Things don’t go according to plan on The Handmaid’s Tale

*J. Walter Weatherman voice* And that’s why you never celebrate a birth early.

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In all seriousness, what else could the Waterfords have done to jinx June’s labor? They brought all of their friends over, Fred smoked cigars and patted other commanders on the back, and Serena literally worshipped June’s uterus and claimed to know the will of God. While it was certainly entertaining for June (and for us) to laugh as their smugness backfired, it certainly didn’t make her any friends, and established the episode’s interest in watching the best laid plans go awry. Nothing in “The Last Ceremony” goes as planned.

For much of this season, June has treated her pregnancy as an immunity idol, saying and doing as much as she could possibly get away with, knowing that her status as a pregnant woman saved her from most punishments. Of course, earlier in the season, it was made clear to her that there was a line she dare not cross, but still, she delighted in walking right up to it. It might have been a small use of her limited power, but it was something that June could do to fight the urge to dissociate from her “reduced circumstances.”

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It’s something that’s easier said than done. Emily hasn’t had the same success in her struggle. Even though she finds it within her to slip in a snarky one-liner (“Chances are better if I lay on my back afterward”) when her commander collapses after a bout of ritual rape — and then proceeds to kick him while he’s down — she is losing sight of hope. And who can blame her? She hasn’t been able to catch a break throughout the entire series1 and no longer even feels like a mother to her son. We have seen handmaids reach this point before, and it usually spells trouble for them and everyone around them and might be a hint at an impending Mayday attack.

While June begs Emily to keep it together, she has bigger problems with the protection of the baby about to run out. With her options quickly running out, she turns to Commander Freddy “Krueger” Waterford, the one character she hasn’t considered yet. She appeals to Waterford’s “kindness,” asking him to do her just one more favor and transfer her to Hannah’s district. In reality though, this is a disguise for her true angle: appealing to Fred’s ego.

“If it is at all in your power to do that,” she almost whispers, making herself as small as possible before a man who wants so badly to be seen as powerful. It’s unclear whether reuniting June with Hannah would be hard or impossible, but either way, Fred knows that this is outside his power and lashes out in his insecurity, going so far as to claim he has been too indulgent with June.

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Elisabeth Moss’s brilliance is on full display in this entire episode, and especially in the moments of silence in this scene, her eyes subtly offering windows into her mind. Somehow, she makes thinking look interesting. As she turns away, she thinks of one last angle to try, reminding Fred that the baby is not his and therefore he could never understand what it is she feels. At first, this feels like just another one of June’s barbs, but it’s especially effective because of the process she took to get there. She recognized that she hit a nerve when she touched on Fred’s power, and then hammers it by reminding him of how small of a man he truly is. Great stuff.

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But like I said before, never celebrate early. Although this plan eventually gets June where she wants to go, it backfires pretty terribly in the meantime. With Serena and Fred both smarting, they decide to use June’s pregnancy against her and induce labor “the natural way.” What follows is the most difficult-to-watch scene in a series never short on them.

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June walks into the Waterford bedroom for the second time this episode, its now dark and foreboding color held in stark contrast to the bright scene June had thought she would give birth in. If only that had been the last time she would “have to get into that fucking bed.” June is held down and violated in a way that we have been spared from up to this point. For everything we’ve seen this season that has humanized Serena and made her a complicated character, this act brings the Waterfords back to the status of full villain. It is irredeemable.

Meanwhile, Nick’s plans don’t backfire so much as he fails to capitalize on the chances he gets. When Eden predictably wanders and kisses the guardian she’s been making googly eyes at (because who wouldn’t find pistol-whipping a handmaid attractive?), he has the perfect opportunity to do some risk mitigation. You see, even though Nick is supposedly an undercover secret agent, he has ZERO ability to hide his intentions. On top of that, Eden is clearly dangerous, something that actress Sydney Sweeney has very gracefully hinted at with her voice. It always sounds like there is something beneath the surface of it, as though it doesn’t quite fit her innocent personality.

Now, presented with the perfect opportunity to hold Eden’s transgressions against her and keep her from going to the authorities, Nick refuses to play the game. He may think that by letting Eden wander, she won’t be a problem for him, but that idea has the opposite effect. Poor, poor, brainwashed Eden is more hurt that he doesn’t care than anything else, which led to my favorite line of the episode: Nick saying in his monotone, “Please stop crying.”

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While Fred’s actions were completely irredeemable, he must feel that he has to try, and sets up a meeting between June and Hannah, which is heartbreaking for so many reasons. Hannah recoils at June’s first touch, confused why her mother couldn’t try harder to find her. June tells Hannah to enjoy her life and to love her new family because she must survive. Just as they’re starting to reconnect, Hannah is ripped away again in a moment that has never felt more relevant than today.

Moss again shows why she is one of the best television actresses there is. She perfectly portrays a mother trying to be strong, blinking back the tears she so desperately doesn’t want her daughter to see. The mixture of profound joy in seeing Hannah and deep sadness in having to let her go, all while trying to cling to the smallest hope, is all there on her face at the same time. Just give her the Emmy now.

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As Hannah leaves, she feels more alone than ever. At least until Nick is captured just moments later, stranding June in the middle of nowhere. For once, no upbeat music plays over the credits, and we’re left with the full weight of an emotionally wrought episode.

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STRAY OBSERVATIONS

  • No flashbacks for the 3rd straight week.
  • June responding to Serena with a Bible verse, “No one know the things of God” was pitch perfect. Like what is she going to say when you quote the Bible at her?
  • It’s very fitting that the showdown between Fred and June would happen in Fred’s study, where they first tried to feel each other out through their weekly games of Scrabble.
  • If I had to be a character in this world, I think I’d go for Rita. She just keeps her head down, isn’t subjected to any sexual assault (that we know of), and does what she can. It’s kind of the best you could hope for.
  • Fun to see the return of the creepy doctor who offered to get June pregnant in season 1.

1. A quick list of things she’s endured: seeing her friend and colleague killed in a hate crime, being separated from her wife and son, being a handmaid, watching her girlfriend executed, undergoing some very involuntary surgery, being sent to a prison camp, being brought back to be a handmaid again.

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