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[This story contains spoilers to the seventh episode of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s fourth season, “Home.”]
Since season one of The Handmaid’s Tale, viewers have been rooting for Elisabeth Moss’ June to escape Gilead. But the starring Handmaid had vowed that she would never leave her first daughter behind. Finally, in last week’s episode, after coming to the realization that she cannot save her daughter on her own, June touched down in Canada and let out a deep breath — a culmination of years of waging her war with the dictatorship that serves as the collective villain in the Hulu drama.
“She will never leave without Hannah — until she does,” showrunner Bruce Miller told The Hollywood Reporter of June declaring for the past three seasons, and well into the currently streaming fourth, that she would not leave her behind. When discussing episode seven, titled “Home,” Miller explains the moment that forced June to accept the realization that she had to go.
“It happened in a very particular way,” he says of Moira (Samira Wiley) ultimately convincing June to set sail with her to Canada. “Moira was absolutely right, June is delusional. But it’s still hard to convince somebody, or drag them, physically, onto a boat. And I think it might not have worked if June hadn’t seen Hannah [played by Jordana Blake, in the third episode]. Now, she has a completely different idea in her head of what it would be like to rescue her daughter; she’d be scooping in and this kid would be terrified of her. And so, all of a sudden, June is starting to come to terms with, ‘She’s gone. She’s gone from me.’ And it took all the way up until that moment on the boat [with Moira] for her to realize that. She is able to get on the boat because she feels like she fucked up so badly. She says it in that spectacular scene: ‘I had the one thing to do and I failed. I was her mother and I failed.'”
Moss directed that heartbreaking reunion between June and Hannah in episode three, “The Crossing.” (The first-time director also helmed the upcoming eighth and ninth episodes.) And, in the seventh episode, June puts one foot in front of the other after stepping off that boat and begins to assimilate back into a free society in Canada. “Home” indeed brings about a homecoming for June as she reunites with husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and second daughter Nichole, her best friend Moira, and her friends and fellow Gilead survivors Rita (Amanda Brugel) and Emily (Alexis Bledel). But when June reclaims her voice in a searing confrontation with her abuser Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) — who, in a reversal of fortunes, is now the one who is pregnant and in government captivity — getting her sense of self back manifests in a shocking bedroom scene with Luke.
“She’s feeling the delicious control of herself that she hasn’t had for so long — agency over her own life — and it’s so dizzying after everything,” says Miller of the episode’s ending sex scene, which sees June become the aggressor despite Luke’s protests for her to stop. “She is taking away his agency,” he adds. “We wrote very much that it was her being the aggressor and him being reluctant and uncomfortable, but that’s all that we put into the script. The actual dynamics of moving around and the give and take of consent was really up to the actors and the director in that time. Everybody’s story is their own story. One of the reasons it’s so hard to watch is that it does ring true as something that a woman like June might be going through. It seems to track. But, it doesn’t make it any less horrible.”
Below, in a separate chat with The Hollywood Reporter, Moss details those behind-the-scenes conversations while also talking about the long-awaited reunions for June with many characters, the pandemic-era themes that came through in the already-written fourth season and why, moving forward, June has “been changed forever by what happened to her in Gilead and I don’t think she can ever be the same.”
You wear many hats this season as star, executive producer and director. As an actress, how would you say living through the pandemic infused its way into your performance this season?
I can’t really limit it to just as an actress. I would say it affected me, and tied in more, as an actress and director-producer for the first episode that I directed, episode three, because I had already sort of figured out before the shutdown in March that the theme of the episode was about human connection versus isolation. And human touch versus no contact. It’s really crazy, but I have all these notes before production shut down and before COVID about how that’s what 403 [“The Crossing”] is about. Very, very literally about human touch, versus not being able to touch anyone. Hannah being in the glass box was something that we decided and designed before the pandemic, and then all of a sudden, you had all of these images of people touching hands through glass and not being able to speak to each other. The episode ends with all of the women reaching their hands across to each other in the darkness back at the Red Center. June at one point [in the episode’s torture scenes] is even inside a tiny little box. I was able to then bring my experience and what I had seen watching the world back to directing that episode when we went back in September, and those themes just became even more important to me.
Bruce Miller was only on set with you for one day as a first-time director. Then the shutdown happened and when you came back, your communications with him were virtual. What was that learning curve like for you once you returned, and did you feel like a pro by the time you came back to helm the later episodes?
(Laughs) Yea! Look, I’m used to being very involved in the show, with the director, and with the crew and the other actors. So it wasn’t as big of a leap. But it was, I think, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was incredibly challenging. The amount of things you keep in your head and are responsible for goes from 10 to 100. You just never, ever stop when you’re directing. I have a whole new respect for directors. I’ve always respected directors so much; they’ve always been my number one relationship on set, but I have a whole new respect. I felt very, very supported by our crew. I had an incredible DP in Stuart Biddlecomb; incredible production designer in Elisabeth Williams; great scripts written by Bruce, Kira Snyder and Eric Tuchman. I never felt like I was doing it alone. I had these incredible actors to work with. What I think I was most moved by was how giving everybody was, how generous everybody was with their talent and with their skills. And how it truly felt like we were making these episodes together. I was like someone from the home team and they were supporting me all the way, and would do anything for me. And that was very, very moving.
You had promised this season would deliver payoffs for viewers — and, so far, it has in confrontations, reunions and, most recently, with June finally leaving Gilead. Miller summarized the season by saying June is making active decisions and with that come costs. When you look back to when June first stepped up as leader, how would you characterize June’s evolution in season four?
I view it as someone who truly will never really be free. I think that she goes through something that is supposed to bring her closure, freedom, satisfaction — assimilation back into society — and, it doesn’t work because she’s changed too much and she can’t forget what she’s seen, she can’t forget what she’s done. We say it quite often: Gildead is within you. Gilead isn’t just a place; it’s an idea. And that’s why it’s so universal to the audience. It’s not just something that could happen in America, it’s something that has happened all over the world that currently exists. So, that’s not something you can just get away from because you moved cities.
Even her freedom, and leaving with Moira (Samira Wiley), comes with the cost of leaving Janine (Madeline Brewer) behind. What was it like to play out the long-awaited reunion between June and Moira with Samira Wiley?
I loved that moment in the script so much when I read it. I had such a fan moment of going, “Oh, my God! It’s Moira!” And then I got to work with Samira more. For me, and I hope for her, that was such a gift this season. I haven’t worked with her on the show in a while; besides a flashback here or there, I haven’t really been in the weeds with her. So, I got to work with her again and I got to direct her as well, which was such an incredible experience. I personally feel that Samira Wiley’s performance this year is above and beyond anything I’ve seen her do, and I was right there looking. I was right there with her, take after take. I’ve never seen her do what she did this season. I think she unlocked something in herself as an actress that I am so inspired by. It’s truly on another level. I said to her, “I don’t know what you’ve been doing. I don’t know what you’ve been up to.” She’s just extraordinary. I know you asked about June and Moira’s [reunion], but that goes for a lot of the characters. I got to work with these actors that I haven’t gotten to work with in a while; Yvonne [Strahovski], Joe [Fiennes], OT [Fagbenle]! Even Amanda [Brugel] and Alexis [Bledel], I got to see again. There were a lot of new opportunities for us as actors to approach our characters in slightly different places, as people who had gone through some stuff, and got to do completely different things.
June’s reunion with husband Luke (Fagbenle) proves to be complicated and the seventh episode ends with a shocking sex scene between them. Miller said the scene was written simply in the script and that what ended up on screen is a result of work from the actors and director Richard Shepard. What were your conversations like about how you wanted portray the give and take of consent, and what does it mean for June at this point?
Any time there is a love scene it does get handed over to the actors very much, especially because of the intimacy of it. And we have an intimacy coordinator now on set, who is absolutely wonderful. It’s the first time in my career that I’ve worked with an intimacy coordinator, and I’ve done a lot of intimate scenes. It was a wonderful experience. I saw her work with other actors. It helped everybody to feel as comfortable as possible, and it also helped us to figure out what the scene was about and be able to portray that in a safe space. That was a side of it that I didn’t anticipate. Myself and Richard and OT and our intimacy coordinator worked together. We knew what the scene needed to be, we knew what it needed to do, but how were we going to do that exactly? And it’s exactly what I think it should be in the sense of, I don’t know how you have June’s experiences with sex and rape and the trauma of that and come out of that and have a normal relationship with sex. I just don’t know how you do that. She hasn’t done the work to get to the place where she can, so I think it’s a very honest portrayal of somebody who is very wounded by what has happened to her and the trauma of that. It’s her story, it’s not a universal story. But I do think it’s accurate for June and what she has experienced.
I understand that the Handmaid’s Tale team does a lot of research, including speaking to survivors of government sexual trauma through the UN and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Can you share how those conversations impacted June’s story?
I actually didn’t [have those conversations]; that was mainly the writers room. What’s great is that they do all the research. They have the conversations, they do the work. And then when you get the script and you get the story, it’s already there. It’s already been talked about and researched and been vetted as to its accuracy. I focus a lot more on what June’s story is and what I feel her experience is. I think everyone’s experience is different on an individual basis and I feel like I have a perspective on her story having played her for so long that I feel is accurate. What was most important to me was that she didn’t go to Canada and everything was fine. I just felt like that was impossible. How could that be? How could she just assimilate back into society? That’s just not possible after everything she’s been through and the trauma. So that was just something that was almost instinctively very important to me that we had in the back half of that season.
With all of the guilt that June is now carrying — particularly, with leaving Hannah behind in Gilead — how do you imagine she can reconcile everything what has happened and get to a place where she can move forward?
I don’t think she can. (Pause.) I don’t think she can. I think that she is frustrated with the bureaucracy of the world and I think she is dealing with that. I think she’s been changed forever by what happened to her in Gilead and I don’t think she can ever be the same. I think the only peace she could ever find is to bring Hannah back to her father. And I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I mean, no one does. Unless you’ve read The Testaments!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Handmaid’s Tale is now streaming the first seven episodes of season four on Hulu and will continue to release episodes weekly on Wednesdays.
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