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[This story contains spoilers for season two, episode ten of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “The Last Ceremony.”]
In a week filled with harrowing news about the separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale once again finds itself in a tragically relevant place.
The tenth episode of the Emmy-winning drama’s second season, “The Last Ceremony,” culminates in one of the most momentous occasions of the entire series: June, aka Offred (Elisabeth Moss), reuniting with her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake), who were forcibly separated from one another by Gilead in the very first episode of the Margaret Atwood adaptation. The reunion is short-lived, arranged in secret by Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), filled with moments in which June tries to impart wisdom on her daughter, weathers Hannah’s anger, and parts ways with the child on three distinct occasions. It would be a moving and brutal scene on any day of the week, though it takes on an even more chilling tone given current events in the United States.
“It’s terrible and uncanny,” says the episode’s writer, Yahlin Chang, speaking with THR. “Someone was saying, ‘What do you hope people take away from this episode?’ I said, ‘That it’s really wrong to rip mothers and children apart, rip children away from their mothers.’ It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong.”
“Sometimes,” she adds, “you have to show it to show how wrong it is.”
In that regard, The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t flinch in its depiction of June and Hannah’s separation, their second since the beginning of the series. Chang says the scene came to her quickly, as it channels her own worst nightmares as a parent.
“I have three kids of my own,” says Chang. “My worst nightmare is that they are ever kidnapped. I really had to dig in and imagine what if my kids were kidnapped for three years? What would happen if we got back together? What’s the sort of things that they would say? Thankfully I have a nine year old and a seven year old, so I was able to get the language of what a child of that age, how they would react and what they would say.”
Additionally, Chang says she “did a ton of research for this scene. I talked to social workers and psychologists and resident experts at the UN about what would really happen [in the event of such a separation]. Now, it doesn’t seem so uncommon, but at the time that I wrote [the episode] many, many months ago, I was surprised to realize that this scene happens all the time, because mothers and children are often separated either because of war time or because the child is taken away from the mother because it’s an unsafe home.”
Chang’s takeaways from those conversations with experts: “All of them said the same things. They all said that this scenario will not play out the way that you want it to. It’s not just a happy, joyous reunion where it’s all hugs and kisses. They all said that the child developmentally would at that point have a lot of resentment and anger. All she knows is that she wanted her mother, and her mother wasn’t there, and her mother abandoned her. Even though she saw her mother being ripped away from her, she will still blame her mother.”
The scene begins with Hannah meekly acknowledging her mother, before asking her pointedly: “Did you try to find me? Why didn’t you try harder?” In response, June tells her daughter that it’s okay to be mad, which was an important point for Chang to get across: “I felt very strongly that June is an amazing mother and is just going to care for her daughter’s feelings.”
June and Hannah’s reunion ends on three separate occasions. First, guards abruptly end the reunion, in a hurry to leave the secret location. June then runs back to Hannah for one last goodbye, in which she gives Hannah some final words of advice, as though she will never see her again.
“The UN experts said that in cases where parents are taken away from their children and are going to go get shot and executed, that at the very last minute, they’ll give all the advice that they can crammed into those last few minutes and they’ll say, ‘Enjoy your life,'” says Chang. “And so that led to June saying to Hannah, ‘Enjoy your life. Listen to your parents. Love your parents. Do what they tell you.’ She wants to remind her daughter how much she loves her and that she’ll always have that, and also just some tips on how to stay alive and survive in Gilead.”
The two are separated once again, and June can hear Hannah crying out for her from outside. It leads to the final exchange between these loved ones: June runs outside and comforts her daughter, giving her specific instructions on how to get in the car and leave.
“Once Hannah is taken away,” says Chang, “and Offred is supposed to stay inside, she keeps hearing Hannah saying, ‘Mommy, mommy, mommy!’ And she can’t help but run outside. She can’t bear it. She has to go outside and she has to build a bridge. Instead of their goodbye being ripped apart, Offred goes outside and she builds a bridge for Hannah by giving her really concrete steps to leave: ‘You’re going to take your Martha’s hand. You’re going to get in the car. You’re going to go home.'”
Jeremy Podeswa, who directed the episode (as well as the previous installment), says the scene was shot over the course of four days, which required careful planning on the production’s part: “I was very conscious, talking with Lizzie [Moss] ahead of time about how much I thought she could handle in a day, because she’s obviously incredible, but to ask any actor to perform at this level of emotional intensity over a period of days… you would imagine any actor would tap out at a certain point. It’s impossible to sustain that. We really planned it in a way so that she wouldn’t have to go to that most intense place too often, or for too long a period [of time].”
“But what’s interesting is that once Lizzie was in it, we actually went further than we thought every day,” he continues. “We rehearsed it in chunks, after what we knew the arc of the entire scene was, and then we would do it in chunks [to find out] how much we’re going to do today. And after we rehearsed it, she would say, ‘Can we go further? Is there a way, without stopping the camera?’ … Once she was in it, she was always saying, ‘Let’s go further. Let’s go to the next part of it, without cutting the camera.’ So we would try to do as much as possible and chase her with the camera, which was fantastic, because she could stay in that moment for longer and let the emotional moments build.”
Even when the reunion ends, the nightmare continues for June. Following her final separation from Hannah, June is quickly hidden away by Nick (Max Minghella) as Gilead forces start to arrive on the scene. Nick goes outside and engages these men, only to be shot and abducted, his fate left hanging in the balance, and June left behind, all alone, heartbroken and confused, dangerously far along in her pregnancy, trapped in dangerous surroundings.
“We don’t know what happened to Nick,” says Podeswa. “All of that will be revealed later. But I think we [as viewers] should feel as lost as [Offred], and I think what makes the ending, the last moment, so powerful, is that there’s so much confusion after this chaotic and extremely emotional experience. And Offred really doesn’t know where she is and what awaits her. The audience should be as dislocated and discombobulated. They should feel: ‘Fuck. What now?'”
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