By David Canfield
June 20, 2018 at 01:36 PM EDT
The Last Ceremony
Credit: George Kraychyk/Hulu

This is the kind of Handmaid’s Tale episode that’s difficult to evaluate — one that’s undeniably, dreadfully effective at conveying a special kind of horror, that’s so disturbing and wrenching it can be a real challenge to watch in a single sitting. That “The Last Ceremony” also ended with some pretty shockingly direct parallels to an actual, ongoing national crisis — that of the forced separation between parents and children — may have been why, for this recapper anyway, the episode was at times a little too much to take.

The episode begins, forebodingly, on the image of Emily as she prepares for her own household’s “ceremony.” It plays out in cruelly routine fashion, with June narrating Emily’s experience of disassociation, right through to her commander’s orgasm. But the scene then takes a turn: He passes out, and dies there on the spot. Once the wife finally leaves the room, Emily gets up to let the man know what she thought of him: She kicks his unconscious body, hard. Later, in the market, the handmaids are gossiping about what happened to the man, exactly; the rumors are comically off, but Emily can barely bother to listen. She’s still so defeated. “What the f— is wrong with you?” June asks her, after gushing that Moira made it to Canada. Emily barely musters a response. But the interaction is cut short: June begins feeling contractions, meaning it seems that the baby is on the way. “Praise be. It’s time.”

Nick tenderly walks her from the ambulance into the Waterford home, with Eden looking on suspiciously, noticing the intimacy between the two. June’s left in the master bedroom once more alone, and quips to herself, “At least this is the last time I’ll have to get in that f—ing bed.” She rubs her stomach lovingly, just as Aunt Lydia leads the district’s many handmaids in “single-file,” to prepare for the birthing ritual. Indeed everyone, in this moment, is even more segmented than usual: Fred smoking cigars with men in his study; the Marthas preparing food and decorations; the wives crowding Serena Joy as she prepares; and of course the handmaids, left to support June. Suddenly, however, Lydia calls Serena into the bedroom — and informs her it’s a false labor. June can only smirk upon the sight of Serena, satisfied by her disappointment: “I’m sorry, Mrs. Waterford.”

If only it were really a win for June. In reality, the false alarm bolsters Serena’s burning desire to have the baby in her arms and June out of her life. She all but demands that the baby be induced immediately, but the doctor informs her and Lydia that the baby isn’t coming anytime soon — and that inducing would need to wait a week or two. Serena accepts the news, at least temporarily, with one added caveat: When June has the baby, she not only must leave the house, but the entire district. June, still grinning, says it’s for the best. And she views it as potentially advantageous: She goes down to see Fred later in the night, to beg him to help her move into the district where Hannah lives. Fred is outraged and banishes her. June gets one line in there that stings: “I shouldn’t have expected you to understand,” she tells him on her way out. “You have no idea what it is like to have a child of your own flesh and blood. And you never will.”

It’s fascinating the way both Serena and Fred lash out most viciously when June asks for their decency, for a good deed — to be treated as human. It’s what always sets them off, particularly when it comes to requests about Hannah. Here, though, they take it further than they ever have before — beyond monstrous, closer to evil. (Note: When the screener of this episode was sent to the press, it included a content warning, likely because of the following scene.) The couple that’s been barely communicating hatches a truly grotesque plan to rape June in order to accelerate the pregnancy. They call it “the most natural way.” In reality, it requires Serena forcibly holding June down as she squirms and screams, echoes of “no” and stop” turning overwhelming as Fred initiates. In a show full of them, it’s one of the most uncomfortable and brutal scenes to date. June’s monologue from the episode’s opener, about disassociating during the ceremony, creeps back in, and by the end of the scene, we see her virtually out of her body, expressionless on the bed alone. The camera stays on her for nearly a minute, in the agonizing stillness. (Recap continues on Page 2)

Elisabeth Moss hasn’t had quite as much to do as she did in Handmaid’s season 1, but this episode is a tour-de-force for her. Her work through June’s assault is sensitive but unyielding, and the way the voiceover matches her facial expressions is a sight to behold. And even that doesn’t mark her finest work in “The Last Ceremony.” That’d come next, when Fred offers her a “reward” for what he just put her through: a chance to see Hannah.

Fred orders Nick to drive her to a remote country estate, undetected, and when they arrive they see Hannah with a Martha. June had been completely silent on the drive over, grappling with the immediate trauma, but she’s brought back to life by the moment she’s been waiting for since the series began. Hannah, at first, is disarmed by June’s affection; she remembers her clearly, but can’t comprehend what’s going on exactly — why her mother is here after all this time. Slowly they find their way back to one another. Hannah asks about what happened when they were forcibly separated — a scene from the pilot that, again, takes on a whole new resonance in our current political context — and then asks whether she tried to find her. June assures her daughter how hard she fought; Hannah lets a little of her anger out, saying quietly, “You should have tried harder.” She says, “I have new parents now,” but June handles their reunion beautifully: You feel the intense love between them healing, question by question, answer by answer. And by the time one of the guards says “time to go,” Hannah is left to relive the trauma of losing her mother all over again.

I’m not sure it’s even a compliment to say that this very long scene is handled superbly — not one of Hannah’s reactions, nor the way her interaction with her mother evolves, rings a false note. It is devastatingly human, and Moss is just stunningly raw. But the elongated sequence of Hannah crying as she’s taken away from her mother, only for June to hug her one more time, is almost too much to take — for anyone who’s viewed the pictures, listened to the recordings, seen the numbers, it hits very close to home, even as the situations are distinct. Of course, this episode was produced months ago; that kind of impact is out of the production team’s hands. But goodness is it difficult to sit through.

In any case: We’re left with a different kind of horror to close things out. Earlier in the episode, Nick had caught Eden cheating with Isaac, the guard who temporarily watched over the Waterford home last episode, via a kiss, and absolutely broke her heart when he couldn’t bother to even feign concern. (She’s also aware, implicitly, of his feelings for June.) And as the episode closes, June and Nick alone in this secluded home, he’s taken away by the Eye — told by guards no one was supposed to be at this home, that he’s trespassing. He’s thrown into a truck and driven off. The episode’s final shot is thus a close-up of June, quivering, alone in a snowstorm at a place she apparently shouldn’t be — on the verge of giving birth, reeling from an assault, and having just seen her daughter again, only to have her taken away again. There are lots of intriguing plot threads left dangling by the time we cut to black. But all I could think was: Can this show get any darker?

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