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[This story contains major spoilers from The Handmaid’s Tale season four finale, “The Wilderness.”]
The fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale ends with an act of vengeance, a shocking image and lingering questions about what will come next. And an earlier moment in the season finale set it all in motion, says Elisabeth Moss.
“What if Fred apologizes to June — what will that do?” says the star, executive producer and season four director when speaking to The Hollywood Reporter about the finale, which released late Tuesday night. “We needed a scene that was going to push June between the choices of family or revenge.”
In the fourth season ender, titled “The Wilderness,” June (Moss) visits Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) in the cushy cell where he is being held by what is left of the U.S. government. The penultimate episode had ended with the reveal that Fred struck a deal to work as a Gilead asset, thus freeing him from facing trial over the crimes he committed as a high-ranking commander. Without any justice, June decides to confront her abuser and, much to her surprise, he offers her an apology. Speaking of deep regrets, the expecting father says he was unable to fully appreciate her pain until now. “To have my son taken away from me would be unimaginable,” he says. Wiping away tears, June smiles, laughs and cries before responding: “I didn’t think you’d ever say that.”
Speaking to THR about that scene, Moss says that, after conversations with documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus, who directed the episode, they realized that Fred’s apology would ultimately seal his fate. After their confrontation, June decides to take justice into her own hands as she and a group of refugee Handmaids kill Fred in the woods. Using her allies both outside (Mark Tuello, played by Sam Jaeger) and inside Gilead (Nick, played by Max Minghella, and Commander Lawrence, played by Bradley Whitford), June negotiates a trade: Fred Waterford for 22 women held captive amid the resistance. Unbeknownst to Fred, however, he is dragged into the middle of nowhere and brought face-to-face with June.
Suffice it to say, he never makes it to Gilead. The season ends with a bloodied-faced June returning home, scooping up younger daughter Nichole and telling her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle), “I’m sorry. Just give me five minutes with her and then I’ll go.” Luke’s devastated face registers the choice she has made — revenge on Fred over a life with her remaining family in Canada. In a brief flash, Fred’s headless body is shown hanging from a wall — like so many Gilead victims at his hand — with the key Handmaid’s Tale phrase written in blood below him: “Nolite te bastardes carburondorum.” His ring finger was also mailed to his pregnant wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).
“We talked a lot about it, and we talked a lot about it with Liz. Having worked with and spoken to various female survivors, Liz talked about how the worst thing that you could hear from an attacker or an abuser was that they were sorry. Because it meant they knew what they were doing,” explains Moss. “What was going to push [June] to revenge? We figured out it was that apology. And once we had the bones of that idea and that scene, it was just a matter of doing it.”
Below, Moss discusses the “composed fury” that has been driving June, dissects what her final words to Luke could mean for the already renewed fifth season and bids adieu to the villain of The Handmaid’s Tale: “It’s fantastic to see Fred Waterford on the wall.”
June’s rage was fascinating to watch this season. A lot of it was explosive, but some of it was quiet. What was it like to settle into that emotional state and then have it all bubble over in this finale?
It almost comes naturally as you’re going through the season. I love episodic television because you get to explore something hour by hour; it’s like making 10 movies. You get to go with your character through everything they’re experiencing, so you have this real bird’s-eye view of what’s happening. And by the time you get to an episode 10, it’s like, “Well, obviously this is exactly what is going to happen.” When getting the scripts, I plan the arc of it as much as I can and modulate the performance to fit. So, I fully believed that June would be in that state of composed fury by the time she hit episode 10.
It feels like the entire series has been building to this episode — where June, as a free woman, gets her revenge on Fred Waterford. When June visited Fred in his Canadian jail cell, how does that moment of confronting her abuser influence what happens next?
Oh, that scene was fun to do. The walking around the room was [director] Liz Garbus’ idea. And, by the way, how brilliant is Liz Garbus? We consider ourselves geniuses, of course, to have hired her to direct her first episode of episodic television. That scene was actually very experimental. The walking around the room really freed me up because I was able to just play. All of that stuff — the picking up of the Bible and the cigar, when I decided to sit and the position I took on the couch — all of that was very improvised. Joe [Fiennes] and I commented on the day that it felt like we were doing a little short play, especially because the blocking felt like the audience was on one side, so it felt like a stage.
He is so beautiful and brilliant in that scene; he is so pitch-perfect. We had talked a lot about it, and we talked a lot about it with Liz. Liz had come from her documentary work from having worked with and spoken to various female survivors, and she talked about how the worst thing that you could hear from an attacker or an abuser was that they were sorry. Because it meant they knew what they were doing. That it would be better if they were totally insane and had no idea. But the fact that they knew what they were doing, and had the conscience or perspective or objectivity to be able to apologize, was like the nail in the fucking coffin. So that’s where that scene came from. That idea of: What if Fred apologizes to June and what will that do? We needed a scene that was going to push June between the choices of family or revenge. What was going to push her to revenge? We figured out it was that apology. And once we had the bones of that idea and that scene, it was just a matter of doing it.
After June and her fellow Handmaids kill Fred, she returns home. She picks up her daughter Nichole and asks Luke for five minutes before she has to leave, underscoring how she chose revenge over her family. Will she be on the run again to begin season five? And, do you interpret her choice as heartbreaking or inevitable?
Dramatically, I don’t think it could have gone any other way. What is the show if she doesn’t choose revenge; she lives happily ever after in the Three’s Company house with Nichole? (Laughs.) That’s a different show that I’m sure would be much easier to watch, but it’s not very dramatic. It had to go this way. It makes sense character-wise. It was really important to me in the back-half of the season — and I was a nightmare in terms of pushing to make sure — that we were really holding on to the trauma. That we were really holding on to who she was after having had all those experiences in Gilead, and that it was not going to be rosy and it was not going to be a happy homecoming. June was not going to all of a sudden get a little therapy and be fine. It couldn’t be that way; that’s not how life works. It was really important to me and so I feel like there’s no way for June to end up in any other place but that. She has been changed too much. Her life is this war on Gilead and that’s her purpose in life. There’s nothing else that can be done.
At what point did you know this would be Fred’s fate?
Season three. For quite a while! He’s the villain of the show. I think Joe would say himself that, at some point, this guy’s got to go. (Laughs.) So, yeah, I’ve known for a while.
When June tells Luke that Fred is going to “end up on the fucking wall,” it’s casual the way she says it, and yet you completely believe that she will find a way to make it happen.
It’s funny. We talked about that in prep, because there was [a conversation] that he’s going to end up on the wall, but not necessarily by June’s hand. But then we kept saying exactly what you just said, which is that when June says something, we believe that she is going to lay brick by brick and she’s personally going to put him on it. We were so aware that we couldn’t get away from the fact that if June says, “I’m going to put him on the fucking wall,” then she is going to literally build the wall and put him on it.
And chop his finger off to mail to Serena.
Just for good luck. Why not?
Before the episode ends, viewers get a flash of Fred’s dead body, hanging above the written phrase from Margaret Atwood’s novel, “nolite te bastardes carburondorum” (which translates from Latin into “don’t let the bastards grind you down”). When news of his murder goes public, could this act of vengeance become a rallying cry for the rebellion movement?
First of all, to answer the first part of your question, it’s fantastic to see Fred Waterford on the wall. And, Joe would agree! He said the same thing. After everything June and those women have been through, it’s fantastic. As far as the rally cry, I don’t know. I know the general themes of season five; Bruce [Miller] and I have talked about what the season is about. But the details? I don’t think they are worked out yet. The thing is, nobody really likes Fred at this point. Gilead doesn’t really like him either.
She did have allies both in Gilead and in Canada. Is there a scenario where she could she be protected by these governments? Or will she now have to face justice for what she did?
I don’t know where we pick up in episode one of season five. I will probably know in a few months. But she has murdered someone and, regardless of what Gilead thinks, that’s illegal in most countries. So, June thinks she’s going to be in trouble. (Laughs.)
How do you imagine June will rise from this moment — what version of her do you see after she puts Nichole back in her crib?
Her life is about this war. And her life is about creating a better future for her daughters. That is her purpose and, let us not forget, she still has a daughter that is in Gilead. This show is about the first episode with that first scene where her daughter is taken away. This show is about a woman creating a better future for the next generation and, specifically, for her own children. That’s the only thing that I’m thinking about and focusing on in season five right now, without knowing all the details. That it has been about her daughters and it will always be about her daughters.
Creator and showrunner Bruce Miller said in a previous THR interview that he will continue to write you beautiful words to say for as long as you will say them. The Handmaid’s Tale is already renewed for season five and Hulu’s adaptation of Atwood’s The Testaments will extend this world. How long do you envision playing June?
That is very kind of him. I will continue to say them for as long as he writes them. (Laughs.) I guess I take it season by season. But I’m a big believer in that there’s a beginning and an end to every story. I think that this show is about this one woman’s journey. And, of course, all the other character’s around her; it’s very much an incredible cast of people. But the book is about this one woman’s journey. It’s not about the whole war or the fall of Gilead. It’s about these people in this moment in time. I don’t think anything should ever go on forever. History shows that series tend to maybe not get so good, though there are exceptions. But, at the same time, I love playing her and I love being a producer and director on the show now. It won’t be an easy one to say goodbye to.
Your last episode that you directed this season (episode nine, “Progress”) reunited June with Nick. Now that she seemingly blew up her life with Luke in the finale, is there a future for June and Nick?
God. I don’t know. I’m a romantic, so of course I want them to find a future. I want them to find happiness. I want them to be together. At the same time, I wish June was the kind of person she used to be before Gilead who could live happily with Luke. That marriage is incredible. Luke is incredible. That is a life of happiness I wish she could have. But the problem is that she’s not the same person who married him. I don’t think she can get past that, and I think Luke’s learning that. He doesn’t know his wife anymore. And I think that June and Nick are the wartime love. They’ve been in the same war, they’ve had the same experiences and that bond is a very difficult one to break.
There are three outliers for June heading into season five: saving her older daughter Hannah, rescuing Handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer) and getting further revenge on Serena. Which would you like to see her focus on the most?
I think we both know that our June will try to go for all three! (Laughs.) At this point, I think she’s all in. She is all in. She wants to bring the whole system down, and with that would come saving Hannah, saving Janine and the proper revenge on Serena.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Read creator Bruce Miller’s 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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