There’s a line from HBO’s Six Feet Under I think about all the time. A priest imparts a nugget of wisdom to Michael Fisher, the central family’s closeted middle son: “Relationships don’t make life better. They make life possible.” I think about it in my daily life, because it’s a good line to to have jingling around in my brain as I get older and life becomes increasingly a pile of chores and little things to check off a to-do list. But I also think about how it applies to this last episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. “The Last Ceremony” was a particularly brutal expose of what, precisely, makes Gilead so cruel and unusual: It forces estrangement.
A conversation between Emily (Alexis Bledel) and June (Elisabeth Moss) sums up one major aspect of living in Gilead. Emily feels like she’s no longer the mother of her son, who lives in Canada with his other mother, Emily’s wife. Without her consent, Gilead has deprived Emily of her most crucial relationship. Organically forming romantic relationships are similarly verboten. During a conversation with Eden (Sydney Sweeney), Nick (Max Minghella) says he’d never get involved with a handmaid; it would be “suicide.” He’s right: Any kind of human connection that colours “outside the lines” of Gilead’s system is punishable by death.
Usually, The Handmaid’s Tale reads like a far-off worst case scenario, as if the most conservative strains in our culture drowned out everything else. A “what if,” not an “is.” But in this episode, I saw echoes of reality – a currently occurring reality. What we saw in “The Last Ceremony” is a nation state that strikes down and separates relationships between parents and children, just like we’re doing on the Mexican border today. Please: Feel extra disturbed while watching June get torn away from her child this episode, because you know it’s happening to parents right now.
There’s no good transition from the horrors occurring on the United States' border with Mexico to the horrors occurring in Gilead, so let’s inelegantly get this recap on the road. The episode begins with the life cycle of the ceremony, of sorts. First, death. Emily is with her Commander and his wife undergoing the Ceremony. The whole thing is more ridiculous (and disturbing) knowing what we know from last episode: The ceremony is futile because men are infertile, not women. This ceremony is different than the others Emily has had to endure. The commander’s guttural sex noises progress from slovenly to erratic; right after finishing the act, he collapses of a heart attack and dies. It’s like all of Emily’s bundled up hate has actually manifested a reality. She’s free – until her next posting. Even at a different house, Emily’s year will be punctuated by 12 monthly mandated rapes. The next posting might be even worse. Later on in the episode, Fred (Joseph Fiennes) is speaking to another Commander who inquires whether June was “fun.” Clearly, some Commanders, hypocritical oafs, expect more than just a monthly ceremony.
Then, life. It’s another day for a heavily pregnant June. She lugs herself to the stark white grocery store, where Eand an age-appropriate guard have a sexually charged conversation about sweet potatoes and dinner plans. Suddenly, June starts contracting. The handmaids leap into order. The wives, Marthas, and aunts follow suit. This is what they were made for: Ceremonies, births, and knitting to pass the time in between. There’s a great shot when Nick escorts June out of the Birthmobile, leaving Eden to watch from atop. Since characters so rarely say what they mean in The Handmaid’s Tale, we learn so much from camerawork. Eden feels neglected; Nick feels proud, a bit, that he’s about to become a father; June feels wobbly from life.
The members of the Waterford household separate into different rooms as the strange, humiliating birth ritual commences (Fun fact: Public births used to be common, especially among royalty. They were banned in France after Marie Antoinette was stormed by such a large audience and she almost died.) An overjoyed Serena also flares her nostrils with happiness as she, similarly clad in white, is encouraged to “give birth” by her fellow Wives while a harpist plays in the background (I don’t get the luxury of these ceremonies — the harps! The flower displays!). Fred, who’s far less a part of this ceremony than he knew, stands in the study with the other Commanders — one of whom has a wife, not a handmaid, who is pregnant. I wonder who chooses to have a handmaid. Is Serena infertile?
One thing we know about Serena: She’s not getting that baby today. Much to Serena’s chagrin, it’s a false alarm. June is not ready to give birth. It was a false labor. Serena, who is now determined to get June out of the house, wants to hurry up this birth. After the doctor and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) shoot down her request for chemical inducement, she decides to turn to her hubby Fred in her green house, aka the War Room, for another plan. She catches Fred at a time when he, too, is angry with June. The night before, June had begged Fred to be transferred into her daughter’s district for her next posting; when Fred shot her down, June retaliated by insinuating he’d never know what it was like to have a child of his own. Fred and Serena, equally sour at June, decide to induce the pregnancy an “organic” way: Through sex.
What follows is extremely disturbing. The ceremony seen at the start of the episode was a testament to how institutionalised rape has become for the handmaids of Gilead. June is caught off guard by this attack and cannot disengage. She has to be restrained by Serena and Fred. What the heck did they think this would accomplish? June doesn’t go into labor. She’s just breaks.
Meanwhile, only feet away, Eden is the star of her own romantic comedy, taking place under the quaint moonlight of New England. Eden, as you’ll recall, is 15, and is easily pulled toward the orbit of romance. When she takes out the trash, handsome stud guard is waiting. They move towards each other and have a kiss in the snowfall. Eden believes in Gilead, but she also has a body with needs and wants. I’m waiting for a Spring Awakening: Gilead episode.
After this incident, Nick and Eden have their first actual conversation. Eden sees Nick spying on her and the guard while he smokes a cigarette like he’s a brooding James Dean. Terrified and repentent, she scurries home to their little cabin and starts praying. Nick, as usual, does not care. And that’s what shatters Eden. His indifference. If Eden were an older woman in Gilead, she might be grateful to have a husband who doesn’t ask anything of her. But Eden wants kisses! She wants attention! She wants affection! And now she knows her husband’s affection is on the handmaid, even if he says otherwise. Eden weeps, realising what she faces is a lifetime of not being loved. This scene broke my heart.
And so did the following. Fred has a “present” for June. Even though he’d been cold to her, he clearly gets off on exerting his power. Nick drives June, subdued by the Waterfords’ joint attack, out of the city and to a mansion in the woods. There, Hannah — June’s daughter – is waiting.
Guys, this scene. THIS SCENE! After being scared by June’s affection, Hannah, clad in a pink cape, finally speaks to her mother. She’s devastated that June and Luke didn’t search “hard enough” for her; that they abandoned her. June, through tears, tries to instil her unending support and love in her daughter’s heart. She only has ten minutes to do so. It’s so cruel, and so much worse knowing the American government is separating parents from their children as we speak. Hannah is forever traumatised by her separation with her mother; so will these kids in the news.
The episode ends with a cliffhanger. More Eyes happen to arrive to the house. June stays in the house while Nick goes outside to speak to them. Nick is shot and put into the car, leaving June abandoned shabby mansion in the middle of the woods. On the bright side, June might be able to keep this next baby — that is, if some benevolent Mayday force rescues her and brings her to Canada. We'll keep our fingers crossed.