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[This story contains major spoilers from The Handmaid’s Tale season four finale, “The Wilderness.”]
“Weak men, they do make the world go ’round.” In the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, not anymore.
The season four finale brought about a moment of long-awaited catharsis when Elisabeth Moss’ June orchestrated the murder of her former abuser, Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), and — by her own hands and with the help of fellow refugee Handmaids — put him on the wall. The dystopian drama ends with two flashing images: June, with blood on her face, cradling her younger daughter; and Fred’s headless body hanging above the show’s familiar phrase, “Nolite te bastardes carburondorum.”
“It’s a very ugly kind of justice, but it is justice and it feels good because of that. It’s what Fred deserved,” Bruce Miller, the creator and showrunner of the Hulu series, tells The Hollywood Reporter about the death of the original series regular, a fate that Miller began to plot midway through season three.
June’s choice to seek revenge on the villain of The Handmaid’s Tale, however, was not made easy. As her final words of the season indicate when she tells husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle), “I’m sorry. Just give me five minutes with her [Nichole] and then I’ll go,” she has potentially risked her freedom in order to further her war on the fascist regime of Gilead.
“June says, ‘A good mother would be able to let it go. I want to be able to let it go.’ At that point, she realizes what she has to do, which is to let it go [after Fred will not face justice for his crimes]. But later, when she sits with Fred, it’s the moment that he apologizes and she realizes that he isn’t ignorant of his own evil, but knows what he’s done and how bad it is and has accepted that — that’s the moment where her rage gets so white-hot that it’s not going to dissipate until this person is off the planet,” adds Bruce of the pivotal confrontation between June and Fred that set her plan in motion.
In the below conversation with THR, Miller discusses the contrasting imagery of the final scene (“Moving forward, that is what June sees every time she closes her eyes”), reveals that Fiennes will indeed remain a member of the cast through flashbacks, and explains the intentional ambiguity about what comes next for June in the already renewed fifth season: “She’s five minutes from a reckoning.”
Elisabeth Moss said in her THR interview that Fred’s fate was in the works since season three. How long have you envisioned this?
I think I’ve envisioned this moment since, probably, at the very beginning. You’re envisioning what it’s going to feel like, emotionally, because you’re building up towards it. Even if June isn’t there yet, you are building a tower that you’re eventually going to push Fred off of. But really, I think at the middle of season three, I started to think about it seriously and I talked to Joe [Fiennes] and Lizzie [Moss] about character stuff and what they thought. Once I had decided that Fred and Serena were going to escape and get to Canada [last season], I thought this was a fitting end to that story.
How did Joseph Fiennes handle the news in your conversations ahead of season four?
We’ve always spoken about what the endgame is for the character, so we had spoken about it a few times. I think we sat down and had the conversation about what was going to happen this season even before the pandemic began and before we began filming before the shutdown. We talked about it then and I let Joe know exactly what I was planning. You don’t want anything like this to be a surprise. Also, the character dying doesn’t mean Joe stops coming and being part of the cast. We do have quite a heavy flashback show.
Oh! So he will be sticking around?
It’s terribly sad. But it would be much worse if we thought we were never going to see Joe again on set. There’s two different aspects to it: the heartbreak of the story and the heartbreak of real life. And at least the heart break of real life is neutered a little bit by knowing we’re going to be seeing him again.
What era in the past would you like to explore in Fred flashbacks, before, during or after the start of Gilead?
I think the stories of Serena and Fred that we haven’t seen before, even in early Gilead, are fascinating. In the finale, we revisit Fred and June and what happened in the Waterford house in flashbacks. I would never take anything like that off the table. I love that we can access that stuff where the viewer and June are on the same page and thinking back to the same things. Before, there were a lot of flashbacks where June was leaving us to remember about Hannah. But now, we’re with her. When she’s walking to see Fred and she’s remembering walking to the ceremony, I remember that. You’re not just being carried by her, you’re walking with her in that experience.
So much has built up to this act of vengeance where June, as a free woman, physically puts Fred “on the fucking wall.” Why did he have to go out this way?
I think it’s incredible catharsis. It’s a very ugly kind of justice, but it is justice and it feels good because of that. It’s what Fred deserved. Because of the way he treated these people, he deserved to be killed in whatever way their anger led them. I think it’s justice, but that doesn’t make it any less of a burden for June. Moving forward, June does this thing that everybody’s been rooting for and gets her revenge, but then she feels… what? Like someone who tore a man’s body apart by choice? She wasn’t forced to do it. So I think that is very interesting. You want the end of the season to be the end of one really interesting story and the beginning of another really interesting story, but not so much that you’re frustrated that you don’t get to start that next story. For me, that’s where it lands for June. She thought she would feel a certain way, but she doesn’t. “I feel completely turned inside out, upside down. Like a terrible mother, a terrible human, someone who doesn’t have anything to offer my husband.” She feels all of those things. And yet, she got what she always wanted so, how does that work?
Elisabeth Moss said Liz Garbus, who directed the finale, explained how an apology from Fred would push June to seek revenge, because that is the worst thing an abuser can say to their victim since it shows they knew what they were doing. She called that scene the “nail in the fucking coffin” for Fred.
That was a great moment. We did a ton of research, especially with people who have been in situations of systematic rape, systematic misogyny and systematic abuse. Living day in and day out, it isn’t a moment of judgment. It’s over a long period of time. So to hear someone say, “I knew I was doing something wrong the whole time” is the worst. That’s the thing that gives you the venom. I think in that scene, that’s where it clicks for June. But with Lizzie and Joe as actors, there are so many clicks. It’s so not the expected scene. But, you put your finger on it: it’s a free woman making this decision. She’s not like anyone we have ever seen with him before; she’s free and it’s amazing to see. But a free woman makes a free-minded decision to do this and that makes it even worse.
Was there a version where you toyed with June not going through with murdering Fred?
Nothing is obvious and I think June always considers escape routes. This was a wave that she was riding and desperately trying not to crash on the beach. She did not want to do this. She would have preferred to have chosen another vision of herself but, at a certain point, she kind of steels and falls apart and says, “I’m going to put him on the wall.” That’s the end of her thinking process; that’s what has to be done. If at the last moment she had called off the other women and just left him in the woods, that’s also as good of an end. I’m not thinking about what happens; I’m thinking about the people who it’s going to happen to. I knew these two people were going to clash at the end of season four, who knows how it’s going to turn out? It might surprise me. I follow June through those scenes.
The final image of Fred is a powerful one. When the world in the show finds out what happened, could this be a rallying cry for the Gilead uprising?
Yes. It has the potential to push things in a ton of ways. It could push Serena to be a very sympathetic figure. It could push her into a rage that is inexplicable; it could push her into a level of freedom. For June, it could push her to infamy or it could push her to prison. She’s a refugee who did this but, on the other hand, who is going to know? Who was there and who is going to tell them? The nice thing is that it can turn into a giant image and inspiration, or an image that besmirches the Handmaids. Anyone who looks at it can see a very different thing, which is what I was trying to do with the placement of the image at the end of the episode. Where you say, “Oh, crap, she did this.” It’s all sort of great and awful feelings at the same time; Fred doesn’t have a head and it’s this horrible thing, and yet she’s standing there with the baby. The end is about how wonderful and terrible that is. Moving forward, that image of Fred is what June sees every time she closes her eyes.
Fred’s body hangs above the phrase from Margaret Atwood’s novel, “nolite te bastardes carburondorum” (which translates from Latin into “don’t let the bastards grind you down”). How will this give that phrase more power?
When you see the phrase come into the front of June’s mind, she’s thinking about how that inspiration was handed from Handmaid to Handmaid. It’s something that one Handmaid decided was the thing to tell another Handmaid and it’s been spread around that way. But, on the other hand, it came from Fred. So putting it on as Fred’s epitaph, this stupid joke that he wrote in the back of his Latin book a long time ago, [is poetic]. It looks like he did let them grind him down just a little bit.
The final scene is ambiguous when June returns home to Luke and Nichole. She could go back on the run, or turn herself in and face justice, or stay under the radar as a best-kept secret. Is the ending open-ended because you haven’t decided what will happen yet in season five?
I always have possibilities and lots of ideas. I try not to decide one season to the next, honestly, because all of the smart viewers would figure out what I’m leaning towards. She says, “I need five minutes” — she’s five minutes from a reckoning. She doesn’t want to think about it or talk about what happened or what this means for five minutes. Certainly, everyone has been there. “Just let me be who I was for five more minutes and then I’ll decide who I’m going to be next.” What the hell is going to happen in five minutes? It can go a lot of ways and, the answer to your question is that I know what’s going to happen for the next five minutes, but I don’t know what happens after that. I don’t know because June doesn’t know. I know how she feels now, and that will lead me to the next thing.
That moment at the end is her as a mother knowing she had chosen something that makes her feel like she can never be a mother again. She’s holding that baby and she’s thinking to herself this way, as a mother, and then she thinks of herself that way in the woods with dead Fred, and then she thinks of herself as a mother again and that’s where she is. Those two things are pushing up against each other. On one side, she is a mother and a caregiver, for Janine or her daughter or her friends or lovers; and then on the other side, she is a person who is getting vengeance for all of those people and for herself. You put those two things together when she believes, and I think we as the audience believe, that those two things can’t coexist.
When it comes to guilt and regrets, you’ve said June isn’t someone who easily lets herself off the hook. Moss said June wants to build a better future for her daughters. And yet, here she is saying goodbye to one of them.
She’s balancing two things: How do I be a good mother to my daughter in a way that’s satisfying and how do I be a good mother to my daughter when I’m gone? Most of her life, she’s been thinking she’ll be gone and that the only impact she’ll be making on her children’s lives are the things she leaves behind; the fights she fights, the progress she makes. Now she has another chance: being a mother with babe in arms. Not just building a future, but having a present. But, has she committed herself so much to being a future-builder that she’s given up her present? That’s the journey for her, that’s the reckoning: Have I earned myself a present? Have I earned myself a now that is satisfying, or are we at a situation where she can’t stop fighting for the future and if it sacrifices her now and her relationships? She’s in it for the long haul and she’s in a generational fight.
Moving forward, does her fight to bring her older daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) back become less literal and more about taking Gilead down so all of the Hannahs can be free?
Babe in arms is great when you’re thinking about it but, how could that possibly happen? It’s much more a question of practicality where she’s starting to see the world as it is and realizing how much damage she can do along the way. I do think that she wants to get her hands on her child just like any woman who escaped from Germany before the war and then her entire family got sent to Auschwitz; all you want to do is get your hands on that child. Her palms physically itch 24/7. But, on the other hand, she’s in a position where it could hurt Hannah to extricate her from Gilead. So, as much as your palms hurt because you want to get your hands on this kid, she’s torn.
In making her choice, she seemingly blows up her chance at rebuilding her family with Luke in Canada — which comes on the heels of June and Nick’s (Max Minghella) reunion in the penultimate episode. What does Luke’s role look like from here and could June and Nick can have a future together?
Luke has been trying very hard to be patient and to give his wife space. His strength is longterm. The guy has been absolutely stalwart in terms of getting her back, as little success as he and everyone else has had. June has a wartime romance with Nick and you see in episode nine that it’s not just having sex clandestinely, they seem to have a real connection. But with Luke she has a sense of support and strength, and she may not recognize how important that is until she starts to feel threatened and like she may lose that. For as long as we’ve known June, he’s been her rock. June has been relying on that as a basis for who she is. It’s complicated and difficult but they’ve had a long, very strong marriage and relationship and who knows where that’s going to go, what kind of person she’s going to be and what kind of person he’s going to be moving forward. And, does she have a future with Nick? Of course. Would you have expected them to have any future at all once she left the Waterford house? They’ve said goodbye permanently so many times, I absolutely believe there’s a way for them to see each other again. They’ve kept that balloon up in the air for a long time.
It also pays off for her to have friends in high places.
Married friends in high places! [Note: Nick was shown wearing a wedding ring in the penultimate episode.]
Janine’s (Madeline Brewer) season four journey ended with her cozying up to Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) and taking Esther (Mckenna Grace) under her Handmaid cloak. Why this trajectory for Janine and will these two be your window back into the world of the Handmaids?
They are and they have been. Janine is a different kind of woman than June; she has a different perspective and certainly a different management style. She learned this whole season what June is like as a leader and when she gets the chance to be one, she is very different. A lot of that story is about Janine growing, finding herself and finding her voice. I don’t think in any way she is cuddling up to Aunt Lydia. What she says to Esther is the essence to her strategy: “You have to stay alive for when things get better.” And she’s fucking great at staying alive. If you consider what Janine’s been through, she is now walking around the Red Center and she’s not getting beaten, she doesn’t have a new assignment. She’s doing very well with her less-confrontational management style — to go along and get by and, when the opportunity comes along, run for the train crossing. But Janine is June’s heart in Gilead. June would do anything to get Janine out now. I think she feels responsible for her and Esther, too. So what happens to Janine and Esther definitely affects June as the hub of our wheel.
Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) flip-flopped throughout the season before coming through for June in the finale. What is his endgame?
He was very clear with June when they met in episode three when she said, “I thought you were going to change things?” And he said, “I can’t do that from the end of a rope.” He spends the season getting to the point where he’s able to do what he does in the finale. Fred said about him, “He’s a survivor.” That’s what he is, and a huge success at it if you look at him being in a jail cell in the first episode to negotiating with a foreign government in the last. It’s his arc back to power. He’s not in it for the idealism of it at all. He’s going to go through and do what’s best for him, and an alliance with Lydia now is very much in his favor; as well as an alliance in Canada in June.
What are your plans for Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), now that June has her set in her sights, after she mailing her dead Fred’s ring finger?
And, visa versa. If Serena Joy believes any sports metaphor, it would be that a good defense is a strong offense. If she feels like June is a danger to her, June’s in trouble as much as Serena is in trouble. There are two things Serena is driven by. Like June, she wants to create generational change for her child. She wants the future to be better for her coming son and she absolutely wants to be that child’s mother, and she’s not really in a position to get that yet. Paired with that now is going to be a white-hot fever of revenge. Even though Serena didn’t like Fred and they have a complicated relationship, it’s now a June-Serena thing. She will want to find a way to metaphorically or realistically get June for this. June hit her house and she wants to hit her back. There’s that absolute toe-to-toe, woman-to-woman venom, but also, what is the relationship between two women where one killed the other’s abuser? It’s complicated. They could be besties, who knows!
When speaking at the beginning of the season, you said you know how the series ends. Going into season five, are you open to potentially arriving at your ending?
Absolutely. And I went into season four like that as well. I don’t want to stretch it out. But there were things we all wanted to do in season four and we couldn’t get one tenth of them done. You don’t want to jump over all this interesting stuff. The refugee experience with June is really new territory for television, because those things change as time goes on so. To slide past that and not explore what happens to a high-value refugee? We could have skipped over all that, but it’s fascinating. I try to follow my curiosity as a fan of the show and the book. And I’m in no rush to end it. I love making it. The chance that you get to make exactly the TV you want at this level is incredibly uncommon. And I am absolutely gifted with the people I get to work with. The writers, entire cast and most of the crew has been there since the beginning. Maybe it’s the pandemic talking, but I’m not eager to run away from any of those people or that kind of storytelling. I’ve been doing this a long time, it doesn’t come along very often to create an environment where everyone can do their A-plus work, and I’m not going to shut it down while we have interesting stories to tell.
Does that mean The Testaments adaptation coming to Hulu is on the back-burner, or is it in the back of your mind as you go?
I’m definitely thinking about it. I think of it all as one big continuum. That’s part of the Handmaid’s story and I have to be thinking about that as part of the universe because it shares characters. We’ve certainly already tried to lay it in this season. The Lawrence-Lydia relationship is about how Lydia starts to access the corridors of power. Before, she was kind of gathering wool in case she might need it, saying all of these people are doing bad things. But now she’s starting to use it and see what can happen, and that’s part of the future of that character. In the book, the colonies are just mentioned and none of it takes place in Toronto. You want to explore that world and The Testaments is such a huge part of that. It’s a fascinating universe. Even now, it’s added depth and color to the stuff that we’re doing, regardless of whether it’s specifically leading to Testaments stories or not.
That sounds like a big season five for Aunt Lydia.
I would do shows about Aunt Lydia. I can’t tell you the number of Lydia, Nick and Janine flashbacks that we’ve written over the years. We love our characters and find them all super fascinating. It’s only a question of real estate. This year, for example, we didn’t get to go home with Emily (Alexis Bledel) because COVID prevented us from getting Clea DuVall to set. The math didn’t work out. But that doesn’t mean we weren’t fascinated by it; like the conversations between Luke and Sylvia (DuVall), Emily’s partner, where they’re both dealing with people who are out and getting advice. And we showed a truncated version of Moira (Samira Wiley) trying to move beyond her trauma and build something with Oona (Zawe Ashton). There were five more scenes we would have done, had practicality allowed it. But it’s a testament to Samira, especially, that she was able to build a whole relationship with only a few scenes.
Earlier in the season when I asked if June is a hero or an antihero, you said, “She’s trying to move forward and move the world to being more moral, rather than less moral, so I would say she’s a hero across the board.” How do you describe her now?
I’ve actually thought about that question a lot this season and I think we’re beyond “hero.” A hero is a main character of a myth. June is our main character and I think she has an incredible story. And whether it’s a hero’s journey or not is up to you and Joseph Campbell. I’m tired of telling stories about heroes. We’ve talked a lot about heroes. Let’s talk about people for a while. I do think that a lot of this season has been not “be careful what you wish for,” but “be thoughtful about how you achieve it.” Because June checked a lot of “If I ever do X, I’ll be happy” boxes and I don’t know if she ended up that happy. We’re living in a time where we keep thinking that if we change presidents or if we cure the disease or get out of the house, everything will be wonderful and fine. It’s more nuanced than that and I think that’s what the season really ends up being about. When you get the thing that you’ve been fighting for, it just reveals that you have more things to fight for.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Read Elisabeth Moss’ interview on the finale with THR here. The Handmaid’s Tale is now streaming season four in its entirety on Hulu.
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