Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Handmaid's Tale, Season Two, Episode Ten: The Last Ceremony

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The Handmaid's Tale in written form is troubling and that much more disturbing in the visual format. Almost each episode has been a struggle to watch but this week, it feels as though it's reached a new level of torture. It walks right up the line of gratuitous sexual violence and then moves backward a millimeter. If that were not enough, it feels as though the writers must be psychic to be able to have June temporarily reunited with Hannah in the same week that the Trump administration decided to separate children from their parents. 

The Last Ceremony opens with Emily being forced into the monthly ceremony (read: Gilead's ritualised rape), as June's voice over explains how handmaids disassociate and go someplace else with their minds while the commander rapes them. It's a quiet form of violence because even though Emily isn't physically resisting, you can see from her demeanor and small movements that she wants to be anywhere but there and how revolted she is. As the commander groans and moans, clearly excited and enjoying what he is doing, Emily's silence is powerful and full of muted rage.  Once he climaxes, the Commander moves away and the keels over. The Commander's wife rushes to her husband's side and demands that Emily go and get help but Emily has been conditioned to put fertility above all else and points out that the chances of pregnancy are better if she lies on her back for awhile. The scared and frustrated wife rushes out of the room, leaving Emily alone with her rapist. Emily doesn't miss a beat before kicking the Commander as violently as she can and stomping on his genitals. It's almost cathartic but Emily's vengeance is only possible because the Commander has been incapacitated, though I must admit that I hope that she poisoned him. 

After watching Issac and Eden get their flirt on in the kitchen, it's time for June to go shopping.  As she moves through the market she pauses in pain.  When it happens a second time, Janine notices which begins Gilead's ridiculous birthing ritual. June is rushed back home by ambulance and escorted inside by Nick, as a jealous Eden stands abandoned by the gate. It's a stark reminder of just how alone Eden is and that June, who lives under the most horrible circumstances, at least has some kind of support. 

Serena actually lets down her hair and dons a white dress and prepares to perform a simulacrum of birth. Serena is told how much she deserves this moment and even begins doing the Lamaze breathing as though she is actually feeling a contraction. It's absolutely gross. In the kitchen, Rita is busy organising the food and the placement of the various flower arrangements. In his office, the Commander is surrounded by his colleagues to celebrate the birth of the child.  We meet Commander Horace, recently promoted for the first time as a reward for his wife's pregnancy.  It's worth noting that this is the first time we've seen a Black person rise to prominence in the Gilead and it took the ability to impregnate his own wife to make it possible. Commander Grinnell pulls Fred aside to question if Offred is any fun because he just might be in the market for a new handmaid and as we all know -- as soon as June has given birth -- she will be given the boot from the Waterford household. 

Aunt Lydia breaks up the wives gathering to inform Serena that there's a problem. It turns out that June isn't actually in labour, something the doctor confirms.  Serena demands a c-section but at this point, the doctor believes that it's best to try for a natural delivery. June sits like an earth mother on the bed gently touching her stomach and with a sarcastic smile delivers her apology to Serena. When Aunt Lydia suggests hot sauce to encourage labour, June is quick to question whether or not it would be good for the baby. Serena is absolutely seething at this point and as a parting shot informs June that not only will she be leaving the household, she will be leaving the district.

Leaving the Waterford household and the district means not being able to see the child she is currently carrying but it also means a chance to potentially see Hannah. June knows all to well that whatever she and Serena had managed to build during Fred's hospitalization ended the moment Fred forced her to watch him strap Serena and so her only option is to appeal to Fred for leniency. June's approach is meek at first as she asks if it is possible for her to be placed in Hannah's district when she is moved, promising to stay on the sidelines and not interact with the child. Fred is naturally doubtful that June could maintain this promise and doesn't actively become enraged until June questions whether or not it's in his power to to fulfill her request. Questioning Fred's power is June's misstep because as Fred has shown so forcefully, he is a weak man who only feels powerful when he is controlling and abusing women.  I'm of the firm belief that Fred feels emasculated by just how smart and capable Serena is when given a chance. June moves to leave the room but then turns and delivers a scathing rebuke of the Fred, “I shouldn’t have expected you to understand. You have no idea what it is like to have a child of your own flesh and blood — and you never will.” Fred may control every aspect of her life but no matter what lies he tells himself, that baby will never be his and now it's all out in the open.  It's a moment of triumph for June even though she was denied access to her daughter but as we know, in Gilead, a woman's triumph must be crushed in the cruelest fashion possible.

The next day, Fred seeks out Serena who is in her sad little greenhouse and the two are fit to be tied about June. Once again, rather than dealing with their toxic marriage and the horrible country they have created, these two are content to aim their dissatisfaction and rage at June. Serena's talk about encouraging a natural birth is ominous. 

That night, Nick stands outside smoking a cigarette watching Eden and Issac kiss, clearly not giving a damn. When Eden notices Nick, she pushes away from Issac and goes rushing inside to beg for Nick's forgiveness. Nick is absolutely nonchalant about the whole thing and tells Eden not to worry about. Eden again asks for forgiveness and begins to pray, causing Nick to tell her once again not to worry about. Nick's lack of concern is upsetting for Eden and she points out that what he witnessed was her first kiss. Eden questions why Nick doesn't care and points out that he never touches her. Eden's fear turns to rage and she accuses Nick of loving June but Nick is quick to deny it, adding that touching a handmaid would be suicide.  Eden is left no choice but to accept that Nick simply doesn't love her and she breaks down crying.  Nick doesn't touch Eden but asks her to stop crying, which only leads to her crying more loudly.

June is called into Serena's room and she is informed that they need to hurry the arrival of the baby and have decided to have one last ceremony.  June of course protests and argues that she is pregnant but the Waterfords are determined to follow through. June begs and pleads even as Serena holds her down and Fred unzips his pants.  For the first time in a long time, Fred and Serena are united - united in an unimaginable horror. This time, June simply cannot disassociate; she is present and she resists with everything that she has. The Waterfords seem shocked by June's reactions but Fred continues to rape June as the intimacy between the Waterfords seems to increase. Serena is once again a good Gilead wife because she is actively participating in the subjugation and abuse of a woman at the behest of a man. 

June is almost catatonic when Fred enters the room the next day; he's back to playing the role of concerned oppressor. Fred tells June that he has a surprise for her that he believes that she is going to like and kisses her gently on the forehead. June is led downstairs and Fred tells Nick to be certain to be back within three hours so that Serena doesn't find out. I was shocked by the comment given that a man who feels emboldened to beat a woman, shouldn't worry about her reaction to him deciding to attempt to make amends for being a rapist. 

On the drive to a remote area, Nick tries to find out what happened to June but June remains silent. They pull up to an isolated house and are greeted by another officer. June is informed that she has ten minutes. When June walks into the next room she sees her daughter and rushes to embrace her. It's been years since Hannah has seen her mother and so she pulls away scared by the sudden onslaught of attention.  June is informed by the Martha that Hannah has been renamed Agnes.  June knows that she doesn't have long as she make her approach more gentle. Slowly, Hannah becomes comfortable with her mother again and sad at her absence. Hannah is angry and she questions why Nick and June didn't try harder to find her.  June may be traumatised but she puts it all aside to mother Hannah and impart as much wisdom as quickly as she can before the soldier and the Martha insist that it's time to go. A dejected June sits in the hallway by herself but she cannot resist Hannah's cries for her and she rushes outside to comfort her daughter once more.  June calms Hannah and tells her that she has to be good and calm and then instructs her to take the hand of her Martha and get in the car. You can tell that this is absolutely killing June but at this point, this is the only thing that she can do, even though she knows that she will more than likely not see Hannah again. 

Hannah's car peels away and Nick does his best to comfort June. When Nick hears a car approaching, he instructs June to go back in the house and hide.  Nick tries to explain his presence as June watches from the window. Two soldiers shoot Nick, and drive away with him, leaving June stranded in what seems like the middle of nowhere.  A stunned June heads outside and looks around. 

I don't believe that the Eye showing up was at all coincidental given how quickly Hannah's Eye officer peeled out of the location. Something was up from the get go. There's also the issue that June confirmed to Fred that he isn't the father of the baby and that Nick is. Then we have the whole issue with Eden facing the reality that she is involved in a loveless marriage.  Eden could have reported Nick but my money is on the commander because he clearly has less invested in June's pregnancy than Serena does and he obviously has more power. Make no mistake about it, Nick is in a perilous position; however, if Fred did set up Nick as I suspect, he may have gotten in deeper than he realises because Nick has the goods on both Serena and Fred.  It's never smart to burn the person who knows where you buried the bodies.

From the moment Eden entered the house she was a dangerous person.  Eden has always been anxious to be a good Gilead wife but she is also young, naive and inexperienced.  The kiss between Eden and Issac also makes Issac a suspect in terms of setting up Nick. At this point, Eden could really go either way. Eden could rebel against Nick, her loveless marriage and the Gilead itself, or she could settle into her limited role, accepting what society has given her. No matter what happens to Nick, Eden is far from a settled issue.

The contrast between Emily's rape and June's rape is absolutely intentional.  What happens to Emily is just as violent though we don't see her resisting.  Rape has become commonplace in Gilead and women have to find a way to survive it but that doesn't mean they aren't screaming inside each time it happens. June's pregnancy has brought her a measure of security.  When all of the other handmaids were punished for refusing to stone Janine to death, June was spared because of the baby she carried. June's pregnancy meant that the ceremony stopped and even Serena stopped doling out the physical abuse.  June's pregnancy made her as safe from physical harm as a woman could possibly be in Gilead because all Gilead cares about is the fetus in the womb. Even Serena and Fred are shocked to some degree at June's resistance, even if they mean it as a form of punishment because they, like anyone else, have become used to handmaids submitting to the ritualistic rape. June may not be able to go where she wants, say what she wants or even read or write but for the past few months at least, her body is her own and now she simply cannot bring herself to disassociate.  

The scenes with Hannah were particularly difficult to watch.  We've been waiting a long time to see this reunion and it was that much more painful because it could only be temporary with both Hannah and June stuck in Gilead.  I love that June instantly went into maternal mode and did what Hannah needed in the moment to be okay.  June swallowed all of her fear and all of her pain and did her best to try and tell Hannah how to survive in the Gilead as a woman. Watching as Hannah was ripped away for a second time is yet another reminder of the depth of the depravity of the Gilead. They claim to care about babies and yet rip children out of the arms of their mother, surely causing irrevocable psychological harm. I would be remiss in pointing out that this scene probably hits doubly hard given the actions of the Trump administration in the last week. It's art mirroring reality reminding us of why The Handmaid's Tale is so compelling to watch. 

In a final thought, I have to mention Commander Horace. The one thing The Handmaid's Tale is short on is people of colour and something tells me that we won't be seeing Horace again.  At no time has the show bothered to address race, choosing instead to place fertility above white supremacy. I don't believe for a moment that members of the Gilead would be happy to raise a black baby. If there's something The Handmaid's Tale repeatedly falls down on, it's its treatment of race. It is further problematised by the fact that at least part of the horror is supposed to stem from the fact that the violence and oppression is being aimed at women like June, Emily and Janine. The Handmaid's Tale is quite literally aiming the historic oppression women of colour have been forced to live through upon white women and making them sympathetic victims. It's a problem and it seems that the writers are no closer to fix it.