Warning: Contains spoilers.
There is an odd potential significance and question to the title of the 10th episode of season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale. Whose “last ceremony” is it? June’s? Or the Waterfords’? As far as we can tell, the only person guaranteed to have their last ceremony in this episode is Commander Roy, Emily’s short-term master. The episode begins with the puzzle of the name, then becomes one of season 2’s most devastating, and ends with the biggest cliffhanger since the season 1 finale.
Here are the most memorable moments, including that abrupt conclusion.
Kicking a Dead Commander. The episode opens with Emily walking to the bed for the ceremony, soundtracked by a monologue about how to deal with the monthly ritual rape. The voice-over notes that there is no kissing in the ceremony. (Were the hypocrites who wrote the laws watching Pretty Woman?) We’ve seen this before, in Janine’s ceremony from last season. The commander and his wife look into each other’s eyes. Emily gazes aside, at the ceiling, at the mirror. And then, the commander steps aside and falls down, dead. The wife yells, “Get help!” Emily responds, calmly, “Chances are better if I lay on my back afterwards.” If they treat her as a worthless vessel, they can’t expect her to care about them.
The wife is flabbergasted at Emily’s lack of concern at her rapist keeling over dead, which goes to show how unnatural Gilead is. Does she expect Emily to be a member of the family? She runs for help, and Emily sharply kicks the dead commander’s body, twice. It wouldn’t have mattered if they’d sent her back to kind Mistress Grace’s house — she’s still being raped every month. Wanting to kick your dead rapist’s corpse makes sense.
You Cannot Give Up. Gilead actually does something practical for once by sending Emily to another district. It didn’t really make any sense to send Emily and Janine to the district they were in when they were sentenced to the colonies. We still haven’t spent much time with Emily since the first half of the season. She’s bitter, enraged, disconnected and shut down inside, cut off from all emotions but anger. When Emily tells June, “I’m not his mother anymore,” it isn’t just the state getting to her. She isn’t the same person. We had more of a window into her psyche from the colonies than we do from Gilead. We are overdue for an Emily episode, but “The Last Ceremony” isn’t going to be that episode. Emily is unreachable. June asks, “What the fuck is wrong with you? At least your son is in Canada. He’s free. With your wife.” The conversation is interrupted as June’s contractions begin.
Familiar Birthing Scene. “We did it, Offred. This is the will of God, and we shall rejoice and be glad in it,” Mrs. Waterford says to the woman she intends to send away as soon as the child is born, as if she expects Offred to be happy about giving her baby away and never seeing him or her again. Who’s “we” here? The wives expect completely unnatural emotional reactions from the handmaids, and even Aunt Lydia’s brutal brainwashing isn’t enough to put the handmaids’ brains in line with the wives’ expectations.
The wives have their ridiculous fake delivery scene downstairs, including the harp-playing wife from Naomi Putnam’s fake labor scene, while the handmaids troop upstairs. When did we last see this tableau? When Janine gave birth in episode 2 of season 1. (What happens when an Econowife gives birth? Just wondering.) Serena’s hair is down. That’s a bad sign. Awful things tend to happen to Offred any time Mrs. Waterford loosens the chignon.
Good Riddance. Turns out the baby isn’t coming for another week or two. Serena is like a petulant tween. She’s waited years for a baby, but adding two more weeks to it is unbearable for her. Serena announces that Offred will be posted to a new district. June responds, “It’s probably best if we don’t ever see each other again.” The encounter with Luke in Toronto last week seems to have only fortified Serena’s willful blindness to Offred’s humanity, or been swiftly forgotten.
Failed Negotiations = Bombshell Time. June asks Waterford to move her to the district where Hannah is. He doesn’t take it well. His response? “I’ve spoiled you. Get out.” Um, no. “Spoiling” Offred would be flying her to Canada with her child without ever laying a hand on her — and, come to think of it, that’s not “spoiling.” That’s treating her like a human being with rights. But again, June finds a way to fire back when the Waterfords disempower her. On the way out of the office, she reveals that the baby isn’t Fred’s: “You have no idea what it is like to have a child of your own flesh and blood. And you never will.” Ouch.
Greenhouse of Sinister Implications. Serena Joy’s frustration is manifested in her sloppy plant repotting. Normally immaculate, she hasn’t bothered to put her gardening gloves on. Serena is the first to imply that, since the doctor won’t induce labor, they ought to find other methods to make the baby come sooner. Serena is the first to make sinister suggestions. Serena would never say “I think the best way is the most natural way” if she had any human regard at all for June.
Rita’s Gesture. Rita tells Offred to go to Mrs. Waterford’s bedroom. In a touching moment, she promises, “I’ll tell the baby about you,” echoing June’s request that she act as a godparent. It’s a beautiful moment, but why would Rita choose this one? Does she know what’s about to happen?
Bad Couples Bonding. Abusing Offred appears to bring the Waterfords closer together again. They can’t wait one or two more weeks. Serena Joy effectively demonstrates through the rape that she does not care about Offred at all and that the bond they formed while working together a few episodes back meant nothing to her. She sees Offred as a faulty vessel. Serena does not deserve any points for looking sad in the second half of the rape scene. Reminder: All Wives are complicit. Every month they hold a woman down so that their husbands can rape them. The ensuing scene is excruciating. June screams “stop” and “no” the entire time. The sound cuts in and out. The opening monologue is repeated, ending this time with, “Not me. Not my flesh. I’m not here.” We can’t even hope that this will truly be the last ceremony, as June may be sent on to another household, and other handmaids will continue to be raped.
Isaac and Eden K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Isaac has been attentive to Eden’s chatter since he arrived. Isaac is the definition of toxic masculinity — entirely fine with reasserting male supremacy. He would have been a teenager when Gilead took over. Fifteen-year-old Eden is his ideal of meek, housebound womanhood. The kiss happens as Eden takes the trash out. How romantic. She walks over, leans up to kiss him. Nick sees them and does nothing. Eden spots Nick smoking his cigarette and runs up. Eden gets on her knees and recites Bible verses asking forgiveness. “Don’t worry about it,” Nick says. Isaac doesn’t chase Eden, or apologize to Nick, or do anything.
Never Been Kissed. Eden experiences several traumas — first, horror at herself for violating a taboo that she believes in, then, fear of punishment, and now the confirmation that her husband is indifferent to her. Eden is at best an inconvenience to him. Nick could inform on her and Isaac, which would make it possible for him to get her out of the way. But he feels a sense of responsibility for her. There are things that he could explain to her about how courtships used to work, but that would look like treason.
Eden is more upset by Nick’s lack of any emotional reaction than she was by her fear of his reaction. “I’m your wife. You just caught me cheating on you. You should care. It’s the handmaid. You like her. Why do you like her?” Nick resorts to gaslighting: “Eden, I would never get involved with a handmaid. It would be suicide.” This is the latest time that we’ve seen Nick follow traditional toxic male behavior against Eden in order to protect June. Eden’s world has been shattered. She imagined that her husband would love her. Eden is a child who expected her husband to love her without understanding grown-up love. Even so, she tries to obey Nick when he says, “Please don’t cry,” ineffectively covering her mouth to muffle the sound of her of gasping, heaving tears, the kind of relentless, broken weeping where you have to wheeze the air back in between sobs.
Surprise. Waterford arrives in June’s room to inform her “I’ve planned a surprise for you. I think you’ll like it.” There is no good reason why Fred would do this for her, unless it’s a play so that she won’t rat on him after transfer.
Mother and Child Reunion. Spoiler: June gets to see Hannah. Early in the morning, Waterford hands Nick a slip of paper and tells him to be back in three hours. June won’t tell Nick what happened. She’s traumatized and silent. They pull up to a brick mansion. It’s probably a country house, boarded up for the winter. Sheets are draped over the furniture. June notes a small pink tennis racket (or is it a squash racket?) in the hallway, along with two adult-size ones — the first clue that a girl is present. They are given 10 minutes with Hannah, which means that the house can’t be more than an 80-minute drive, give or take a few depending on traffic and speed limits, not to mention the snow on the road. This could explain why Waterford was so indignant at her request. What if June and Hannah have been nearby all along?
Hannah must be 9 now, given that June is nearing the end of a pregnancy that didn’t start until a few months after her walk with Emily at the beginning of season 1, when she mentioned that Hannah would be 8. Hannah looks back at her with old, sad eyes and an initially distrustful face. In keeping with the theme of stolen names, Hannah’s new name is Agnes. Hannah is a popular name for girls in early 21st-century America. Agnes is a name for a 19th-century governess.
June speaks to Hannah the same way that she did in the flashbacks to when Hannah was 5. There are so many changes between the ages of 5 and 9. June missed them all. Hannah is still 5 in June’s head, and she hasn’t processed all the ways that the parental dynamic evolves between 5 and 9. Hannah’s words are a knife twist in the gut. “I have new parents now.” Double ouch. June doesn’t have the time or the safety to explain the real reasons why she couldn’t come for Hannah. That explanation would go something like, “Well, there were various sociopolitical causes…” Instead, June does the best that she can with an impossible conversation. What would you say to your child if you knew it was the last time you might ever see them? All the time in the world wouldn’t be enough. June probably would be happy to spend the whole 10 minutes silently holding Hannah. But she makes sure that the new parents treat her little girl well, checks in with the Martha, tells Hannah/Agnes that she will always be her mommy and love her. June is telling Hannah the best advice she can give her for the girl’s survival, even if it means letting go of the values she had hoped to pass on, telling her to love and obey her new parents. “I need you to be careful, and I need you to keep yourself safe.”
Imagine that you were a Jewish parent in early-’40s continental Europe, and your daughter’s best chance were for you to leave her with some nuns. Would your objective be to insure their survival, or to make sure that your culture was passed on, even if practicing it threatened the child? Chances are, you might be willing to let go of any hopes that you had of passing your values on. You might want the child to survive on any imperfect terms and hope that, somehow, you or somebody else might be able to clean up later.
Shots in the Snow. The car with Hannah drives off, and June falls on her knees in the snow, weeping. Nick quickly senses that something is up. He senses some danger that June doesn’t see. We hear more car wheels. Nick takes her back into the house and tells her to hide. A black van pulls up.
Alone. Was this all Waterford’s trap for Nick? Nick pulls a gun on the two Guardians who’ve just arrived, and a shot is heard, but it’s impossible to ascertain exactly what happens after the gunshot because the camera keeps cutting back to June’s terror. Was Nick knocked out? His gun falls into the snow, and the two guardians pull him into the vehicle. It is unclear if Nick shot the Guardian in the foot or if the guard shot him. And the car drives away.
June is completely alone in the snow, heavily pregnant. The guardians could come for her at any time, or she could be left alone to starve or deliver the baby by herself. So caught up in June’s trauma that we don’t feel the abrupt end coming, and it cuts off in the middle of nowhere. Dammit.