[This story contains spoilers for season two, episode nine of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “The Last Ceremony.”]
“I’m not here.”
Offred (Elisabeth Moss) speaks these words through narration in the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, at the height of one of the most difficult scenes to watch in the entire series: Fred and Serena Waterford (Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski) forcing a very pregnant Offred to participate in “the ceremony,” the gilded Gilead term for ritualized rape.
In the episode, “The Last Ceremony,” the world surrounding the Waterford household comes to believe that Offred’s about to give birth. Instead, it turns out to be a false labor, a fact that’s only discovered after both Fred and Serena have begun prematurely celebrating the coming arrival of “their” child. In the aftermath of the revelation, an increasingly volatile Fred and Serena come to believe that the best way to bring the baby into the world is “the natural way,” as Serena states it, leading to the ceremony referenced in the episode’s title. It’s an incredibly dark scene, even for The Handmaid’s Tale standards — and that’s very much by design, according to the episode’s writer, Yahlin Chang.
“I wanted to depict how brutal and terrible rape really is,” Chang tells THR. “I wanted to give the sense that for all the ceremonies in Gilead that are happening every month, like, what do you think is happening? What is really happening? It is rape, and it is always horrible and terrible.”
Chang explains how she “came up with this horrible idea” for the titular ceremony: “We always try to be very honest and truthful about what would happen with these characters. When I was thinking about the false labor and how Offred had humiliated Fred and Serena, and what they might do in response, it seemed very clear to me that they would want to get the baby out as soon as possible. They had already asked the doctor to induce, and the doctor wouldn’t, and Serena is desperate to get the baby out. A normal thing that happens when you’re at the end of your pregnancy and you really want the baby out and the baby is ready to come out but it’s not coming out is that your [doctor] will tell you, ‘Try and have sex, because that will help.’ It helps start contractions. For Serena and Fred, Gilead is premised on the fact that they own Offred’s body. Her womb is their womb. Her baby is their baby.”
“This show is about misogyny, and the history of misogyny is fundamentally all about control over women’s bodies,” says Chang. “Given that context, why wouldn’t they do the ceremony?”
As the ceremony begins, for the first time ever, Offred openly and vocally resists the Waterfords, screaming out in protest, to no avail. Both Waterfords are taken aback by Offred’s reaction, which prompts Fred to arrange Offred and Hannah’s reunion the next morning.
“It really shocks them,” says Chang. “It catches them by surprise, because they’ve done the ceremony a hundred times, and that’s not how this is supposed to go. The fact that she actually is a woman with agency over her own body and might have her own reaction… that doesn’t compute. It doesn’t make any sense in this context.”
During the scene, Offred monologues about how she and other handmaids tend to disassociate when forced into the act of ritualized rape. The way the scene is shot makes it clear that she’s unable to detach herself in this instance. “She hasn’t [been subjected to] the ceremony in a long time,” says Chang, “so she doesn’t do us that favor of disassociating successfully before it starts. While it’s going on, she’s trying to disassociate, but she’s having a hard time of it. She’s out of practice, and she’s pregnant, and she’s very much in her body.”
“I felt like it was important to show that this has always been rape, and that it’s always this terrible for the handmaids,” the writer continues. “It’s always this brutal. It’s just that [the handmaids] have been trained to not let you [the viewer] see it, and to make it easy on people. But it’s not easy on them. It’s terrible for them.”
Chang punctuates the point by telling a story about something that happened recently in the Handmaid’s Tale writer’s room, currently open for season three. As they begin charting out the next year of the Hulu drama, Chang and the other writers screened the full series, and during the screening of “The Last Ceremony,” the collective room felt “traumatized” in revisiting the episode.
“We talked about it after the screening,” she says, “and I said to them, ‘The other way to go with this scene would have been that she totally does disassociate at first, and it’s just the same ceremony scene the same way we’ve seen it before… but that would be a lie. I don’t buy that she’s able to disassociate.’ You know? We could have spared the viewer by just making it the same ceremony scene you’ve already seen, but that’s not truthful to what would happen in this moment.”
Following the scene, the episode moves into its climactic final act: Offred reuniting with Hannah, one of the most emotional and anticipated moment in The Handmaid’s Tale through almost two full seasons.
“Coming from the horribleness of the previous scene, it’s even that much more heroic,” Chang says about how Offred leaps into action with her daughter. “The moment she sees Hannah, it’s just like, ‘Boom.’ She’s back to being a mom. Despite all of the terrible stuff that she’s just put up with, she immediately becomes a mom in that scene, and she’s caring for Hannah. The only thing she cares about is giving Hannah the right advice. Did she make Hannah okay with her feelings? Did she remind Hannah how much she loves her?”
“Lizzie just does the most incredible job,” Chang adds, speaking of Elisabeth Moss’ performance in the scene. “I mean, the best thing about this job is that whatever you write, Lizzie is going to elevate it tenfold. It’s going to be better than you ever imagined.”
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