SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you haven’t seen “The Last Ceremony,” the June 20 episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
The advanced screener for this week’s episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale” came with a bolded warning: “This episode has content that may be extra sensitive for some viewers.” Devoid of any further context, it was hard to imagine what could possibly be so harrowing that “The Handmaid’s Tale” – a show that runs on terror and trauma – felt the need to warn us ahead of time.
And yet: once the episode had finished on a closeup of Elisabeth Moss’ June in tears (a shot that’s become incredibly familiar at this point), I realized I wasn’t completely sure what the warning was referring to. That’s not to say that “The Last Ceremony” is free of terrible moments; several are genuinely shattering. But none lay too far outside the realm of possibilities for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which has practically made a sport out of outdoing its own devastation with every passing week. The show takes such pains to cause pain that its constant barrage of suffering has dulled the show’s capacity to shock anymore.
So was this episode’s “extra sensitive” content the cold open, in which a salivating Commander completes Gilead’s impregnation “ceremony” by raping a glassy-eyed Emily (Alexis Bledel) in slow motion? Was it the other rape halfway through the episode, when Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), hold down a screaming June so he can assault her under the guise of inducing labor? Or was it June getting ten precious minutes with her daughter Hannah, only for them to be ripped apart once again as both sob? Each of these scenes is horrifying in their own terrible ways; June and her daughter crying out for each other stings even more in light of the very real family separation happening on our borders.
The correct answer, however, turns out to be the second rape. And yes, this particular rape is definitely unlike any other the show’s depicted, thanks to the wrenching combination of Serena’s crumbling face and June’s active, vocal resistance.
But rape is omnipresent on “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It’s a founding principle of Gilead, and so hardly a single episode goes by without it. So even though this rape is undoubtedly a hard scene to get through, it was still surprising to realize that it was meant as unusually hard. It’s both bizarre and maddening to realize that “The Handmaid’s Tale” has so primed its audience for constant trauma that even a vivid rape scene feels too expected to register as especially brutal.
And not for nothing, this scene doesn’t actually tell us anything new. Even though it’s framed as an unusual act of revenge — Waterford and Serena are punishing June for forgetting her subjugated place in their household — the scene just repeats points the show has already made. If it’s supposed to emphasize that Waterford’s willing to cross more lines of decency, we already got that message a couple episodes ago when he beat his wife with a belt. If it’s supposed to underline Serena’s complicity in Gilead’s systemic oppression of women, just about every other scene featuring her does the same. If it’s supposed to remind us that June is in an impossibly awful position, well, so does every single other one of June’s waking moments. So what’s the point?
That question, unfortunately, has come to mind more often than not throughout this second season as the show continues to descend into bleakness.
In fairness, this was always going to be a tricky line for the show to walk as it stretched beyond the boundaries of its source material. Margaret Atwood’s original novel sketched out a dark dystopia, but also had the advantage of telling a single story from a single perspective. As a TV show with multiple seasons, “The Handmaid’s Tale” has to explore so much more of what makes Gilead horrific. But after a constant barrage of monstrosities, the show is starting to feel like a scene from earlier this season in which Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) forces a crying June to look at a hanged man. The only point is to emphasize her suffering, and make us suffer in turn.
Of course “Handmaid’s” still has some sharp moments of blistering clarity; at its best, it can be TV’s most searing indictment of how power structures can prey on the weak. But as it just keeps hammering home the atrocities of its dark world, instead of shedding light, it’s weakened any impact.
Horror is an everyday banality in Gilead. It shouldn’t be the same for “The Handmaid’s Tale.”