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[This story contains spoilers to the sixth episode of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s fourth season.]
“We have to find her.”
When the star-crossed best friends in The Handmaid’s Tale finally set eyes on one another, those are the first words June (Elisabeth Moss) can offer to Samira Wiley’s Moira. In a state of shock and likely concussed after surviving a bombing in the streets of Chicago, June is laser-focused on finding her other friend Janine (Madeline Brewer), who disappeared amid the blast. At the episode’s end, Janine is still missing. But the sixth installment in the fourth season of the Hulu drama makes major strides for Moira and June, the friends who have long been at the heart of the series and who have been separated since the end of season one.
“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,” Elisabeth Moss separately told The Hollywood Reporter when speaking about directing her co-star this season. “I was right there with her, take after take.”
Wiley has earned three Emmy nominations and one win for her role as Moira, the first starring Handmaid to escape and chart a life for herself as a Gilead survivor in Canada. In season four, Moira is helping to raise June’s baby, Nichole, with her friend’s husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle), and is working to provide aid amid the Gilead resistance movement with an NGO run by her new girlfriend. Her relief work brings her to the fateful street in Chicago, where she stumbled upon her fugitive friend in the final scene of the previous episode.
“June is the missing part of the puzzle to Moira’s happiness,” Wiley tells THR of their reunion. But, convincing June to leave Gilead prompts June to confront her worst fear, that she has failed first daughter Hannah by leaving her behind. The episode heartbreakingly focuses on June working through that realization with Moira, as the friends break the law (and sacrifice Moira’s relationship in the process) so June can finally plant her feet on Canadian soil. Wiley adds, “When she finds June, it’s not going to be as easy and it’s not going to be as much of a fairytale as she wants it to be.”
In the chat below, the actress and new mom reveals how the sixth episode was impacted by the pandemic, unpacks the pivotal conversations about leaving Hannah behind (which has been the driving force of June remaining in Gilead since season one), and why, when reflecting on her pivotal role on Orange Is the New Black, she hopes the fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale is not prophetic.
Firstly, congratulations on your baby daughter, George! What has the experience been like for you to revisit the themes of this season as a first-time parent?
I think so much about the twins, Penny and Laurel, who play Nichole. On set, away from the show, they have taught me so much about caring for a little person and what that means for your own life. And there are so many things and decisions that Moira has to make in the show that are no longer just about herself. But, that was all pretend. At the end of every day, I was able to give those cute little twins back to their parents. And now, at the end of the day, George is with me, and then she’s with me again! Priorities change, and so does the way you view the world. Different things are important. Things that mattered so much before, don’t really matter now. A lot of things have flipped. So it’s really interesting to revisit the show now on the other side. Throughout filming, my wife [Lauren Morelli] was with me in Canada and she was pregnant the whole time. But not until George came into the world did I really understand what being a parent was and is.
It’s interesting to hear your perspective now because this episode is about June (Moss) essentially realizing that she can’t save one of her daughters, which produces several emotional scenes between your characters. What was it like to have this reunion episode as actors?
For Samira and Lizzie? It was so awesome. Before I received the scripts for the season, I had a conversation with Bruce Miller, our showrunner, to talk through Moira’s arc and run down what was going to happen. So, it got dropped on me then. And, I thought he was kidding at first! It was the best news ever. Fans have been wanting this and waiting for this, patiently, for so long, so I feel like they deserve this. But I also feel like, as an actor, I deserve this! The Handmaid’s Tale got sold to me that I’m going to be able to act with Lizzie Moss! And that’s what I fell in love with, being onscreen with Lizzie. Because she really, really has made me a better actor. To get to leave Gilead and be in Canada for these last few years is a real journey for Moira, but I think I’ve always been waiting to get back to Lizzie. So, it was better than I could have imagined. Being back onscreen and getting to act with Lizzie is a dream. It feels like playing an awesome tennis match with someone where you are really trying to hit the ball back as hard as they hit it to you.
Filming this reunion episode amid the pandemic meant a smaller and a more intimate set. How did that impact your performances?
To be honest, I’m not sure if I can say that it did. I think all of the actors on this show take our jobs very seriously and understand that the story we are telling is not a light one. So I would like to believe that, regardless of the circumstances, the outcome would have been the same. What is written on the page, pandemic or not, we want to give it the same authenticity and the same truth to it.
Bruce Miller spoke about the specificity and research that goes into writing the Handmaids, who are survivors of government sexual trauma. This season, we see Moira wanting a domesticated life, which is a happy outcome given her experiences as a Jezebel in Gilead. But a big season four theme is survivor’s guilt, and that plays very much into this episode. Can you talk about Moira wanting happiness for herself, but, above all else, needing to save June?
In a way, I think that they are very connected. I think rescuing June and having June on the other side with her is completely connected to her happiness — in fact, it would complete her happiness. It would make Moira whole. I think Moira is a little confused by who she finds when she finds June. In her head, she has a story of how this is supposed to work out: “I find June, June is going to be my friend who I have always known and we’re going to have the relationship we’ve always had.” We see different kinds of flashbacks, one where there is dissonance and one where there is ease, but it doesn’t matter because they’ve always been able to go back to who they are.
June is the missing part of the puzzle to Moira’s happiness. Moira now has this really easy lifestyle that she’s figured out with Luke and their co-parenting of Nichole; she has a love interest where it just happens to be easy — until June comes and kind of messes that up. Moira is fighting for the ease. But when she finds June, she’s coming up against the realization that it’s not going to be as easy and it’s not going to be as much of a fairytale as she wants it to be. And that’s difficult for her because she has carved out her life away from June and it’s worked out — not perfectly, but pretty well — and so she’s wanting June to fit into that somehow.
Some storylines were impacted by the pandemic and I understand yours was one of them. Can you fill in what was originally planned with this episode and how things changed?
There were way more people who were supposed to be in those [crowd] scenes. Actually, in the middle of us shooting this episode — because the rules around the pandemic were constantly changing and the rules in Canada were different than in America — there was a mandate that there could be no more than 10 people on camera at a time. So, there was so much paring down that we had to do. The scale of the scenes that were originally written are just completely gone from the season. For me, I get so attached to those things. When I read them, I imagine it a certain way. A lot of things had to change all the time, seemingly to me, at the last minute, and that was hard because I felt like we had this plan! But I do think that it really worked out in the way where the story that Bruce and the writers were trying to tell still comes across.
Even down to the point that we spent this entire episode on a boat that was originally supposed to be filmed in summer. We originally started filming the season in spring of 2020 and we came back in October, so six or seven months there, we shut down. The cast had been so excited because every season of the show has been shot in Toronto in the winter. So I was so excited to get to be on a boat in summer; Toronto is amazing in the summer! It didn’t happen. But, that’s just life. And it’s really representative of what these women’s lives are in The Handmaid’s Tale. Things are always being thrown at them, and they’re having to roll with the punches and figure it out. That’s what June’s entire journey has been — she has a plan, and it gets messed up by Gilead. So shooting in the pandemic really was like art meeting life and life meeting art. We did it. But, it was freezing!
Some of the most powerful scenes in this episode are on that boat, with June telling Moira she feels she has failed as a mother and, in her tearful reunion with Luke (Fagbenle), apologizing for not having Hannah with her. How do you interpret the final scene, of June stepping off the boat in Canada and taking that breath?
There are so many things that breath means. You brought up that the real struggle with her getting on that boat is Hannah and leaving her daughter behind. The reason she is even on that boat is because Moira brings up her other daughter, Nichole, who lives in Canada. That breath encompasses all of this. It encompasses everything that she has left behind, that she has given up to be here and make this decision. But also, there is almost a question mark at the end: “I don’t have to be afraid?” One of the last things Moira says to June when we get passed the guards is, “We’re going to Canada. You made it.” And those are words that I’m sure are kind of unbelievable to June when spoken. That breath, I think, has so much in it. And, as we all know, Lizzie Moss as an actor put everything into that breath and I think we’ll see in episodes seven, eight, nine and 10 everything that breath means.
Your character, Poussey Washington, and her untimely death on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black was so impactful amid the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, years later, you are on another series that is timely and prescient about national and global issues (and, again, fates are always up in the air). How does that make you feel about the power in storytelling when thinking about the relevance of Poussey’s story in 2021?
It’s very difficult for me to know that [Poussey’s death] was a storyline that was, in my mind, a storyline, that we brought in 2016 when that episode aired — Michael Brown had happened during that time and Alton Sterling — and to invoke, right now, George Floyd’s name and to understand that is something that happened four years after what we had done as a storyline is very difficult for me. I am honestly still at a loss for words sometimes in speaking about that and how that makes me feel.
I hope what we’re doing now with The Handmaid’s Tale is not prophetic. I hope that what we’re doing is a cautionary tale and something that is just that — a tale. I know that Margaret Atwood has said that there is nothing she wrote in that book that isn’t something that has happened, at some point in history, to women. And it’s scary to know there are seasons we already filmed that have been prophetic. I believe it was season two when there was a real highlight on separation of parents from their children in Gilead; we had the horrible scene between June and Hannah with them not being able to make that [physical] connection and the government facilitating that. And then, after that, we saw what was happening at the Mexican border in our own country. I count myself lucky, and I do think it’s my responsibility as an artist and I feel proud to reflect the time that we are living in. I feel like I’m fulfilling my role in doing that. But it’s also a really scary one. And to be on two shows like this that do that very well, where you don’t really have to do too much research to find the connection — it’s right in your face — it’s just a lot! It’s a lot.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
The Handmaid’s Tale is now streaming the first six episodes of season four on Hulu and will continue to release episodes weekly on Wednesdays.
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