The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most beautifully acted and shot dramas on TV, but it’s not exactly relaxing viewing.
When it’s not having its characters mutilated, lynched, tortured, imprisoned, physically violated, emotionally brutalised, or led inexorably down the road from the world we recognise towards the horrors of Gilead in sickening flashbacks, it’s building towards the next grim revelation.
So when an episode of this show needs an extra content warning, as last week’s episode ‘The Last Ceremony’ did, you know you’re going to need extras of whatever your coping substance of choice is.
And they weren’t kidding. The episode showcased the considerable range of Elisabeth Moss’s cry-acting, as her character June (AKA Offred) endured horror after horror: a false labour that forced her to confront her impending separation from her unborn child and the brief relief that it would be delayed, a violent rape at the hands of the Waterfords (as opposed to, you know, the grimly ritualised monthly rape the handmaids are subjected to), and an agonisingly short reunion with her daughter Hannah.
Whether it was the protracted, unflinching assault scene, the wrenching (and coincidentally ripped from the headlines) mother-and-child separation, or the one-two gut punch of both, even the viewers who have stuck with the show through everything so far are struggling.
The writer credited with the episode, Yahlin Chang, gets it. She knows it was brutal, potentially triggering, and even more emotional than originally intended, given the events on the US-Mexican border this week.
“I do worry about people not wanting to watch because this was a very hard episode to watch,” Chang told the Washington Post.
She insists that it’s worth sticking with it, though.
“I have to say episodes 11 through 13 are just unbelievable. There’s just this ramp-up adrenaline, momentous, amazing feeling,” she said. “Especially the next episode right after this one, it’s incredible. One of the best episodes of television ever.”
OK, lady – but ‘The Last Ceremony’ was also incredible TV, lady, and that didn’t make it any easier to watch.
“I think people will really enjoy the next episode. . . . It’s really compelling what’s coming up next. Please don’t stop watching.”
Look, “enjoy” is more promising – I definitely enjoyed watching Emily stomp on her dying Commander’s crotch at the beginning of the most recent episode.
Chang promises “amazing triumphs” as well as “huge upsets” in the final three episodes. Hopefully those triumphs and upsets are enough to get us through the parts that are, well, hugely upsetting.
As vital as this show is to help us fear and frame the horrors of reality, we could all use even a fictional win right now.