[Editor’s note: The below contains spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2, Episode 10, “The Last Ceremony,” as well as discussion of sexual assault.]
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is known as the most harrowing drama on TV, but the newest episode may set a new standard. And the writer, Yahlin Chang, is pleased to have been a part of it. “I’m happy to make people feel that it’s wrong to separate mothers from kids and it’s wrong to rape people,” she said.
That should sound almost absurdly reductive, but in the current political climate, it’s a sentiment that doesn’t appear entirely self-evident.
In the episode, directed by Jeremy Podeswa, heavily pregnant Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss) goes into what’s thought to be labor, but turns out to be Braxton Hicks contractions. Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), feeling humiliated, decide to “help the baby along” by forcing Offred into “one last ceremony” — which is to say, Offred is held down as Waterford rapes her once again.
“They live in a world where they own Offred’s body,” said Chang. “Offred does not have agency over her body. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is about the misogyny, and the history of misogyny is fundamentally about who has control over women’s bodies. So Serena Joy and Fred, they own this womb, they own this baby. And so why wouldn’t they have sex, like couples do all the time when it’s getting close to the birth day and you’re desperate to get the baby out? Why wouldn’t they do that to get the baby out?”
By that measure, Waterford and Serena are surprised by Offred’s resistance. “[To them], it just doesn’t make any sense, that the Handmaid would resist, because Handmaids aren’t allowed to own their own bodies,” Chang said. “So I wanted to make it very clear, what we’re saying in Gilead, and what is actually happening. For every Handmaid, it’s that brutal and that terrible. It’s just that they don’t show it all the time… Gilead has totally normalized rape, with the prayer, making it a whole ritual thing. But the truth is that it was always this terrible. It’s still rape. And I guess my feeling was to tell the viewer, ‘What did you think was happening in all those ceremonies?'”
It’s a perspective set up at the start of the episode: a passive Emily (Alexis Bledel) is in the Handmaid position in a more typical Ceremony.
Chang said she originally planned a longer Emily-centered storyline (one she promises will be seen later), but an important moment remained in that opening scene: Emily’s Commander has a heart attack and collapses moments after climaxing — and Emily takes advantage of the moment for a bit of vengeance.
“We put our scenes up on index cards, and the first index card that I wrote was, ‘Emily has ceremony, stomps on Commander’s penis,'” Chang said. “I wanted her to stomp on his penis. I was like, that’s what he deserves. He raped this girl, he deserves to die and be stomped on.”
Even at that stage, the moment offered a level of catharsis for the team. “I remember, we actually had Hulu and the MGM executives come over that day for lunch. And they just laughed, when they saw that card up on the board,” she said.
Offred’s rape is incredibly difficult to watch, but Chang felt it was necessary.
“I can imagine criticisms of other shows where rape scenes can be seen as exploitative or gratuitous,” she said. “[But] rape in Gilead, in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ is just fundamental to the premise of the story, of the narrative, the way Margaret Atwood wrote it in the beginning, which is that these Handmaids get raped and impregnated and are forced to bear children. It’s essential to that fabric of our show. Gilead is what it is because it’s all about rape.”
Making it clear just how brutal the Ceremony is at its core, Chang said, made the scene “a responsible depiction of sexual assault.”
Of course, it’s arguable that “the last ceremony” isn’t even the episode’s most emotionally harrowing scene, as Waterford chooses to “apologize” to June by giving her a too-brief reunion with her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake).
Chang wrote the episode months before Americans were confronted by daily stories about parents being separated from their children. Her research into what this reunion might be like with the help of social workers, psychologists, and a United Nations representative.
“They all said the same thing about how the scene would go — that it doesn’t go well,” she said. “That the child will feel lots of resentment. Even though Hannah saw her mother get ripped away from her, she would feel like her mother abandoned her. She needed her. She would be angry about it.”
Added Chang, “And the person at the UN talked about how when parents are ripped away from their kids because it’s wartime and they’re going to go off to get shot, that they cram all the last-minute advice they can into the last few minutes… They also told me how Hannah would be imagining the last moment she saw her mom, and that was when her mom was ripped away from her. And so she’s been playing over in her head, that moment, and now finally has a chance to ask her mom, ‘Did it hurt?'”
“The Last Ceremony” ends on a major cliffhanger, as June finds herself abandoned following Hannah’s departure and Nick’s (Max Minghella) capture, but whatever comes next, current events may end up matching it for drama.
“One thing I started to say in the writers’ room is, the world is more horrible than ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,'” Chang said. “The thing is that we do research into disturbing things that people have done to women throughout history, and it’s worse than we could ever have imagined.”
New episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2 premiere each Wednesday on Hulu.