Though Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is marketed as a Biblical, dystopian drama, the horrors of the series often come uncannily close to reality. Known for its gut-wrenching moments and thought-provoking material, the second season’s 10th episode garnered mixed reviews because of its explicit content.
Though the show gained viewership for its unapologetically graphic depictions of abuse, violence and rape, the increasingly grotesque season caused some viewers to question where to draw the line between empathy and exploitation.
The most recent episode, “The Last Ceremony,” was directed by Jeremy Podeswa, previously known for his work on HBO’s notoriously explicit “Game of Thrones.”
The episode opens with Emily (Alexis Bledel) being forced to endure yet another “ceremony,” a procession in which the prominent, infertile couples of Gilead attempt to inseminate their respective handmaids through what is essentially rape.
Viewers watch Emily — who is easily one on the most tormented characters of the show — dissociate as her eyes glaze during the act. Offred’s (Elisabeth Moss) voice looms with the statement, “One detaches oneself.”
Later in the episode, the same haunting voiceover returns to accompany the rape of a very pregnant (and very resistant) Offred — a heinous act committed by the Waterfords in hopes of inducing birth, but mostly reminding her of her tragically subservient role in their household.
The lingering sentiment “one detatches oneself” is a war cry for the show itself: Detatchment is the coping mechanism for Gilead’s women in the face of their tragic, exploitative realities.
However, the hyper-explicit depiction of rape in “reduced circumstances,” as Offred/June herself put it in the episode, wasn’t the end of viewers’ disgust. A later scene further tugged at viewers’ heartstrings when June finally reunited with her biological daughter Hannah, only to have the young girl violently ripped from her arms 10 minutes later.
Each episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale” feels at once like a warning and a call to arms; in this sense, the 10th episode comes at an appropriate time in our political atmosphere.
In light of recent events surrounding undocumented families being forcibly separated at the Mexican border, watching the pain written across June’s face as Hannah is taken from her arms hits a little too close to home.
Obviously, these moments, including the numerous rape scenes, make the show extremely uncomfortable to watch. But at what point have we crossed the line from empathy to exploitation?
Yahlin Chang, one of the episode’s writers, defends the show’s storytelling. “It’s really wrong to rip children away from their mothers, and it’s really wrong to rape people. With this particular episode, I think, those are two messages I would like to hammer home,” Chang explained in an interview with Digital Spy.
Overall, the series’ impact doesn’t come from its entertainment value; rather, its value lies in its lack of hesitance in bringing a seemingly distant reality the immediacy it deserves, highlighting the fact that similar tragedies are being inflicted on women somewhere in the real world.
In addition, like “The Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood once said, there is “nothing in the book that didn’t happen somewhere.”
Yes, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is uncomfortable to watch, considering its parallelism to the real world. However, the showrunners wouldn’t be doing their job if their intention was to make people complacent to pervasive issues like sexual assault and the forced separation of families. Whether in Gilead or an I.C.E. detention center, “The Handmaid’s Tale” warns against authoritarian regimes, emphasizing how the weight of the burden falls upon women more than often.
While not every aspect of the fictional Gilead may be our immediate reality in the United States, the show does illustrate a harsh world that many women live through every day. What is noteworthy about “The Handmaid’s Tale,” above all, is that the show refuses to raise the question of right or wrong — rather, it forces viewers to edges of their seat, questioning their empathy as well as their politics.
In placing motherhood at the center of its storyline, “The Handmaid’s Tale” emphasizes that the personal is politics, and always will be. Upon witnessing the traumatic visuals of the show, viewers are left with a challenge: Remain complacent or join the fight.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the 10th episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was also the finale. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.