Fred gleefully enacts his cruelest "revenge" on June yet in a scene every bit as awful as every rape scene we've seen so far, and even worse in some ways.
"The Handmaid's Tale" finally made a monumental shift toward forward momentum and hope this week, but not before subject virtually every sympathetic character in Gilead to even more pain and suffering of the worst kind.
For the first time in a long time, the Ceremony came back into play at the behest of Fred's abject cruelty and malice. Joseph Fiennes plays this character with such petty menace, it truly is a masterful performance. What he can do with a wickedly upturned smile and a twinkle in his eye just makes you want to smash his face in with the nearest heavy object.
But this was a week of brilliant acting performances, led by Julie Dretzin as the increasingly erratic and sympathetic Eleanor Lawrence. The Lawrence household has been a godsend to "The Handmaid's Tale," rife with mystery and power and unpredictable behavior from pretty much everyone within its unorthodox walls. And yet, it's also been a safe-haven for so many.
For June, it was a place where she could go and almost feel human, almost feel an equal part of the world. For Marthas, it is a place where they can run their black market and know that Commander Lawrence will turn a blind eye. For Eleanor it is a safe place where she can hide from the world, even as she struggles and suffers to live in it without her mood stabilizing medication.
And for Lawrence, who built so much of this horrific world, it is a place where he can set himself aside from the obligations subjected to everyone else. No one in the Lawrence household participated in the Ceremony, because Lawrence loves his wife above all else and just didn't feel it necessary. He was effectively the exception that proved his own harsh rule.
It was working just fine, except that Fred Waterford is a monster and a vindictive, cruel and insecure man. And so he convinced the pathologically vile Commaner Winslow that they should all attend the next Ceremony at the Lawrence house to ensure it's done properly ... or done at all.
It's a way for him to be nasty to June, knowing that she will be subjected to another rape, and it is a way for him to be nasty to Commander Lawrence, as well. Fred Waterford is all about himself and his ambition and he genuinely seemed to want to see the Ceremony fail so that everyone in that household could suffer. And suffer they would.
The Lawrences would be hung for shirking their duties, the Marthas might face the same fate. It's hard to say if June would die, simply because of her value as a womb, but she would most certainly be punished.
And so we got the most painful and difficult to watch Ceremony yet in a scene where we didn't see a single bit of the actual sex act. All we got was the emotional turmoil of Lawrence, Eleanor and June as they realized there was no way to get out of doing this. Lawrence was going to have to rape June, such as it is, and Eleanor was going to have to stand by and let it happen.
"You helped create this world. How long did you think it would be before it came for you?" June asked Lawrence. And yet, he seemed to really believe he would be safe in his hideaway as the architect of Gilead, grandfathered in with all the exceptions he wanted to grant himself.
The performances from all three actors (Dretzin, Elisabeth Moss and Bradley Whitford) in these scenes was just stunning, with Dretzin turning in Emmy-worthy work throughout the episode, but never more heartbreaking than when she realized what Lawrence and June were going to have to do to spare everyone in the household. It was one of the most emotionally wrought scenes of the entire episode, happening as Fred, Serena and Winslow sat serenely downstairs.
The cruelty and inhumanity of this world knows no bounds. We thought the "torture porn" rape scenes were bad -- and they were -- but throwing in an element of trust and genuine compassion between characters who are then forced to engage in the Ceremony was somehow every bit as bad, if not worse in its own way.
On top of that, while Serena was talking to June at the "Inspection" earlier in the episode, Winslow could be heard talking to Aunt Lydia about rolling out the veils and rings across Gilead (you know, that awful act we saw in Washington D.C. where handmaids have their mouths closed with rings and must wear veils of silence.
When Aunt Lydia suggested this was strictly voluntary, Winslow seemed to scoff at this, just as he wasn't pleased to see Janine's non-regulation eyepatch. Aunt Lydia is going to be challenged very soon with the growing cruelty of Gilead in how it treats its women. Eventually there has to be a line that will be too far even for her, right? Right?!
June, however, has not been broken yet as proven by her bold line to Fred when he asked her if she was alright after the Ceremony. Again, this was Fred trying to be clever and cruel, but he's a little too stupid to pull it off. In this case, June stunned him to silence by saying, "I mean, at least it wasn't you."
Throughout the episode, June had been urging Lawrence to do the right thing for Eleanor and get out with her. She even tried to plead the same thing to Eleanor when the Commander's wife helped her find the dossier files on all the handmaids and their wives.
"Joseph is a war criminal. He can't cross the border," Eleanor said practically. "He would be jailed for the rest of his life or killed. And he would deserve it." She then crowed happily about finding briefcase, emphasizing just how fragile her state is and conflicted her feelings are about her husband and this world he built.
Once Fred forced his way into the Lawrence house to exact his own form of revenge on June by coercing the Ceremony into happening, Lawrence got the wakeup call he perhaps should have had long ago. Gilead will not spare him its cruelty and it will not spare Eleanor its humiliation and dehumanizing practices.
And so he finally relented and agreed in part to June's suggestion that he get a truck and flee Gilead with Eleanor. "I'll get you a truck," Lawrence tells June after sliding her some contraceptive. "You get my wife out safely."
But June wasn't going to be satisfied with this. Determined in last week's stellar bottle episode, June has a new mission, and the pieces are slowly starting to come together. And so she told him about her idea to get the kids out and how if he helped, he might be spared the punishments of his war crimes.
"I'd be a hero," he said sardonically, walking stoically out of the room. So we'll put a pin in that for now, but it was a remarkable hour of television in that we saw real progress on June's abstract mission to shepherd the "stolen children of Gilead" to freedom. It's an idea so crazy that at the top of the hour one of her closest handmaid allies Alma wanted nothing to do with her.
Perhaps the saddest element of the episode, on a personal level, was the discovery that it has been five years since the handmaids were ripped from their children's lives and, thanks to the files Eleanor helped June find, June now knows the fates of most of them. In revealing them, she helped us understand just how much these mothers had lost, but none more than Janine. She'd lost so much to Gilead already only for June to find out her son died in a car accident four years ago.
She hadn't the heart tell her, though, instead assuring her friend that her son and his new family had moved to California and were living on the beach. A lie of kindness. At the same time, she told Alma the truth about where her child is now, including his new name and family, as proof that she has the proper intel now.
By the close of the hour, Alma was helping consider other kids they might be able to help. And then came the most shocking twist of all in the form of baked goods. "Scones mean no," Beth told June earlier in the hour, indicating the Marthas would no longer be able to secure Eleanor's medications. June then asked her to spread the word that she wanted help in freeing the children.
The episode closed with an overhead shot of Beth and June standing around a kitchen island absolutely overflowing with baskets filled with baked goods. But these weren't scones.
Oh, it is on now! The Martha network is a powerful thing, and it seems like they're finally read to step up and do something. On top of that, Winslow's plan to roll out the veils and rings across Gilead puts a timeframe of urgency on the whole operation.
By the end of the hour, June confirmed that she had access to a truck that could hold 10, but with dozens of muffins, that's not going to do it for the larger operation. Are we about to see an Underground Railroad running through the Lawrence household? That seems too risky, though, because as soon as one child goes missing, Gilead will go on lockdown.
This has to be an orchestrated effort and we have no idea how June thinks she can pull it off. She probably doesn't either, but with as much progress as she made through one more night of suffering at the hands of Gilead, she may pull this off yet.
Most importantly, "The Handmaid's Tale" appears to finally be done (for awhile at least) wallowing in its own misery and despair. After some hope last season, we spent way too long this season resetting hopelessness. It's about damned time the sun came out again, even if its only peeking from behind the clouds so far.
"The Handmaid's Tale" airs new episodes every Wednesday on Hulu.