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Elisabeth Moss on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Cliffhanger Finale and How to Interpret Her Final Expression

"The tide is turning for all these characters," the star, EP and director tells The Hollywood Reporter of how the season five ending sets up the Hulu drama's final season. "It’s time for June to figure out who she is going to be for the rest of her life and where the real fight is, and what she has to do to win the real fight."

[This story contains major spoilers from the season five finale of The Handmaid’s Tale, “Safe.”]

After beginning its current season with the smirk seen ’round the globe, The Handmaid’s Tale ended with another telling expression.

The fifth season of Hulu’s dystopian series began by pitting June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) against Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski). At the end of the two-episode premiere, Serena had brought June’s Gilead-captive daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake), into view during a global broadcast of the funeral for her late husband, Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) — and shot the camera a knowing smirk intended for June. Thousands of miles away in Canada, June received the message loud and clear.

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But the world of The Handmaid’s Tale moves quickly and, by the pivotal seventh episode, June was faced with the impossible choice of helping Serena deliver her newborn baby or letting her die when the pair were stranded together in No Man’s Land, the Gilead-Canada border region. “I don’t care that you’re sorry,” said June, rejecting Serena’s post-labor apology and speaking on behalf of all handmaids to the woman who helped create Gilead’s patriarchal society. “We mattered. We were… we are people. We have lives. And that’s why I’m gonna save yours, Serena, because this isn’t Gilead, and I am not you.”

June’s decision to save Serena did not come without consequence for the former Mrs. Waterford, who became Canada’s version of a handmaid upon returning to the home of the Wheelers (Genevieve Angelson and Lucas Neff), as the pair have adopted a Gilead lifestyle. In the penultimate episode, Serena went on the run with her baby and was largely absent from the finale until the final, course-altering scene of the season.

The finale, titled “Safe” (written by creator/showrunner Bruce Miller and directed by Moss), put June and Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) on the run again, this time after Luke murdered a man in self-defense for attacking June with his car. Amid rising anti-refugee sentiment in Toronto, June and Luke flee their home with baby Nichole, rather than wait for what would no doubt be an unfair punishment. American agent Mark Tuello (Sam Jaeger) sets them up on a train for Gilead refugees that is headed West, but Luke turns himself in at the station so June and Nichole can slip aboard unnoticed. The heartbreaking self-sacrifice leaves June with a broken arm, scared baby and unknown future as she boards the train.

That’s when it happens. While June tries to calm Nichole, they hear another crying baby, and Serena and her son appear at the back of the train car. The moment of recognition swells with emotion to end the season, as the women react to the happenstance. “Do you have a diaper?” asks Serena in a friendly tone, as June’s range of facial expressions lands on a smirk — the same look Serena had given her to start the season.

“I wanted to do the same smile on June to have a full-circle moment,” Moss tells The Hollywood Reporter in a chat about the finale, which will usher in the final season when the Emmy-winning series returns. “It’s actually a pretty positive ending for the show and the season, which we don’t usually do. It’s a cliffhanger, … but there’s something positive about it. Of course, of all the people that would be on the train is this person who is her other half, the other half of this experience.”

Speaking to THR, the star, director and executive producer reveals that even she was surprised to read the final scene, digs into how she played June’s reaction, hints at what’s in store for the final season and confirms her involvement in the Handmaid’s Tale sequel series, Hulu’s forthcoming The Testaments adaptation.

June had the opportunity to seek vengeance on Serena and kill her earlier this season. But during their post-labor scenes in episode seven, June revealed she didn’t want to kill Serena. How did their experience in that barn forever change their relationship?

June has come so far this season. From episode one, where she’s trying to be forgiven for killing Fred, and episode two, where she’s trying to be a better person and be a good wife and a good mother, to the end of episode two where she villainizes Serena again. Then she gets to a place in episode seven where she kind of figures it out. What she says in the episode — “I’m not going to be you. I’m not going to do what you did, and I’m not going to be one of you” — is really transformative, and I think she’s realizing that in the moment. I don’t think she knows when she goes into that barn exactly what she’s going to do. In the moment, she realizes she has a choice to be a better person, and she has a choice to not be like them. And she makes the choice. As far as her and Serena’s relationship, it changes. Because it moves to a new place where I’m not sure Serena has the same power over her.

We’ve spoken about if there could be hope for June, given the trauma and violence she’s lived through and never processed. Do you think June saving Serena shows that June is and wants to be a good person?

I think she absolutely is a good person. And I think that, for a while there, when she was living in Gilead and then coming out of Gilead, violence was a way of surviving. Now she’s figuring out other ways to survive, and she’s figuring out that it doesn’t have to be violent. As far as Serena, letting go of that hate is a big deal. Like she says in episode eight to Serena, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re friends. But when you hate somebody, you give them so much power over you.

That entire season journey set them up for this final moment. The show spent a lot of time with June and Serena in episodes seven and eight, before they diverged as the plot picked up for everyone. I actually didn’t see this final moment coming.

Good! That was one of our biggest concerns when we were cutting the episode. When we were doing the final two or three scenes, and especially the last scene, one of the biggest concerns was making sure not to tip our hat too soon.

I was too focused on June’s goodbye with Luke.

We distracted you! That’s supposed to be the focus in the episode, where you think the end of her story is that she and Luke get separated again and Luke gets arrested. And then you’re like, “Why are you back on the train? What’s happening? She’s all alone!”

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June (Elisabeth Moss) and Luke (O-T Fagbenle) waiting for the train in the finale. Russ Martin/Hulu

And then I was excited June and Serena had each other on the train, which speaks to the character development on this show. How aware of this final moment were you both when making episode seven?

Well, that ending wasn’t known to anyone when we made seven, so that’s the answer to that question.

Not even to you?

Not even to the writers, I think! We hadn’t gotten there yet. It might have been a blip on the radar, but no one knew the end of the scene. In answer to your question, you have to keep moving these characters forward, and that’s a conscious thing for me as an executive producer, for our writers and cast. We don’t want to keep playing the same things; we want to move these characters forward. So I love that ending because, first of all, it’s actually a pretty positive ending for the show and the season, which we don’t usually do. It’s a cliffhanger, of course; you have to have that cliffhanger and drive everyone insane about what’s going to happen next. (Laughs.) But there’s something positive about it. Of course, of all the people that would be on the train is this person who is her other half, the other half of this experience.

Do you remember when it became to clear that Serena would also be on the train?

Well, that came from Bruce Miller. I certainly did not write that! I remember it was a final twist that he came up with. There were other things in the script that changed, but that was something that was in the script — that Serena was going to be on the train. There were other things that sort of changed around it to make that moment even more impactful, and it was definitely one of those moments where I was reading the script, or just the outline, saying, “Oh my God!”

So, you didn’t see it coming, either!

No! And I should hope so. Because I’m the first fan that’s reading it, and so I should hope it surprises me; it has to surprise me, in a good way.

There is a lot of emotion across both of your faces when you see each other. If you can speak first as actor and then as this episode’s director, what did you want to accomplish with the scene, and what did you want to land on in the ending shot?

It’s a good question. I’m going to answer as both actor and director, because they really are one in the same for me. I’m the biggest fan of the show; I love the show. So when I do a moment like that, I do it almost like a fan in the sense that I do what I would want to watch. I know this is going to be a huge twist and a very surprising moment, and so I approach it from that place. I also wanted to make sure we didn’t fully answer any questions about how they feel about seeing each other, because you want to leave it open-ended; you want it to be a cliffhanger. We want to reveal how they feel about that moment when we come back. So you want to leave it in a place where you’re not necessarily ending the moment; where you’re just kind of presenting it, but not finishing it.

The other thing I wanted to do that wasn’t necessarily in the script, but that I did as actor and director, and that Yvonne fully embraced, was this idea that Serena is kind of offering this olive branch with this line about, “Do you have a diaper?” She’s almost making a joke because her baby is obviously a different size from June’s baby, so she knows the diapers aren’t going to fit. She’s offering it as this kind of olive branch, and what I wanted to do in response to that was to duplicate the smile that Serena gives June at the end of episode two. When Serena’s looking down from the screen at June and she smiles, I wanted to do the same smile on June to have a full-circle moment.

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Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and baby Noah on the train for Gilead refugees. Sophie Giraud/Hulu

Which now makes me thinks June might punch Serena in the face to open season six?

(Laughs.) Exactly. That’s the thing, I really wanted to leave it up in the air. We didn’t want them to talk or say too much, or to reveal too much about how they are both feeling, but especially about how June is feeling. I think Serena is happy to see June, because she’s all alone and wants to be June’s friend. But as far as June goes, I really wanted to leave it open-ended so that you don’t know. When we come back, is she going to punch her in the face? Or, is she going to give her a diaper?

Your song choice to end the moment was Billie Eilish’s “bury a friend.” Was that a quick choice or did you agonize over it?

I went through several choices. That’s a song that I’ve loved since it came out; I listened to it a lot while making the show, so it’s always been in the back of my mind to use at some point. I think our postproduction supervisor brought up another Billie Eilish song that reminded me of “bury a friend.” And I as soon as I saw it, I knew that was it. It was a really tricky track to find because there’s a ton of pressure on that cue since it’s the end of the season. And I wanted something that gave the audience a little moment to breathe. It’s such a moment they are experiencing when June and Serena are looking at each other; those last 15 minutes of the episode are so emotional, and I wanted to give the audience a little bit of a smile and a wink. I was texting Bruce [Miller] after I picked the song, reciting the lyrics to him, saying it could not be more perfect.

What’s June’s plan once she gets on this train? She’s just been separated from Luke; before she sees Serena, is she confident she can do this, or does she feel out of her depth?

They’re supposed to go to Vancouver and from there they get a boat to Hawaii. I think she thinks she has to do this for Nichole. She has a baby and the baby is crying, and she picks up the baby and sort of weaves this tale about the adventure they’re going on. And I think she does this very mom thing, which is that she puts herself and her own feelings aside, and is trying to be positive for Nichole. But I think she is worried about Luke, obviously, and very worried about what’s going to happen to him. And now she’s come to a place at the end of the season, as she says on the phone call with Luke, where she’s realized: “I don’t want to do this alone anymore. I don’t want to be a lone crusader, I want to do this with you. We can’t do this without you.” And of course, that’s the moment he’s taken away.

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Nick (Max Minghella) confronts Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) over the attack on June. Sophie Giraud/Hulu

In that moment, it felt like June was picking Luke once and for all by asking him to never stop fighting for her and for their family. At the same time and unbeknownst to June, Nick (Max Minghella) is also blowing up his life for her. How are we meant to interpret where June’s heart is?

I think June’s heart is wherever is best for her children. And when she kind of says goodbye to Nick in episode nine, I don’t think that means she doesn’t love him. But she is recognizing that this is not the best thing to do for her family, and it’s not the best thing to do for his. And they have to make a hard choice. It’s not necessarily the choice that either of them wants. So in the finale, she’s still in that place where she’s choosing her family. She’s choosing Luke and her family. But she doesn’t know, of course, that Nick is blowing up his life for her on the other side. (Laughs.)

Do you think she has any regrets about rejecting Commander Lawrence’s (Bradley Whitford) New Bethlehem offer at this point, or is there no going back?

That’s a tough one. I think with this world we’ve created, everything is changing all the time, and so I don’t even think she’s thinking about New Bethlehem right now; I think she’s just thinking about what she’s going to do with Nichole. I don’t think she knows what her options are, except for trying to get her daughter to safety.

There weren’t many wins for the good guys this season. But there was hope in Hannah knowing who she is and having June’s rebellious spirit. Now, everyone, from Janine (Madeline Brewer) to Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) to Luke and Nick, is fired up and wants to fight. What hope can viewers cling to heading into the final season, in terms of June and everyone she’s fighting for?

I think the tide is turning. And it’s turning for a lot of our characters. There’s clarity happening. There’s clarity that’s happening with Nick, with Janine, with Lydia and with Luke in making the decision to do something rather than not do something and to sacrifice himself for his family. Luke is trying to make amends for all of the times he feels like he didn’t do the right thing and didn’t do something when he should have. The tide is turning for all these characters, and it’s going to be interesting to see who chooses good and who chooses evil. I feel like everyone is at a point where we’re not quite sure which direction they’re going to go in.

I think Serena is leaning toward good. She seems on board with June.

I think so, too. But at the same time, we’ve been fooled by Serena before. June has believed that Serena was going to be a good person and then has had her heart broken by her. So, you don’t know.

You and creator Bruce Miller have said you are marching toward a series ending you’ve envisioned for a while. Why does it feel right to end the show with next season?

Because this season was so much about June trying on different hats and trying to figure out: “Am I the villain? Am I the victim? Am I a murderer? Am I a mother? Who am I? Who is the enemy? Fred’s gone; is Serena the enemy? Yes. Wait, maybe she’s not — am I the enemy?” She’s spent this season trying to figure out who she is and who she’s going to be the rest of her life, and it’s kind of the perfect lead-up to a final season where, without spoiling anything, it’s time for June to figure out who she is going to be for the rest of her life and where the real fight is, and what she has to do to win the real fight.

You’ve said you know where you want to end up, but how you get there is always surprising. What surprised you this season?

I think when June says to Serena, “We’re not friends.” That’s a very complex statement, to say to somebody, basically, “I don’t hate you anymore, but we’re not friends.” I think that’s very interesting and there’s more to be explored there. So that was something for me that was a surprise and I spent some time trying to figure out, “What does that mean?”

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Janine (Madeline Brewer) is muzzled and taken away by Gilead officers for rebelling in the Lawrence house. Sophie Giraud/Hulu

Janine also says a version of that to Naomi Putnam (Ever Carradine) when she rejects returning to handmaid life. Do you see a parallel with June and Janine?

That’s an incredible observation and a link that I don’t think I even made. That’s very astute and absolutely right, she does say that to Naomi, that’s so interesting. Janine is now the new June. The protege is all grown up now! She is dangerous.

We’ve been waiting for Janine to fully come into herself under June’s guidance. How does Janine’s ending (she’s taken away to somewhere unknown for disobeying Gilead law) highlight how far June has come?

It was interesting working with Maddie [Brewer] on the finale, because we really wanted to push Janine to a new place. The way that Maddie plays her, Janine is very introverted. She looks down all the time, and averts her eyes and never really looks at anyone’s face. She has a lot of physical characteristics the way that Maddie plays her, and I thought she did such a phenomenal job of transforming her character that she has played for five years into this new place. She was standing up tall and straight. And I kept encouraging her to not look down and to look Lydia and Naomi in the eyes. It was a new thing for her and so thrilling to watch. She did a phenomenal job with starting to become another June.

Janine seems calm when taken away; she tells Aunt Lydia that it’s OK. Is she assuming June’s bravery, or is she giving up?

I think it’s her being brave in the face of fear. June is scared. But she was brave in the face of the fear, and Janine is brave for the other woman in her van. She sees that the other woman in the van is crying, and she knows that she has to be brave and calm for her. June found her strength and her bravery having to be that for other people, not for herself. She had to be brave and she had to be strong for the other women, and I think that’s what Janine is finding.

You directed three episodes this season and acted in nearly every shot. Your co-stars and showrunner have said the shift behind the camera seemed seamless. Was it a challenge or was it a welcome challenge, and how did it change your relationship with the show?

It’s kind of all the things. It’s definitely a challenge. It’s certainly not easy. But I love the challenge, and the challenge makes me really happy. The challenge is where I find the joy. I know the show so well and I really live and breathe it many, many months out of the year, so as I’ve taken on more and more over the years, especially with seasons four and five, it’s been seamless in that sense. I know all the characters, the cast, all the players, the crew; I’m very involved in everything. I love helping everybody, I love talking to the actors about their characters; even if I’m not directing. I love talking to the directors who are coming in and helping them. It’s truly so much fun for me.

Is there something you’re most proud to have pulled off this year?

There are two things. We did our two biggest scenes this year: the funeral in episode two and the train station in the finale. When we did the funeral, that was the most amount of people, cameras, equipment, cars — the most amount of everything we’ve ever had, until the finale train scene. The reason I’m proud of them, though, is that they were done during the pandemic and that was another extraordinary layer of challenge because you’re trying to keep 500 people safe. Just the pure amount of work and physical coordination that goes into a scene like that is absolutely mind-blowing. I saw the tent world that was up for when we did the train scene, where they keep all of the background, and it’s massive: the catering department, having to make sure all of these people get fed; the ADs, making sure all of these people get their breaks; the scheduling and the amount of extra people that have to be brought in. It’s just a phenomenal amount of work on behalf of all the departments. So that’s what I’m most proud of. I’m proud of us as a team in Toronto, and the amount of coordination that went into it.

Where are you now in your process of starting to say goodbye to this character, and will you continue your involvement in this world with The Testaments?

We’re definitely talking about The Testaments, I definitely will be involved in The Testaments. In what capacities, I cannot say. But I definitely will be involved in some capacity. It’s been one of the most fulfilling experiences, creatively, of my life making this show. I’m very grateful that we have The Testaments to make so I don’t have to say goodbye to the world of the show and to all the people who make it — that’s a big consolation prize. I haven’t even begun to think about [saying goodbye to June], honestly, I’m just focused on making the final season the best one yet. We’re working on the scripts, we’re working on hiring and on the schedule. So, I’m just focused on making the final season. And I can’t wait for people to see this finale. I’m very proud of it.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

The Handmaid’s Tale finale and entire fifth season is now streaming on Hulu. Read creator Bruce Miller’s interview on the finale here.