Today I asked a group of my coworkers if they had tapped out of The Handmaid’s Tale. One had heard about the general devastation of Emmy-award winner and never even started it. Half of the remaining group had dropped the series long ago, too affected by the Hulu drama’s darkness to soldier on. After Wednesday’s latest episode, “The Last Ceremony,” I am thankful those women, who were already deeply upset by the constant ritualised rape, which Gilead attempts to sanitise with Bible passages and protocol, left the Handmaid’s world when they did. Because, “The Last Ceremony” gave us Handmaid’s Tale’s most brutal hour yet.
After a few weeks of “Nice” Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski), who allowed former book editor June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) to read and smile and act like a human person while Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) was hospitalised, we were all reminded that Serena Joy is not nice. Serena and Fred are monsters, and “Last Ceremony’s” horrific, haunting rape scene proves it.
The tragedy of The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 grows out of one simple fact: Serena is jealous of June’s pregnancy. Serena’s jealousy has taken on different bizarre symptoms throughout the season, from her crawling into bed with a pregnant June in “Other Women” to her swearing she is expecting a baby in “Smart Power.” It seems the response to the latter delusion — “That’s not your child,” American agent Mark Tuello (Sam Jaeger) tells Serena — is what is blaring in her mind when she resumes life in Gilead during “Last Ceremony.” Serena knows the baby June is carrying isn’t hers, but she will do anything at all, no matter how vile, to keep it.
“All the days will be challenging until the baby arrives,” Serena tells Fred after June goes into false labor. You can feel the violent desperation seeping out of her pores.
That is what brings the Waterfords to their sinister conversation in the manor green greenhouse. While Fred is irritated with June for questioning just how much power he wields in Gilead, the Commander is resigned to the fact the Waterfords have no control over when the baby arrives. A very desperate Serena, on the other hand, disagrees. “Do you really think that?” she asks. When Fred finally concedes there are “ways” to induce labor — remember Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) and her spicy teas? — Serena insists there is one, specific, singular way, “the most natural way.” That “way” is through intercourse, which in June’s case as a “handmaid,” or sex slave, means a “ceremony,” or ritualised rape.
Fred might be a detestable serial rapist and domestic abuser, but Serena is the one bent on using sexual abuse to get “her” baby. Fred, a violent man-child always happy to inflict his savage will on women, is immediately on board.
It is almost too painful for words to watch the Waterfords rape June, as they toss away most of the Biblical pomp and circumstance used to justify the “ceremony.” The moment is brutal and long and visceral, as The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t just go for tight shots of the scene, which would minimise viewing the actual assault. Instead, we’re forced to look at long shots of Fred penetrating June, whose huge pregnancy stomach leaves her looking even more vulnerable, from above, behind, and from the side. Director Jeremy Podeswa gives us a relentless 360-degree view of the violence.
When Podeswa finally does zoom into June’s face, leaving the full-scale horror of the scene for a few moments, the move isn’t a respite. Instead, it’s an increase in cognitive pain. As the sound drops save for breathing and June’s voiceover, we see her sobbing face go slack and hear her describe “detaching” from herself. All the while, June continues bobbing back and forth on the bed, reminding you Fred is still assaulting her, even if you can’t see him. Then, all of a sudden, the sound is back and, in one last indignity, we have to watch, and listen to, Fred finishing in full stereo.
“I’m not here,” June says in voiceover at the end, splayed out like a crime scene chalk outline and left unblinking on the bed. She remains in that position for just under one full minute.
The scene is awful for a myriad of terrible, obvious reasons. But one of the worst ones that is fairly subtle. Throughout much of the assault, June believes Serena can help her. As everyone knows, Fred is a proud serial abuser. One cannot reason with a monster who views their darkness as a strength. Yet, June assumes Serena, a fellow woman, will save her. After all, it was Serena who allowed June to throw her editing cap back on when they were running the world in Fred’s absence. It was Serena who allowed a “Martha” to act as a doctor once more. It was Serena who helped Janine (Madeline Brewer) see her supposedly dying baby one last time. With that kind of evidence at hand, it’s no surprise June believes Serena would save her, too.
That is why she tells Serena “You don’t have to do this” about going along with the rape and begs her not to. An increasingly angry Serena responds with demands to “stop it!” and holds June’s wrists tighter and tighter, pinning her to the bed. What poor June doesn’t realise is, Serena isn’t a brainwashed bystander in this nightmare situation. Serena is the ringleader.
No matter what kind of “gifts” Fred gives June — including this week’s heartwrenching surprise visit with her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) — it is clear this man is a villain. We’re not supposed to root for him or hope one day he will learn the error of his ways.
On the other hand, The Handmaid’s Tale has often tried to help us understand Serena as a woman, and, possibly, dream of the day she too throws of the shackles of her circumstance. We saw it in season 1, when it was revealed that Serena helped create Gilead, but was elbowed out of power by the country’s men. Season 2 continued to play the Serena sympathy card by showing the former conservative firebrand get shot during a campus speaking visit. After watching The Handmaid’s Tale repeatedly try to get us to feel sad for Serena, we’re left wondering if there is a surprise hero's heart pumping beneath all those teal green dresses.
“The Last Ceremony” puts a final death knell in this possibility for viewers. Serena isn’t the victim here or the subjugated wife, who is unwittingly manipulated into serving her husband’s darkest impulses. No, Serena, a character obsessed with bringing life into this world no matter the tragic, bloody cost, is the Doctor Frankenstein of this story. Fred, Gilead, and the violence they create are all her monsters.