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[This story contains spoilers from the two-episode premiere of season five of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.]
“Everything tastes better when Fred is dead.”
Those words are spoken while June Osborne sits at a diner for a group celebratory meal, to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “Gettin’ Happy.” The irony of the uplifting vibe is that Elisabeth Moss’ starring character — who is in a state of shock after leading the violent group murder of her former commander and abuser, Gilead leader Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), as is evidenced by his dried blood remaining caked on her face and hands — only finds a fleeting moment of happiness while in that eatery with her fellow former handmaids.
“They’re just going to town and eating as much food as they can, and it’s sort of bacchanal. They’re feasting like warriors,” Moss, who also directed the premiere episode “Morning,” told The Hollywood Reporter when speaking about the diner scene, which she says is one of her favorites in the entire series. The fifth season of Hulu’s Emmy-winning dystopian series returned Wednesday with a two-episode debut, and the premiere picked up the morning after last season’s finale to track the 24 hours after June returns home after Fred’s murder. “There are not a lot of shows that would open the season with an episode that takes place just in one day. I think it’s bold, which is kinda cool,” she added.
June’s short-lived reprieve is interrupted when she’s confronted by her fellow handmaids, who want to continue on their path of Gilead vengeance on a larger scale. When June pushes back, she finds herself on the outs and tears out of the parking lot, revving up a journey of self-reflection. Without her closest ally, Emily (Alexis Bledel, who departed the series), by her side, creator and showrunner Bruce Miller says that June begins the season “rudderless” and contemplating her next move. Ultimately, she decides to confess to the murder, but when the police tell her that, since the act happened outside of Canada’s jurisdiction, she won’t be punished, the resistance leader finds herself even more lost about what to do next.
“She assumed the next few years were taken care of, like the last few years of her life,” Miller tells The Hollywood Reporter in a chat about the show’s return. “She was in prison, and she’s going to be in prison again. She thought this was the end of a chapter, and it doesn’t turn out to be, which is much harder for her to deal with.”
Now, June must face the reality that awaits her back home. Yes, her oldest daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake), remains in Gilead and in need of rescue. But her youngest daughter, Nichole, needs a bath. The premiere ends with June taking over parental duties from husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and friend Moira (Samira Wiley), and reconnecting with her baby, cradling her in a more present way than when the season opened.
The second episode (“Ballet,” also directed by Moss) then zooms out to check in on the Gilead characters, as Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) attempts to regain her stature in order to protect herself from June, who she knows is coming after her, thanks to Fred’s severed finger arriving for her in the mail. Over at the Red Center, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) and Janine (Madeline Brewer) have finished Esther’s (Mckenna Grace) training, and she is placed in the Putnam house as a handmaid. Her introduction to Commander Warren Putnam (Stephen Kunken), however, proves to be such a traumatic experience that Esther returns to the Red Center with poisonous chocolates for Janine, whom she feels betrayed by. The chocolates send both handmaids into a bloody coughing fit, leaving their fates up in the air. The final moment then throws another gut-punch when Serena sends a message back to June by holding a spectacle of a funeral for Fred that brings June’s daughter Hannah into the televised ceremony. June and Luke stop in their tracks as they see their daughter, more grown-up and dressed in a new purple color, standing next to a smirking Serena.
Below, in a chat with THR, Miller explains how June brought out a “really scary Serena” and how that sets the stage for the two women going cloak-to-cloak the rest of the season, and he sums up the root of what June’s story is all about: “It’s not really about the bad thing happening; it’s about surviving the bad thing. Surviving is an optimistic story.”
Every season, you see The Handmaid’s Tale memes in response to U.S. politics and world events. When filming the end of your season [season five was in production from January through August], did the comparisons feel different when Roe v. Wade was overturned? And were you surprised it happened, given how much research you do for the show about countries stripping people of certain rights?
We’re often in a position, because of the questions that Margaret [Atwood] posed, where we get to ask those questions of people who are experts. And we’ve been doing it for long enough that the show may seem prescient, but it’s just the opinion of these experts, and they’re very smart. Margaret plus people who are thoughtful equals kind of accurate predictions about the future, and those are just the brains that you are working with.
Personally, I don’t think I’m a very good prognosticator. Was I surprised? I’m always surprised when people do shitty things to other people. It shocks me. I’m always surprised at how unthinking people can be. But I don’t feel like I know enough about the real world and politics and political science to feel comfortable enough to say, “I think this is going to happen.” I lie for a living — I’m a storyteller. I make up situations. It seems inevitable that this would happen, but I make up the inevitability, and in the real world, there is no inevitability. Doing so much research on the rise of totalitarian states and the rise of theocracies has certainly made me a more educated consumer of what people are saying these days. But my focus in my life has been on how to make TV shows. And I’ve tried to get good at that.
The historical moment of abortion being made illegal in some states would predate your world of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale. As a storyteller, does it feel nice to have that distance? The show might be a crystal ball in ways, but it’s also on an alternate timeline.
I think there’s something comfortable in seeing how people react when the worst thing happens. That’s an aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s not really about the bad thing happening; it’s about surviving the bad thing. Surviving is an optimistic story. The bad thing is a bad thing. So I think when you’re living through a time when you feel like lots of bad things are happening, huge challenges are not being met and all those kinds of things, I think you can look at it one way and say, “Wow, this is the way things are collapsing.” But the show allows you to look around and say, “These are the ways that things are improving.” Either on a personal level, where people are growing and being kind to each other in a way you never thought people could be, or changing in ways you never thought they could. You’re realizing how some people who have good traits can have bad traits, and embrace their bad traits and ruin the world. It’s not so hard to see how Serena Joy can be lovely to have dinner with, but she was also so certain that she was right for everybody else that she has pushed the world to the edge of destruction.
When we spoke after the season four finale, you said you only knew the next five minutes of June’s story (cradling Nichole in her arms with Fred’s blood still on her), but you didn’t know where she would go from there: Will she stay and fight, would she run or turn herself in? After ending on such a triumph of vengeance, how did you go about figuring out where you wanted her to go after those five minutes were up?
We thought about it a lot. There are two parts to this puzzle. One is exactly the question you’re asking: Where do I want her to go? And the other question is: What did June expect to happen? Because we’re not talking about someone who lashes out blindly, especially in the stories we’ve seen. She’s very careful most of the time. Even when she makes a bad decision, she makes it carefully. And sometimes with just the stuff she has, she’s not making a bad decision. The end of season four was that she’s a thoughtful person. The big thing that I often ignore is my character. And that the words outside my office are The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s about her. So, what’s her feeling?
So when you come to the premiere, the biggest thing that’s driving me is: What exactly does June think is going to happen next? She’s not someone who doesn’t have a plan. Everybody has a plan. Even if your plan is that you’re so angry you are going to scream at someone, you still eat lunch after. You think past the big thing — everybody does. I’m sure she got dressed that morning and filled her car up with gas. I just want to make her a real person, and a real person would think ahead. Even though she’s in this situation, she would think ahead. So the story is about the difference between what she thinks is going to happen, and what happens, and how she feels about that. How much she depends on being punished in order to make the next step occur. The next step, she thought, would be a nice, long break, where she didn’t have to think about her husband anymore. She’d be completely safe; three meals a day, for maybe two years, maybe 10. But she didn’t think she was going to get to go home!
She felt like jail would be a break for her, essentially?
That’s exactly what she wants. In the first episode, she says, “I thought I’d be in jail.” And [the woman] says, “Well, you’re not.” So, what do you do? She thought this was the end of a chapter, and it doesn’t turn out to be, which is much harder for her to deal with personally and on a day-to-day scheduling basis. She assumed the next few years were taken care of, like the last few years. She was in prison, and she’s going to be in prison again. There’s something about that that’s attractive, because if you’re someone who is at a point in your life where you’re having trouble being comfortable with your own decisions and not trusting your own judgment, then it’s really good to have someone say, “OK, now’s the time to do this.” When you think, “I might be a bad person, it would be very nice to have someone tell me that.” In the episode, and this is my favorite, the woman can’t even tell her she’s a bad person. She just says, “It’s not my department to tell you whether you’re good or bad; go home.” And June is like, “What?”
You see flickers of PTSD with June. Because she’s not punished, she has no time to unpack what happened; not the murder, not all the Gilead trauma she’s been through. Amid your research into victims of abuse, how did you figure out how to keep June spinning without having her fall over?
It’s a super interesting question. She has not been there very long. In our experience as a viewer, she was out of Gilead for half of last season. But, she’s been there for like 20 seconds as far as she’s concerned. She’s still adjusting. It’s been a brief time and that’s important to think about. When we did our research on trauma and this process, I think you have to keep in mind the difference of television time and real time. And I think it’s not helpful to show too much of an exception to the rule of trauma recovery. June, in some ways, would be an exception, and in other ways, she would represent how people commonly experience trauma.
She’s in a very complicated situation, where she’s retraumatized. But it’s something that a lot of people go through in big and small scales every day, and the show is about the cost of that. That’s the thing that June’s story continues to be and will always continue to be even after The Handmaid’s Tale ends: How do you recover from the handmaid time? What do you turn into after the handmaid time? That’s the long-term story, combined with stories of motherhood and what it means to be a refugee or someone without a country. All of those stories kind of swirl together and none of them are going to reach an end, but you do research on them and want them all to feel real.
And those things are not uniquely June. There are plenty of people who are fleeing sexual violence, and who are strangers in a strange land, and who are trying to reach their relatives. There are a lot of people going through the amalgam that June is. But we have the beautiful window of Elisabeth Moss’ skill to let us see and feel what those people might be seeing and feeling. So I tried to just not look away from what it actually would feel like to have done what she’s done, and then we just tried to do our research. Initially, you’re just trying to be honest with yourself about, how would I feel if I did this? How would you feel if you went home and half of your fingernails were broken, and you turned into the person they were trying to turn you into?
And now June has Serena to contend with. At the end of episode two, when Serena uses Hannah to send such a loud message, how would you say that represents where the season goes from here between these two women?
It represents two things. One is that Serena’s dangerous. And that she’s scared and that’s making her dangerous. With a person like Serena, she’s not going to fall back. She’s going to erect defensive position and create an offensive force. I don’t think June thought past [sending her Fred’s finger]. She wanted to scare Serena. She could have done all of this with Fred and didn’t really need to taunt Serena. But she did taunt Serena, and it was clear in her head that she felt like, “If I get the chance, I’d almost rather do this to Serena. If I’m honest with myself.”
I think she has just as much passion for Serena as she did for Fred, but I don’t think she recognizes that Serena is going to try to survive. Serena is not the villain in Serena’s story. She’s the winner in her story. I think that June and the audience assumes it’s going to be June pounding on Serena, but Serena has no intention of that, and she has cards to play. She’s not going to sit back and just wait for June to come tear her apart. I think June doesn’t realize all of that. She had the impact on Serena that she wanted to have; she terrified her. She just didn’t think about what came next, and what came next is a really scary Serena.
Then there’s Esther and Janine. You spoke about how much you loved getting them together last season and how they would be a window back into the world of the handmaids still in Gilead. Now Esther is back. But the anger in her when she poisons the chocolates, and seeing Janine buy what she was selling in order to survive — why was this the story you wanted to tell with them?
To June, Esther represents a version of her and a version of Hannah. It’s a version of Hannah as she’s growing up and really taking on the persona of her mom and being a rebel. That’s what June is thinking about: If Hannah ends up getting married off at 14, this is her luckiest version of life. She can be a rebel, and you see how horrible this poor girl’s life is. We are seeing what that does to a young girl like Esther.
A lot of that is due to the performance of Mckenna Grace. She is the age of the character; she takes the role and the trauma and she understands it in terms of that character and what it’s like to be a child in a very grown-up world. She takes her experience as a child actor and brings that to the table. So she and Maddie [Brewer] together did this wonderful kind of performance where they start as enemies and all along the way, Janine feels like she can just charm Esther. And the story ends up being Esther trying to choose between Janine and June: Which is the person she’s going to follow? And she ends up following June. She ends up being more rebellious and more violent and less forgiving.
I feel it’s interesting because in the abstract, my rooting interest would be: I hope Esther fights. And then she does and it’s awful. At a later point Nick (Max Minghella) says that June is just fighting for her daughter. And Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) says, “This is what a fight is like. Everybody gets bloody. Everybody. That’s fighting.” So when you say in the abstract that Esther should stand up and fight, this is what that looks like. It’s hard. Fights are ugly. We’re learning that in our country right now, but that’s the thing June is learning: Everybody gets beat up when you fight for something.
The Handmaid’s Tale streams Wednesdays on Hulu. Listen to Miller talking about the perpetual relevance of the series on THR’s TV’s Top 5 podcast here.
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