last time doing something” hit the hardest. It was one thing for June to react to the unexpected Ceremony and retreat into whatever protective space she could. Here, she has no idea if this will be the last time she lays eyes on her daughter. Could this encounter make Hannah’s life that much worse, knowing that her mother is out there alive opening up the old wound, with no guarantee that she’ll be able to achieve closure? But when Hannah asks if she’ll ever see her again, June smiles bravely and says, “I’m gonna try.” It is a woefully inadequate answer, but it’s more truthful than a blanket “yes” or “no.”
But then, a wrinkle in the plan: Another van of Guardians arrives. Nick tells June to hide in the house, which means she can only watch as he attempts to lie, only to get knocked out and dragged away, along with any means of getting (the hour or more drive) back to Gilead. I keep flashing back to Fred putting her in the car and whispering how “You deserve this.” His creepy forehead kiss makes it seem like this is some gift, some favor, for enduring the Ceremony; but maybe it’s even more comeuppance. I have to imagine that Fred is not so stupid as to intentionally danger June, but now that he knows the baby’s not his, he may be less attached to it.
Nick getting kidnapped by Guardians will also provide an interesting dilemma for Eden if he is not automatically returned to the Waterford household. Her flirtation with Isaac the Guardian came to a head this week when he
tastes that sweet custard kisses her in the moonlight all Romeo and Juliet-like. Actually, she kisses him, out of curiosity and desire and feeling completely ignored and rejected by her husband. I appreciated that Isaac’s hesitation hearkened back to the book’s depiction of Guardians—cautious virgins who know that to court any woman not given to them means death, yet cannot help ogling them anyway—and that this is all about Eden’s pain. As much as I’m still suspicious of her motives, my heart goes out to a girl whose husband has fucked her but hasn’t even kissed her.
Though she immediately regretted it when Nick saw her—and didn’t bat an eye, jeez—perhaps his lack of jealousy will make her hesitant to demand his return from wherever he’s been taken. Then again, a husband-less Wife can’t do much for a household like the Waterfords’.
For the moment, Eden’s fate is the least of our worries, since she’s not stuck in an empty house, in the middle of the snowy woods, apparently facing off against a wolf next week. Go with God, June.
- Oh, the irony of the Babymobile/ambulance delivering a Handmaid not to Gilead’s shiny dystopian hospitals, but to their homes for the birth. June has never mentioned if she’s frightened of giving birth not in a hospital, but now she faces a truly harrowing labor.
- Both Emily and June got little moments to snark at their Wives: Emily about lying on her back post-Ceremony instead of calling 911, and the long-suffering look on June’s face as Serena cooed Bible verses to her fetus.
- So there are Wives who can conceive—or rather, Commanders who can fertilize. Interesting. Was the subtext that Horace was promoted up from being an Econoperson?
- Fred sending June off on her playdate with “You deserve this” exactly mirrors what the other Wives say to Serena during the labor.
- Again with the oof-worthy timing of June being briefly reunited with Hannah, only to have her pulled out of her arms, this week.
- Not sure how I feel about next week being a survival-story episode, though I guess they were starting to run out of threats from other people and had to turn to the elements. Just like poor Moira, June has the bad luck to be stuck outside in the winter.