'The Handmaid's Tale' Season 3: Elisabeth Moss Breaks Down That Fiery Premiere

The Emmy-winning star speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about the morally complicated season: "We're asking the audience to come with us on this ride."
Elly Dassas/Hulu
Elisabeth Moss on 'The Handmaid's Tale'

[This story contains spoilers through season three, episode three of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale.]

Midway into "Useful," the third episode of The Handmaid's Tale season three, Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) and June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss), the handmaid formerly known as Offred, snipe back and forth at one another in Lawrence's dimly lit office. The battle of wits between intellectual giants (even if Lawrence doesn't immediately give June such credit) includes a perfect summary of the relationship featured between June, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) over the first two seasons.

"You really mucked up that house, didn't you?" says Commander Lawrence. "You got Fred demoted, Serena defingered, baby baby-napped. You left the place literally in ashes. Do you think they got what they deserved?"

June's loaded response: "No one in Gilead gets what they deserve, sir."

For his adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel of the same name, Handmaid Tale's creator Bruce Miller and his team of writers have made the choice to keep June in Gilead with a multi-pronged purpose: to make sure that the people of the dystopian nation get exactly what they deserve — justice, in every sense of the word. For June, on a personal level, it means liberating her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake), who has spent the past several years living in the McKenzie household. The season three premiere, appropriately titled "Night," sees June breaking into that house in order to save her daughter, only for state security to show up moments later.

"You know all of this ends with you dying on the ground in front of her," Hannah's Gilead mother, Mrs. McKenzie (played by Transparent star Amy Landecker), tells June before she's taken back to the Waterfords. "If you love her, you have to stop."

The first three episodes of season three make one thing painfully clear: June Osborne can't be stopped, at least not easily. The season premiere ends with the Waterford house destroyed in a fire created by Serena but existentially prompted by June's actions; the third episode (the last of the installments made available in Hulu's June 5 debut of season three) ends with June starting another fire of sorts, by accepting Commander Lawrence's challenge to choose five women to join the Martha network of resistance fighters: an engineer, an IT tech, a journalist, a lawyer and a thief. 

"We survived another day," June tells a fellow victim of Gilead at the end of the third hour — and based on how Moss describes the rest of the season, June's journey will be about much more than sheer survival in the episodes ahead. Here's what the actress tells The Hollywood Reporter about the fiery first three episodes of season three.

Season three picks up right where season two left off, exploring the immediate aftermath of June's decision to stay behind in Gilead. What did you think of that choice?

I thought it was really smart, because after the end of last season, I can't imagine how you miss any moment after that. You need to be right there with her and experiencing what she's experiencing. Every second is so, so important. You can't skip anything. It's so important to know what her next move is. So I thought it was really smart, and it was also obviously just a very cool, entertaining kind of way to pick up the season.

Were you surprised to see June and Hannah reunite in the first episode, even if it's not quite a permanent reunion?

Yeah, I was initially surprised by that when it was pitched to me. But it made a lot of sense, because that's the elephant in the room, you know? We have to take care of that right away. It's the reason why she stayed, and I think it was actually a really surprising thing to do, which I loved. In seasons one and two, it took a long time before she ended up seeing Hannah; 10 episodes in the first season and 10 episodes in the second season. Subverting expectations like that is really fun. And I liked that we were giving the audience the thing that they thought they were going to have to wait all season for, per usual, in the first episode. It's very important in setting up the trajectory of this season. This little girl is right there; she's present, she is around, but you can't get her. 

It also ended up giving us what I think is my favorite scene in episode one, the one with Amy Landecker. I think that's really, really important for the rest of this season, because we've never really talked about or shown the other side of [parenting in Gilead]. It was a very new perspective to talk about, this idea of, well, what if Hannah is happy? What if she is loved? What if she has a good adoptive mother that maybe she wants to stay with? What if she has a good life and a good home? It's sort of a controversial idea, but I really liked what we put into the conversation.

June returns home, and before long, we see Serena burning down the Waterford house. By the end of the episode, June is living with Commander Lawrence. It's a serious shift in the status quo.

That's what I like about the show. The far more conventional thing to do would be to somehow stay in the Waterford House. I honestly do not know how we would have figured out how to do that! (Laughs.) It would be pretty cheesy and bad. I love that we move on, and really move on. I mean, we burn down the house. That's a set that we don't have anymore. We'll never ever go back to it; it's gone. It's pretty bold to take your main set — your main family, your main characters and the world that we have gotten used to for the first two seasons — and literally wipe it out and burn it down. But that's the kind of thing I think that this the show enabled us to do, because there are no rules like that. 

The next two episodes heavily feature June's relationship with Commander Lawrence, who is a very different man from Commander Waterford. Episode three includes a powerful scene in which June and Lawrence match wits and cut at each other's cores. How has this character and the work by Bradley Whitford changed the series, energetically?

That's my favorite relationship of the show this season. It's obviously the biggest relationship between two characters in season three. He's a huge, huge, huge presence on the show. What I love about his character is how different he is from anyone else that we've brought into the show. He's such an enigma. I think there's ways that you can pinpoint some of the characters: this person is on the good side, this person is on the bad side. With Commander Lawrence, you just really don't know. And we keep you guessing up until the bitter end of whether or not he's going to end up being a good person. He's a very important foil for June. He challenges her. He demands that she use her full intellect, which she has. He challenges her to fully become the person that she needs to become in order to fight back against Gilead, and in very surprising ways. 

I love that argument that they have in the office, because it felt like a real intellectual discussion. I feel like we have so few words sometimes on the show and a lot of it is not saying what we mean, or saying the opposite of what we mean, or trying to hide our true feelings. And here was a real honest conversation. You're going to see a lot more of those in season three between Lawrence and June. They really match each other, as far as their intelligence goes.

There's a sense of hope rising this season. Miller has used the words "blessed be the fight" to describe the tone. How would you describe the tone of the season as we move forward, and what do you think it's setting up for the future beyond season three?

I think it's a much more complicated season. I've found seasons in the past have been easier to speak about sometimes, because there's sort of one objective, there's one arc. There's almost a simplicity to some of the ideas. Now, what's really cool for us is we get to explore things that are a little bit more complicated. June's been there for a few years. She's changed. She's not the person that walked into Gilead anymore, and we're very clear about showing that. 

I could almost talk about the first half of the season as one season and the second half as another. There's a real change in the second half of the season that is pretty huge, character-wise. It allowed me to do some things as an actor with June that I think are going to be really surprising and pretty extreme. We're asking the audience to come with us on this ride, but what we're trying to do and what I'm trying to do is show the person that you would become, if you lived in that system for that long and you had seen the things that you had seen and you had done the things that you've done and the things that had been done to you, and how that would change you. You wouldn't be the same person. But in order to lead the resistance and in order to be the person that does that and that is fearless and ruthless and strong enough? Maybe you have to change.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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