SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the Season 4 finale of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” streaming now on Hulu.
Two episodes before the end of the fourth season of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” June (Elisabeth Moss) stood in front of her Gilead abusers and testified about their crimes. But when it came time to speak out again, because one of her abusers was cutting a deal, she was asked to put a message on tape, which sent her the message that her story had lost some of its shine.
June escaped the oppressive patriarchy in what was once America and was now living in the more traditionally democratized Canada, but even there, what a man had to offer was more valuable. To a degree.
Fred (Joseph Fiennes) did agree to share Gilead secrets in exchange for his freedom and his information was proven to be valid and valuable. But because his crimes were so great, he was not granted the freedom he sought. Instead, he was dropped off in No Man’s Land, where June, Emily (Alexis Bledel) and a number of other women who had suffered under his rule in Gilead went after him.
June wanted Fred to feel as afraid as she was when she was running for her life in the woods in her former home country, and it certainly appeared he did. She granted him the chance to run, with the women in quick pursuit. They eventually caught up to him, beat him, cut off his finger (to poetically mail back to his wife, Serena) and strung up his lifeless body.
“Sometime we think if X happens, everything will be all right: ‘Once Trump is gone, once the pandemic is over, things will be fine,’” says showrunner Bruce Miller. “But life doesn’t work that way.”
Elsewhere in Canada, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) still awaited her own fate, growing more pregnant by the day and still in a prison of sorts, while back in Gilead, Esther (Mckenna Grace) and Janine (Madeline Brewer) were adjusting to life in the red center in very different ways.
Here, Miller talks with Variety to dissect the finale, including whether Fred’s death was revenge or justice or both, as well as plans for Season 5.
Let’s back up a bit before diving into the details of the finale to talk about how much June’s anger at the patriarchy in Gilead and what she experienced there is driving her and if she is sated by her actions in the finale or if she needs to let go of the anger in order to really heal.
We wanted to show a level of trauma that was commensurate with the trauma that she’s endured, which is huge. So, I think she should have a level of ongoing trauma. And I think anger is too small a word just because I think she’s experiencing what happens after you experience that much trauma. And what we didn’t want to do is make it so that there was a singular experience that everybody goes through, which is not the way it works. So we have now a bunch of characters who have made it out and they all have very different experiences processing through their trauma and they’re still going through it. The idea that every character you see in the show is still going through their trauma, including Moira, who arrived years and years and years ago. So I think what what we’re trying to do is be realistic, and when you’re realistic, I don’t know that that trauma or anger ever goes away, do you?
Even if it won’t fully go away, pushing it aside or taking active steps to recognize it and make decisions born out of other things is part of it, too, because getting revenge on Fred might feel great in the moment, but if it came solely out of a place of anger its aftertaste may not be as good.
Oh absolutely, yes. And in our perception of things, a desire for revenge and a desire for justice are very close to each other, and one is considered quite noble and one is considered quite injurious. I don’t know which one June considers herself on a quest for, but I would say, it probably, to me feels more like a quest for justice than just a quest for revenge.
And not just for June. All of those women came to the woods to get their own justice. How did you determine how long that chase needed to be and how big the attack needed to be?
Our rule of thumb is always to show only enough so that you can actually feel what June feels. In that particular case, June is so much at the center of that physical thing that you have to get in there. You don’t want to show the group dynamic: you want to show June’s attitude and [Emily’s] attitude and all the other characters’ attitudes and that they’re different. The lack of restraint that June shows, I think, is super important. We feel yuckier because she feels less yucky, and I think that’s the important part of the moment. This may be a moment that everybody wants, but you have complicated feelings during it. It’s basically the chickens coming home to roost.
That also speaks to a level of self-awareness the audience may need to have while digesting this episode, which is an interesting parallel to how self-aware June proved to be in moments with Fred where she admitted she missed parts of Offred because she missed her strength.
I think the strength was born of enduring trauma and she’s still dealing with the trauma, so she still needs the strength and still needs that really clear-eyed vision of what to do with your day to survive. She’s been taken out of a situation where she’s at 11 in terms of stress all of the time, but she’s still at 11 in terms of stress [even] without the situation. And so, she feels like who she is doesn’t fit with where she is, and when she sits down with Fred or Serena, she knows who she is again.
But when she sat down with Emily and was talking about her idea that being a good mother is letting go of Nicole, Emily doesn’t correct her. Is that in any way a hint at what Emily will be struggling with in the next season?
Absolutely. And honestly Emily’s story this season was diminished because of COVID. Everybody went way out of their way for us to get what we got, but Alexis had to come up and Alexis has a family and that was all very complicated. And also, we couldn’t get Clea DuVall; it didn’t work in her schedule and she also has a family. I feel bad saying it and I don’t want to lay bare the mechanism of how we do TV, but honestly there was much more story with lots of those characters that we just physically couldn’t get.
What does that do for what you thought next season would be, before COVID? Are there pieces you wanted to do this year that get pushed into next, or do you just skip them altogether because the audience doesn’t know what it would have been and now you’re down the road on something else?
I feel like we have to tell a different story. I don’t think you can reach back and say, “OK let’s see how Clea DuVall reacted when June got out.” One of my favorite scenes in the entire show was a scene between Clea and O-T Fagbenle talking about what it’s like to have your spouse come back traumatized. We didn’t have Clea, which was just heartbreaking because to think about Clea and O-T together, you want to put [a scene like that] in a box and save it forever. But my feeling is you have to move on.
Before we do, I want to go back to June’s justice against Fred in the finale. First, what kind of research did you do for the way a deal would be made for Fred to think he’s going to come out unscathed but to have all of these forces working to sell him out?
We did a ton of research about what would actually happen all the way through in terms of June, in terms of how they would be trying to flip Fred, which is what they’ve been trying to do since the beginning. And then we use that research to make good creative decisions to make it as dramatic as possible. But in terms of kind of trading one person for a bunch of rebels, in terms of how porous the border is and how easy it is for people to communicate and actually move back and forth if you’re a man and if you’re a military person, those things are all true. It’s a lot more permeable, it’s a lot more of a no man’s land. So that part is all true and the physicalness is as true as we could make it.
Fred does give them real information, which ultimately sells out the system. Did you consider him faking them out at first? What did it take to get him to a place where you believed he would turn his back on what he built?
Before the deal is actually struck, you have to prove your bonafides and deliver some real information. He doesn’t realize he’s delivering enough to make Mark go, “Eh, it’s enough.” And yeah, I think it took a long road. He’s kind of a self-centered guy and his ego is supported by the fact that he feels like he built this country. But that was taken away, and this season he’s gotten something else back: He built a family. He was building a country almost because he felt like it was impossible for him to build a family, but now he’s building a family, so he doesn’t give a shit about the country. The same thing with Serena: once she gets pregnant, I haven’t heard her mention Nicole all season. These people are so narcissistic.
And at the end of it, June is telling Nicole she has to go, but does she really? Everyone will assume June did it when they hear of it, but he was in No Man’s Land, so it seems like they can’t really prove it. Is this more of a sacrifice she feels she has to make, rather than consequences are coming for her right away?
I very much want it to be her choice, not consequences. Because once it’s consequences, it’s just her dealing with those consequences. And of course, there will be that [down the line], but right now, there’s no crime. Nobody has any idea what happened. Fred’s gone; he was traded.
Serena will know, though, right? Or does the guard decide not to give her the finger?
Oh, yes. He’ll tell her or have somebody else tell her. I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do yet, but my sense was one of the problems is that June has lost the ability to be covert. Part of killing Fred was sending that finger to Serena.
Serena and Fred didn’t part on the best of terms: She got snarky with him about writing a book when he wouldn’t let her read and she didn’t seem to want to Zoom with him. Why was that important to show before, ultimately, she was left on her own, and what is her fate now?
The things you mentioned, the fact that they’re able to discuss those things out loud, that’s the beginning of their intimacy. Serena is interested in the partnership because the partnership supports her. She reviles Fred on a lot of levels and doesn’t trust him, but she has that chance to make the perfect picture in this season — husband, wife child — and that’s really tempting. That’s the poster for Gilead. But there’s also a poster of “poor widow Waterford” with the child that might help Serena, too. I think there’s a really good chance that for the rest of her life she’s Mrs. Fred Waterford. The model that I took was Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who every quickly went from being Jackie Kennedy to Jackie Onassis and the world was not happy that she married somebody else. But she said, “I don’t want to be America’s widow.” And so, for Serena, I think she would have to make the active choice to move on, and I don’t know whether she’s going to do that because, as we see, her connection with Fred puts her in a position that she is really comfortable in. She’s in a position of power, she’s lauded in some ways, but she’s left alone [in others]. To do that, you have to basically say, “For the rest of my life, Fred’s going to have control over me, even from the grave,” but it may be her best route to having any kind of influence and notoriety and having people cheer for her, which is what she loves.
We spoke about justice a few minutes ago, and it certainly feels like that’s an area lacking for Janine at the end of the season. Yet, she found a way to assert herself while ingratiating herself with the aunts. What does that say about her future; is she on a track to become an aunt or just a different kind of resistance leader?
Janine getting stuck back in Gilead feels unjust. But this is the real world; it’s not just. There’s the idea that if I just hit x, everything’s going to be fine — “if we just get rid of Trump, if the pandemic just ends, everything’s going to be fine” — but that’s not the way the world works. She makes a decision — a decision to act, to ask Lydia on her own [to help Esther] and to have an argument that works. So, you’re seeing her management style versus June’s management style. But I really am fascinated that you say, “Are they going to be the leaders of the resistance?” How many more people do you want to die? Everybody wants rebellion, they just don’t want the cost.
It wouldn’t look the same as it did under June’s hand, but to see them resign themselves to live in Gilead feels worse than dying.
When Janine says, “Don’t put me back into service, I’d rather die,” that was the same exact physical position, in the same spot, that June was in. I think that’s a wakeup call for Lydia in realizing that every single handmaid she comes across would rather die than be a handmaid, which is making her think about how to make handmaids sustainable. Gilead has changed, Janine has changed, and Esther has changed. It’s like June pulled the pin out of that poor girl and left, and now they’re in the red center; god know what the could do. She’s amazingly volatile and dangerous, so June’s legacy is living on in Gilead in a big way.
Mckenna really shined this season. What plans do you have for her for next season?
As much as I can give her. Every time I see her, I’m more impressed with her range. She is playing in a sandbox with older actors and it’s amazing to watch. I love her character, I love her arc and the way that she plays it has been fantastic. My problem is, I would love to see 13 whole episodes about everybody. But we’re going to definitely follow her through next season in Gilead with Janine and Lawrence and Lydia. There’s a dynamic going on there that June is very interested in, having left those people behind.