‘Handmaid’s Tale‘ Creator on the Startling Death in Season 4 Finale
Spoilers for season 4 episode 10 of The Handmaid’s Tale, “The Wilderness” below.
This season of The Handmaid’s Tale has been full of cathartic, long-awaited payoffs—June (Elisabeth Moss) and Moira’s (Samira Wiley) reunion, June making it to safely in Canada, June finally confronting a cowering Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), etc—but let’s face it. The moment we’re all waiting for is the moment Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) finally gets what’s been coming to him. And to say that today’s finale delivers would be an understatement.
As “The Wilderness” begins, it looks as though Fred is about to walk free, having made a deal with Canada to become a state witness against Gilead. Almost everybody in June’s life, from Moira to Luke (O-T Fagbenle), is telling her to count her blessings and try to move on, but her trauma won’t let her. Nor will her rage. Instead, June slips deliberately back into the role of Offred in order to lure Fred into a false sense of security, and then conspires with Mark Tuello (Sam Jaeger), Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), and Nick (Max Minghella) to lure him all the way into the forest, where a grisly end awaits him.
If the scene in which June, Emily (Alexis Bledel), and several other former Handmaids literally tear Fred apart feels familiar, that’s by design. Way back in the show’s pilot, viewers are introduced to the concept of “Salvaging,” a Gilead invention whereby a group of Handmaids are let loose on a man who’s been sentenced to death. Per showrunner Bruce Miller, the Salvaging is “a way for the Handmaids to get out their fury at men. Gilead kind of tosses them a man once in a while, and it’s the way that they were taught to get out their anger.” This makes Fred’s brutal demise all the more satisfying, because his own invention is being turned against him, Miller notes. “Gilead’s approach was, while we’re going to make women so mad, we need some way for their anger to be released. Why don’t we throw them a horrible person once in a while to tear apart? And June’s like, Good idea!”
Below, Miller delves into the “ongoing trauma” that drives June’s ruthless finale arc, the complex scene in which she and Fred slip back into a version of their season 1 selves, and what the fallout from Fred’s Salvaging will look like for June and Serena.
How did you arrive at the Jezebels framing device? It’s been a while since we saw Fred and June in a season 1 dynamic like that.
The important thing to understand is that every minute of every day, June is being re-traumatized by that experience. The flashbacks have always been the thing that comes to June, sometimes unbidden, sometimes as an escape. In Gilead, it was an escape out of Gilead to somewhere else, to her life before. Here, she’s escaping to a known trauma. It’s not good or healthy that she’s escaping there, but that’s where she’s escaping to. And I think it’s supposed to underline the fact that Fred is an intractable danger and ongoing trauma to her, and she wants to get rid of it.
I’m interested in which of the former Handmaids take part in executing Fred, and which don’t. Moira, who had direct contact with Fred and was very much one of his victims, wants no part of it, whereas Emily is all about it. How did you figure out where everybody would fall?
That’s the end result of this piece of the story, which is: June arriving in Canada is a hand grenade. She explodes, and blows all these relationships apart, and everybody ends up in a different corner far away from each other. It’s what they said about June at the beginning of the season: She’s messy, she takes big swings. It’s all the things we like about her and all the things that have kind of been honed in Gilead: her sense of justice, her sense of, “I’ve got to take action,” her sense of her great dominating personality and stubbornness. That has really taken over her. She’s come to Canada and kind of blown everybody’s personality or relationship up, and moved them all around, and pushed Emily to being much more hungry and eager for revenge. And June herself has also been sort of blown apart, and blown back into being Offred, which is what you see in that scene in the cell with Fred.
The line where Waterford says he misses Offred, and then June says she misses her too: Is the idea that being given this new name, Offred, really did create a different persona?
Yep. And not all bad. A survivor, a tough person. There’s always been this conflict in the show between June and Offred, and in Gilead, June was saying, Just keep your head down and you’ll stay alive. Meanwhile, Offred was like, Ah, but the driver’s cute… That was the whole dynamic in their heads, and now Offred’s saying, Kill the motherfucker, while June is saying But I could just be here, and have a life in Canada.
There are so many quiet turning points in that cell scene between June and Fred. What was the writing process like on that one?
The idea I started out with was, regardless of what they say, this is the scene where June decides to kill Fred. Or decides that he has to die. She doesn’t decide to kill him probably until later, but she decides he can’t leave. She’s going to make sure he ends up on the wall. So how do you show that? It was interesting because what you’re dealing with a lot in this is two actors who are so good that you are able to write stuff that’s hard. To see them kind of jousting, playing seven layer chess, and June playing it a lot better than him, is fascinating. Whenever I write a scene like that, what I’m trying to do is almost get out of the way of these [actors].
The other thing you take into account is, June knows when she’s going to see Fred. She’s been thinking about what she’s going to say all the way there. She has a script in her head, so she’s not reacting in the moment. She is planning, and being thoughtful about what she’s going to say. So in some ways, she really is being much more like Offred. Because in Gilead, you say the right thing because your life depends on it. You’re dead otherwise. What I wanted to do in that scene is have June prove to herself that she really is in the dominant position now, that she has the power, she has nothing to be afraid of—and also decides that Fred is worth killing anyway. In the end, even though she isn’t under threat, she does it anyway. She goes out of her way to kill Fred.
Can you talk about the moment where Fred apologizes to June—in this very conditional and skewed way that really misses the point—and it has a huge impact on her? There’s almost a feeling of relief, like that’s the moment when she realizes, Okay, yep, I can do this. He has to die.
Yes, exactly. We do a lot of research for this show, as you can imagine. Being a man, not being a survivor of this kind of trauma, not being a refugee, not being a mother, there’s so many places where I have to do research. And one of the areas where we do a lot of research is speaking to refugees. That moment came from a story from a refugee, who said that the moment she really snapped was when her abuser apologized. It was the moment she realized, Oh my god, he always knew he was wrong. The only way you survive is to think, Well, this person doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong because they’re doing these terrible things. But when the abuser says they’re sorry, all of that goes away. That’s from the mouth of a trauma survivor and a refugee who had gone through this. And it was such a surprise to us that we thought, even though we don’t quite understand it, let’s make that moment happen. And boy, the way you picked that up is exactly what Lizzie and Joe were trying to explain, is that the moment he apologizes is the moment you realize he’s absolutely irredeemable. And in this case, very salvageable!
And there’s these three betrayals, I guess. First there’s Lawrence and he’s like, “Ooh, sorry, bud. Can’t help you.” And then there’s Nick and June. It almost felt biblical. He gets betrayed by his three people.
I wanted it to feel like he had cut off all his noses to spite his face and he didn’t have a friend left in the world. The shock that he couldn’t charm anybody onto his side was what I wanted to see. He couldn’t charm Tuello. He couldn’t charm anybody. And then you get my favorite few line readings from Lizzie ever: “Run.” “Choose.”
The line-reading of “Run” was so good. It’s like she almost gets more syllables into it.
That is the benefit of knowing who I’m writing for, honestly. I try to make it that June’s not in the business of explaining shit to this guy, and she’s not a chatty person, and she’s very controlled. Gilead has taught them to control the way they talk very carefully, so she knows how to choose her words for impact. That’s what you get with Elizabeth Moss, with Joe Fiennes, with Max in that scene. I’m not trying to be artsy-fartsy, I’m just not trying to embellish a moment with words when people might be feeling a lot, but they wouldn’t be talking a lot.
June sending Fred’s thumb to Serena feels like a threat, but it’s a little more complex than that because it’s also a callback to Gilead taking Serena’s finger. What is the message?
Well, there is a message of, “I did this for you. He owes you this. He owes you a marriage and a finger, because he screwed both those things up.” So there’s a little bit of solidarity in that message. But basically, it’s June giving Serena the finger.
When I spoke to Yvonne yesterday, we were discussing the idea of what Serena deserves, in light of her line about how if she went back to Gilead, she would be a Handmaid. And how intriguing the idea is that she’s on her own now. She is potentially in real danger of having something like that happen.
What she deserves is really not my call. I don’t believe in redemption. I think it’s a dramatic conceit that doesn’t help anybody. It’s like you turn a switch and you’re a bad person. Now you’re a good person. That doesn’t work in real life, either. My feeling is that, Serena was so cognizant of what she was doing. She’s a very smart, thoughtful, clear-eyed woman, and if you give her that respect, you have to give her that responsibility as well. So I think Gilead is very much her doing, and I don’t know how you pay for something like that. I don’t know how justice is done with something like that. Certainly, Serena hasn’t seen the error of her own ways, and she’s still inspiring followers and wanting to go out, and speak, and write books, and transfer more people over to her point of view. So what would be justice? Good God, I would like her to have just one moment of realizing what she’s done. I think that I have an idea of what Serena deserves, and that changes. Sometimes I’m so angry with her, I wish her physical violence, but then you think, this is a show that’s about so much physical violence towards women. How could the answer ever be more violence against another woman who’s also a victim of this system? So anyway, when you and Yvonne figure it out, tell me.
Serena did get one real win in the finale, which was her Zoom line.
[Laughs] We had a discussion with the studio and network, because they were worried, is it just a pandemic thing? But I thought, they’ve had pandemics in the past, in the Gilead timeline certainly, so that could have come up then. But also, Zoom was around before the pandemic. They were very kind to let us do it. The favorite communications app of Gilead is not the banner you want on your homepage.
I want to talk about the very last scene, where Luke comes in and finds a blood-smeared June holding baby Nichole. Somehow much more disturbing than the salvaging!
I really wanted to underline the enormity of what happened. Luke already can extrapolate kind of what happened, but I want you to be reminded of the emotional distance we’ve traveled in the story, because you might forget that June has a partner and a baby at home. She’s not going home to a rebel camp or sharpening her knife at SEAL team headquarters. She lives in a house. She’s got to make breakfast. She’s like me, so I wanted to bring all that together. And I think seeing her holding the baby, and the peace of that, and the love of that, and the gentleness, in contrast to the venom and violence and destruction of what she did to Fred, which was also something she did with her hands: June has become a person who contains both of these things, and that’s who we’re dealing with now.
When June says “just give me five minutes, and then I’ll go,” it feels like she’s preemptively accepting that their marriage is over.
Yeah. I wanted to end five minutes before the reckoning. Five minutes, and then she’ll move on with her life to whatever that’s going to be. But just give me five minutes to be here. I worked so hard to get here. Give me five more minutes here and then I’ll move on. The reckoning, the aftermath of this experience with Gilead, and the experience that she’s had since she’s returned from Gilead, and the experience in the woods with Fred, that’s all coming down on her right now in this moment. She’s realizing, when I went into Gilead, I’d never hurt a person, and I just organized the death of a guy in the woods. Went out of my way, and so I obviously am a very different person, but I don’t want to come to terms with what that means for just a minute. Just until the sun comes up, just give me a second with my little muffin. That’s all.
When Lawrence tells her, “It won’t be enough,” that felt like a teaser for season 5, right? Because he’s probably right about that.
Absolutely. I was very happy to steal that directly from The Sting, just to put credit where credit is due. It’s a truth that June doesn’t want to admit to herself, that it’s not going to be enough. And what is enough? When do we learn that revenge, when you get it, doesn’t feel like revenge? Revenge isn’t an end, and even victory isn’t an end, and defeat isn’t an end. It may feel like that in a movie or in a game, but not in real life. And I think that’s what June’s coming to terms with, is that life, unlike television, is cumulative and the things you do add up. She’s both the mother of Nichole, and her savior, and the murderer of Fred. She’s both of those things. And neither of those things are going away.
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