The title of this article is a blending of the past three Handmaid’s Tale episodes: Women’s Work, Smart Power, and The Last Ceremony. These are the three episodes I’ll be discussing, but I also liked the way it forms it’s own title, Women’s Power Ceremony, because I’ll be focusing on Serena Joy. And, oh, this title sums up her malicious ways.
In Women’s Work Serena and Offred joined forces to handle the Commander’s work while he recovered in the hospital. This pair reminds me of a couple learning the minuet, a dance where couples shift partners (or allegiances in this case) and if not carefully performed will deteriorate. I had hope that a common understanding could form between June and Serena. I was wrong. Commander Waterford returned and destroyed any covert amity between the women by whipping Serena, and hurting her pride, in front of June.
Throughout the show, the writers have shined a light on Serena’scharacter and the conflict within her. She fueled the fire for Gilead. She helped topple America. It was her book, her ideas that sparked this revolution. And yet we watched how she was shut out of meetings due to her gender. How she can successfully “man” a high-ranking governmental job but is punished for her actions. She must stick to women’s work, which is providing children, a task she can’t do, so she’s left with gardening and knitting – and we all know how she truly feels about knitting.
With Serena and June’s secret writing club ruined, I assumed that would be the last wavering from Serena we would see. Then the Commander dragged her to Canada for a diplomatic visit with compliments of her ability to be strong. Because this is how he manipulates people. He destroys the women in his life and then gives them the very thing they want to show how he really is just a good guy. Riiiiiight.
After Serena is treated like a monster who may snatch away your child in an elevator, she seeks solace where many travelers do – the hotel bar. She’s approached by Mark, a man working for America and offering her asylum in Hawaii. She can board a plane and be free. Serena refuses to commit treason, to which Mark responds that she already has. Clearly not getting anywhere with the steely blonde, he leaves her with a Hawaiian matchbox that Serena surreptitiously pockets. Yet another seed planted for hope that there still is good left in Serena, we see the conflict within her, she may yet turn from the Emperor – I mean, Waterford. Yes, in many ways she is the show’s Darth Vader.
But back in Gilead Serena tosses the matchbox into the fire (our hope goes up in flames) because when you push Serena, when you tempt her, she finds a way to grab on even harder to her bizarre beliefs.
When you think Handmaid’s Tale can’t shock you anymore, they release The Last Ceremony. It opens with Emily being raped in her monthly ceremony as June’s voice over states they learn to deal with it like a job. And when Emily’s rapist falls to the floor with a heart attack and his wife pleads to her for help, Emily treats it like a job by reminding the wife that chances are better for pregnancy if she lies down afterwards.
In an article about Serena Joy, I bring this up as it is the twin rape scene of the episode. Ever since the Commander beat Serena in front of June, Serena’s had it out for Offred. She wants the baby and she wants her out of the house immediately. When June goes into false labor and gives Serena the snarky eye that only Elisabeth Moss can do, Serena’s done playing games.
She and Fred discuss how best to naturally induce the baby. Like an idiot, I didn’t see the next scene coming – even after their conversation. Perhaps I just couldn’t let my mind go there. I thought, Aunt Lydia’s spicy tea it is!
As Serena holds down a screaming, writhing, crying June, Fred rapes her – all under the pretense to help labor. This is Serena’s ultimate power trip against June. As I watched, I felt like Serena was raping June. It was her willingness and desire to hold down a fellow woman and participate in the act that made me want to look away.
And yet the episode opened with a woman holding down another to force her into sexual relations with her husband. Why should Emily’s rape be less revolting just because she’s not screaming to stop? The show made a deliberate choice to pair these scenes in one episode for this very conversation. Rape is rape is rape. It doesn’t matter if it is cloaked in the guise of a job, if she’s screaming to stop, if she’s drunk. It is wrong and horrific and deserves more than a 6 month to a year hand slap.
I no longer have hope that Serena will turn from the dark side. She crossed a line, and I wanted her to go down in a fiery storm of hell. Her day of reckoning must come.
Even the Commander understands how awful his actions are. He destroys the women around him, then gives them what they most desire to show he isn’t all that bad. Even Nick prods June to confide what horror the Commander acted upon her to allow the upcoming clandestine meeting.
In true Handmaid’s Tale fashion, the show is uncanny in it’s timeliness. This episode was written and shot before immigrant children were being ripped from their parents arms and put in cages at our border. The Last Ceremony ends with Hannah being forcibly taken from June after their secret meeting arranged by the Commander. It’s spooky how our current state of our country parallels the horrors of Gilead. And yet Atwood said she placed The Handmaid’s Tale in the U.S. because when she considered which country this could happen in the U.S. was the only correct option for her. Previously, I never understood why she thought this. Now I sadly understand.
Photos courtesy of Hulu.
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