[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2, Episode 10, “The Last Ceremony,” as well as the “Legion” Season 2 finale, “Chapter 19.”]
It’s never a particularly fun time to be a female character on television, but it’s especially true these days. In recent weeks, two high-profile series have found themselves dealing with delicate subject matter, but it’s the nuances of how they each approached their individual sexual assault storylines which ultimately defines their quality.
In “The Last Ceremony,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” deliberately strips away the normalization that the powerful men of Gilead have achieved for the systematic rape of women which underlies its society. It does so with a slap to the face, as the pregnant Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss) is forced into another “Ceremony,” theoretically to help advance her pending labor, but also as a means by which Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) can reassert their authority over her. (Earlier in the episode, Offred had experienced Braxton Hicks contractions, which led to an embarrassing fake-out for the Waterfords in front of Gilead society.)
Producer Yahlin Chang, who wrote the episode, felt the brutality of the scene was necessary given how ingrained sexual assault is within the world of the show. “I can imagine criticisms of other shows where rape scenes can be seen as exploitative or gratuitous,” she said to IndieWire. “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.”
What was key about executing it? Point-of-view.
“I wrote this scene very interiorly for all of the characters,” Chang said. “In the script itself, it was all action — we do a lot of action description in our scripts, so I talked about how Offred is trying to disassociate. And so she’s starting to say things to herself that you hear in the voiceover in the first scene, where it’s a mere act of copulation… she’s trying and trying to dissociate, but she’s not able to until deeper into the scene. So she can’t really control her reaction to it.”
The episode’s director, three-time Emmy nominee Jeremy Podeswa, told IndieWire that “the scene, even on the page, was so powerful, and moving, and upsetting. When you realize you have to approach something like that, you really need to do it justice.”
His main objective, then, “was to find a way to make it on-screen as subjective, and as horrifying, and as brutal as June experiences it to be… It’s about her inability to disassociate, and it doesn’t let the audience off the hook either. We now have to fully experience the horror of what she’s going through as she’s going through it and it becomes a very painful and difficult thing to watch. As, of course, it has to be… No amount of ceremony, or rationalizing it, or talking about this in other terms, or giving it a religious framework, none of those things mitigate, in any way, what’s actually really happening.”
It tied into one of his most important feelings about what it means to direct an episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale”: that “every scene has such a strong point of view. Like, nothing is shot in a general or non-specific way. You really have to be very specific about who are you seeing and whose eyes are you seeing the scene through, who’s the center of this thing, what’s the subtext of the scene.”
As he noted, “These are the kind of questions you ask normally, but there are no easy shortcuts in this show, ever. Like, you really have to kind of plumb the depths of the material really strongly. And largely, what the show is centered around is June/Offred’s character. So, there’s a kind of subjective filmmaking that you don’t do that much in television really. It’s very unique.”
Chang credited Podeswa for ensuring that the filming of the scene was a safe experience for the actors. “I was on set for a large portion of this episode, and he really succeeds in that,” she said. “These three actors all have done the Ceremony scene before, too. So they knew what this was, and there wasn’t really any nervousness about it. I thought it was shot very responsibly.”
And in executing the scene, Podeswa said that he talked extensively with all three actors about how the scene would play out: “Everybody knew it was going to be a difficult scene, because what it is depicting is so horrific. But, I think that there was never a question about the importance of it,” he said. “Everything was discussed in great detail beforehand. Everybody knew exactly what we were going to do and everybody came to it with a seriousness of intention and were all very much on the same page about how it should be done.”
Meanwhile, the “Legion” Season 2 finale was a bit more abstract about an actual act of sexual assault, but the crime itself was undeniable: The show’s central romance between David (Dan Stevens) and Syd (Rachel Keller) was shattered after David invaded Syd’s mind and sexually violated her. “David, you drugged me and had sex with me,” she says to him later, point blank, with no chance of forgiveness in her eyes.
In contrast to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” one of the strongest objections to the way “Legion” incorporated Sydney’s sexual assault into the narrative was that Syd may have gotten that “gut punch” (as described by IndieWire’s Ben Travers) of a confrontation with David, but the plot choice remains in service not to her journey, but to David’s as he descends into darkness.
When asked about the scene by Vulture, Hawley said, “I don’t know what the conversation will be, but I think it’s worth having the conversation about consent and about the fact that there is no justification for acting without another person’s consent. And, as she said, ‘I’m the hero and you’re just another villain.’ On some level, that’s the story of the show. The question is, is there any redemption for him coming out of that? And where do we go next?”
That may be the question Hawley considers important, but here’s another one: Did Syd need to have that experience in order to become, as Hawley says, the show’s hero? Or was it a plot and character choice which prioritized David at her expense?
It echoes the problem with another notable instance of sexual violence on television rape scenes: the assault of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) by Ramsey Bolton in the “Game of Thrones” Season 5 episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” which many felt emphasized the anguish of forced witness Theon (Alfie Allen) over Sansa’s trauma. Like “Legion,” the underlying message was that what mattered wasn’t the woman’s pain — it was how the woman’s pain made a man feel.
The scene attracted plenty of criticism at the time for both the showrunners and Podeswa, who happened to have also directed “Unbowed.”
When asked if his earlier experience on “Game of Thrones” had had any impact on how he approached “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Podeswa said that “I don’t really want to talk about that in the context of this because this is really its own thing. I think when you’re approaching anything, you’re looking at the specificity of the material that you’re working on. There’s nothing really general to take from anything else. This is a very specific set of circumstances in a very specific world of very specific characters and no two anythings are the same. No two criminal acts are the same. No two love stories are the same. You have to approach everything as its own individual thing.”
Added Podeswa, “For me, it’s this script, these actors, these words. You do bring your lifetime of working experience to things and your sensitivity to everything, but you really have to kind of see it as its own thing.”
It speaks to the wide range of approaches to this topic, something which more and more shows have found ways to examine. Freeform’s “The Bold Type” featured the most affecting narratives of late about sexual assault without needing a single shot of a woman being traumatized for its message to be clear. While seeming like a light summer show when it premiered, the first season was full of unexpected depths, especially in the season finale, “Carry That Weight,” in which a sexual assault survivor stages a performance art piece that leads to Jacqueline (Melora Hardin) revealing herself as a survivor as well.
By emphasizing how so many women have had these experiences, and how while the pain might fade, it never truly leaves you, “The Bold Type” made it clear that the real center of these stories needs to be about those who struggle with the aftermath.
It’s a point also made recently in a completely different context: Comedian Cameron Esposito just recently released a new hour-long stand-up special called “Rape Jokes,” in which she drills down on her own experiences regarding sexual assault and how potential allies, most especially straight men, can help women. (She worked with a number of straight men behind-the-scenes on the special, including co-producer Jonah Ray.)
Recently, prior to the premiere of “Rape Jokes,” IndieWire asked for Esposito’s thoughts on comedians like Louis C.K. who have recently faced sexual misconduct charges, and Esposito declined to comment. “All of those people, what happens to them in their future is a low, low priority,” she said. “For me, the priority is what happened to all those folks that came out and told their stories.”
It’s tough to say, in an authoritative fashion, “here is how we should be talking about this,” but Esposito’s perspective does feel worth considering as a guide, for the same reason that the media is encouraged to emphasize those wounded in mass shootings over the perpetrators. It’s the point-of-view emphasized that tells us whose perspective matters most. And when something awful happens to someone, we should worry over the wound, not the one who inflicted it.