SPOILER ALERT: This story contains lots of details of the Season 4 finale of The Handmaid’s Tale that launched tonight on Hulu.
EXCLUSIVE:“Under Her Eye.”
The spray paint on the side of a barn with the dead and beaten body of once powerful Commander Fred Waterford near the end of the Season 4 finale of The Handmaid’s Tale kind of subversively says it all.
After years of repeatedly raping women, subjecting almost everyone to his harsh theocratic and bureaucratic will and even punishing his own wife and partner-in-crime with a severed finger for supposed transgressions, the Joe Fiennes portrayed Waterford met his demise literally at the hands of Elisabeth Moss’ June Osborne and nearly two dozen other Handmaids in the Bruce Miller penned “The Wilderness” episode that dropped on Hulu tonight.
“The Handmaid’s Tale has taught me so much, but I can’t wait to sit back and enjoy this show from another perspective,” Fiennes told me of leaving the villain role.
Amidst the awards showered on the Miller show-run dystopian series based on Margaret Atwood’s prescient 1985 novel, the portrayal of Gilead leader character has seen Fiennes nominated for a Supporting Actor Emmy, among other acclaim. This year sees Fiennes up his game with a shift to the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama category for awards consideration, which should have given away something big was up.
Filmed under Covid-19 safety protocols up in hard hit Toronto, the Season 4 ender appeared poised to have Waterford and his now pregnant wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) escaping the clutches of international law for crimes committed in the now totalitarian theocracy that was once America. As Moss’ Osborne seeks to construct a new life free in Canada, reunited with her husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), her baby Nicole and getting her elder daughter Hannah out of Gilead, Waterford has struck a deal for leniency and a clean slate in exchange for revealing the inner works of the isolated theonomic state.
But, as anyone who has been watching The Handmaid’s Tale the past few years could tell you, that’s not going to fly with June. Crafting a deal between the wily Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) and the exiled American government for another exchange of Waterford with a vengeful Gilead for 22 women, many of whom were presumed dead, the former Handmaid displays some realpolitik chops that leave the men looking like arrogant amateurs.
But, of course, bloody revenge doesn’t come without a cost. Waterford is gone, but Gilead remains. June has lost something in herself in killing the man who made her and so many suffer.
Fiennes and Miller spoke with me about the finale, what it means for the actor, and for the show. The Shakespeare in Love alum also discussed the toll playing Waterford takes, his take on his own exit and working this last year under the specter of the coronavirus. Executive producer Miller explains why it was time for Fred Waterford to die and what consequence that will have for the upcoming fifth season of the Hulu streamed series.
DEADLINE: So Joe, was this how you thought the cruel life of Commander Waterford would end?
FIENNES: Bruce knew, like Margaret Atwood knew, that it was alluded to somewhere in the book that a certain Fred Waterford would get his comeuppance via a Salvaging, but when and by whom it didn’t explicitly say.
So, I always knew somehow it was going to be introduced into the narrative, and Bruce very kindly at the end of each season, we’d have a coffee and a chat about how things are going or where things might go again. I remember it was end of Season 2, he very kindly said hey, listen, just a heads-up that the time for the Commander might be up around about next season. That was at the end of Season 2, and then I was furiously reading through all the episodes as we were shooting Season 3, and nothing happened. I was like, Bruce, what’s going on? And then we had a catch-up, and he said no, I think Season 4. So, very kindly, he kept me a year more than I thought I was due to stay, but I kind of had an inkling early on.
DEADLINE: Bruce, as Joe noted, the reference to the Commander’s end is very fleeting in The Handmaid’s Tale the novel, so why did decide this was the time and this was the manner in which Waterford would die?
MILLER: Well, I think that we follow the characters to those decisions, and certainly following June and Fred. So, I think that Fred kind of moves his way through this story in a way that he doesn’t realize is going to light a fuse on June’s fury and set a timer on that. But the way Fred maneuvers through these last few steps quite brilliantly to acquire the power to set up his family in good stead, I always thought it is really an example of Fred being able to pull the levers of power that he could pull, and you really want to see, and in the end what it does is make June realize how dangerous he is.
I mean he basically succeeds his way into the grave, which I think is, for Fred at his most thoughtful and subtle and good at reading people. But he doesn’t look at the bigger picture when he’s doing these kind of very careful power moves, and he didn’t keep his eyes on the bigger picture, which is there are powerful forces at play now that I, meaning he, doesn’t control.
DEADLINE: Shifting back to the man himself, or rather the man who portrays the evil that is Waterford, what does this death mean to you Joe, besides the end of your run on Handmaid’s?
FIENNES: it’s paradoxical, and I think Lizzie’s, or rather, June’s need for justice and revenge is fascinating. It’s something we as the audience need. It’s a certain catharsis because he’s going to get off free, but the paradox is that she becomes a product of the thing that she wants to extinguish.
DEADLINE: How do you mean?
FIENNES: Well, I love the way that Bruce introduced another theme into the narrative, which is that actually in revenge, we have to find closure and forgiveness. There’s got to be a sense of pity at the kind of, the banality of evil, and I love that June is cognizant of her rage and cognizant that she will lose her higher spiritual self to this urge, this need to kill. It’s confounding and it’s confusing. It will rip another kind of dimension into the relationship between Luke and June. The ramifications of this will have, I think, adverse effects on that relationship that’s already struggling to reconnect.
So, it’s brilliant. It’s complicated. It’s needed. Fred is a repeat offender.
DEADLINE: I have to ask, because this can’t be an easy role to play or to take home with you even a little bit at the end of the day, but what is your take on Fred after all these years?
FIENNES: Give him the mahogany vest and the double-breasted suit and the military boots to hide behind. Margaret Atwood describes him as this really weak, withered limb that lives inside a military boot, that’s what he is.
He’s weak, pathetic, but if you give him the trappings of power, and he’ll repeat and repeat and repeat, and I love that scene in the finale with Lizzie at the end, it’s my favorite scene. Obviously, it comes off the back of four years of a relationship that I’m playing and examining Fred, but you know, the way that someone like Fred might just skew the narrative to release himself and relinquish himself of the awful horror that he’s put her through by a sort of apology that really, you know, could Fred really dig deep and really mean the apology? I think he does to a certain degree, but it’s only that he’s now got this son. It’s a complex scene. I loved, it was loaded with so many elements, but it’s needed. It’s just.
DEADLINE: With that Bruce, I have to now ask you, is Commander Waterford really gone, because almost no one is truly gone in television today.
MILLER: (LAUGHS) I already had that conversation with Joe, and whether it was just to cushion my broken heart of the idea of not seeing him every day, that’s a different story, but no, absolutely. I think that although Fred is dead, his influence on June continues and that is, in our show, shown through her mind’s eye of flashbacks.
But Dominic, I just wanted to go back to something that Joe said. I think this is such a titanic performance of a villain…
FIENNES: Thank you Bruce …
MILLER: I think that one of the reasons I wanted Joe to play this role is that he has such a basic decency and good humor and loveliness to him, and I think that it shouldn’t go unsaid that this has been difficult for him.
MILLER: Well, he is a big hearted, decent, kind fellow who doesn’t want to hurt other people’s feelings. In order to make this role work and to work as well as it did, he brought all of that to the role. He exposed all of that in the role. I mean, it’s what a career of playing good people and bad people and kindhearted people and not so, and he can bring all of that to bear on Fred. It costs him, and we all appreciate it so much that, you know, that he gives so much, but it’s what makes the role work. It’s what makes it terrifying.
FIENNES: If I may Dominic, I think for me, and maybe for all of those involved in Handmaid’s Tale, we realized the prescience of the narrative from the book and from Bruce’s reimagining. We hold that very dear to us that we want to keep it prescient, keep the parallels for…it’s a cautionary tale.
So, whether it’s political, whether it’s Fred and the horrors of the corrosive effects of power and the predatory male, but for me it’s, you know, it’s been extraordinary because it tails so close to our politics, our lives previously, today, and surely in the future, but I’m very, very happy to be free of Fred.
DEADLINE: No doubt …
FIENNES: (LAUGHS) Yes, you know, as much as I love watching it and loved playing him. Normally, most British actors would love playing villains because of our awful colonial past. I guess we’re natural at it, but normally I’d relish the opportunity, and I have. Yet, I have to say because of the parallels of Fred and certain kind of characters like him that I read about perpetually in the news, it feels all too real. So, I’m happy to relinquish not only playing him, but also not having to live in a character that is pathetic and nauseous, and you know
DEADLINE: Hope this doesn’t sound reductionary, but is there a process of withdrawal for you?
FIENNES: The role itself is tough for all of us, especially in the sort of anxiety of Covid, and I found this season quite tough. I find most seasons quite tough with Fred, honestly.
I feel happy to sort of relinquish him, but you know, it’s been a tough year being away on the other side of the world from my family and doing a character like this.
My family consists of my heroines, which are my wife and my two daughters, you know, and in doing this piece I’m just reminded, you know, of how precious their voices are. I don’t feel like the proudest dad in the world saying, you know, Dad, what have you done? Where have you been? I’ve been portraying Fred Waterford. It’s a tough one.
DEADLINE: How do you square that?
FIENNES: I’m proud of being a part of an extraordinary, exceptional show. It has, taught me both as an actor and as a human being through the narrative and through extraordinary people like Bruce and Lizzie and our team of actors and crew and camera and directors. The Handmaid’s Tale has taught me so much, but I can’t wait to sit back and enjoy this show from another perspective.
DEADLINE: In terms of another POV, Bruce, you penned ‘The Wilderness’ as you have every Handmaid’s season finale. Beyond the personal ramifications for Elisabeth’s June in what killing Waterford has done to her and of course his dispensable death, there was some realpolitik in terms of Gilead, the official USA and Canada here with a clear long tail. So where does the Season 4 finale take us going forward?
MILLER: It takes us into a post-Fred world
I mean, what we want the show to do is move forward, as you said. We don’t want it to retread, and TV nowadays should move forward. It should be aggregate. I mean, the characters should be the characters they were at the end of the season added to the characters they are in this season, not just restarted.
DEADLINE: Sounds like you are potently avoiding my question.
MILLER: Well, the finale definitely is a pivot, but I think what you get at the end of the episode after June spends this whole episode really getting a sense of who Fred is, and we’re reminded of who Fred is in the worst way. So, she makes this decision in the episode. It’s a very interesting episode to write because you have to remind the audience how despicable Fred is right before you kill him, but if you have to remind the audience, they haven’t been watching at all. On the other hand, it’s almost like, June is coming to the realization herself.
And, I think we end the episode five minutes before she reckons with what she just did. He is dead, but it isn’t the end of her relationship with Fred Waterford, it isn’t the end of relationship with her anger towards Fred Waterford. It’s all about what happens when you get what you always wanted. She’s in Canada with her husband holding her child. She’s got revenge on Fred, and it doesn’t particularly feel lovely or settled. I think, you know, at the end she says just give me five minutes. think we end five minutes from that reckoning from her, it landing on her, and her changing from June as a handmaid in Gilead to June as an avenger with more choices but more responsibility.
DEADLINE: Sticking with that for a second, and magnifying it, Joe, we’ve spoken before about Lizzie directing this season as well as playing June and being an executive producer …
FIENNES: Yes …
DEADLINE: … so, for you, knowing where this was going, what was that like in terms of your relationship with Lizzie both as an actress, as an executive producer, and as a director of three episodes this season moving towards this finale?
FIENNES: She delivers, for me, monumental episodes. I mean, you know, what you have already is inherently someone that knows the narrative, like Bruce does, inside out, and you have a trust that goes alongside that.
So, I knew that that last episode, although that last episode was by Liz Garbus, but I just knew that everything that was heading towards in that direction was under Lizzie’s eye. She zoned in so clearly on the emotional narrative that I hadn’t seen before. I think for me episodes eight and nine, that she directed, the way she handled the narrative and the way she moved the camera, brave, economic, fat free, lean, and targeting the sort of the emotional narrative. I thought that clarity was just extraordinary
DEADLINE: Clarity being the word here, Bruce how is work on Season 5 going?
MILLER: It’s going beautifully. I mean, it’s nice to be able to think about a season where we can actually maybe be on set and do it normally.
We’re just starting to kind of gather our wool and gather our writers and gather up people to pull them back together. But you know, it does reflect back on this season.
DEADLINE: How so?
MILLER: I don’t think I can express clearly enough how independent they were up in Toronto, that they made the show. You know, we were here in Los Angeles supporting, but I wasn’t there. In a pre-pandemic season, Joe and I would normally have 40 conversations during the year about as he moves towards something like this ending, And we did when we got to the end. We talked about the script. We did our normal kind of going over the bits and pieces, but you know, it’s a testament to the first three years of the show that they were able to go up there and get it done in the fourth year after the roof kind of fell in. I don’t think you can tell watching the show, certainly that final episode. You can count the number of handmaids in the woods who are chasing Fred down. They made that all work in Covid times.
DEADLINE: That scene in the woods aside I felt like I did notice the Covid protocols in this finale, and that it really worked with the one-on-one conversations, the distancing. It added a heightening tension, and was very theatrical, bit Beckett, bit Pinter …
MILLER: A lot of it is a function simply of having to reduce multi-character scenes to two-character scenes, and they feel a little more stagey. But luckily, we have a group of actors where it is delicious as well.
I think Dominic that Joe can speak to this. I think the first thing we did when the Covid restrictions started to come down was we said what in our show is a strength towards that? Not what do we have to screw with, and a couple of things really come to mind. One is the fact that the character Joe plays is in prison, so they can only have conversations one on one. That makes perfect sense with his wife, with Lizzie, but also, basic things like we have a lot of people who can wear masks. Let’s have them wear masks.
So, you want to embrace the things about your show, and I think all the shows did it. It was incredibly difficult that I praise anybody who got a season up on its feet is a miracle. So, but Joe I know, you know, can speak to the Covid-ness of it on set a lot more than I can.
FIENNES: Well, first just kudos to (co-executive producer) Kim Todd and our producing partners in Canada for keeping the show going. We never stopped, and kudos to everyone for just toeing the line. We got 27,000 tests, 200,000 liters or something of, hand sanitizer. So, but kudos to the production for never letting it drop.
In terms of the theatricality of this season, this finale, I see what you’re saying, and it is. It is the season of the two-handers, which in theater terms can be very compelling, a very compelling sort of concentration of a circle, and I think it was hugely, hugely in keeping with the show.
FIENNES: Because the show is full of places where you can be overheard. There’s a sort of suffocation to Gilead, and that unbearable pressure, which is sort of enhanced by two people quietly talking in a study, and so I think you’re right. The show didn’t really change in that regard, but it did in terms of these wonderful scenes that was written. Suddenly, I saw actors and characters revealing themselves not over 3 or 4 pages, but over 5, 7, 9 pages, and that to me was so lovely. So, yes, reduced in numbers, but sort of magnified in the revelation and the unpeeling of these layers and characters. So, for me Covid actually strangely enough did us and it produced the incredible writing from our team and Bruce in a way that I hadn’t imagined.
DEADLINE: A lot of Handmaid’s Tale fans watching the Season 4 finale won’t have been able to imagine the horrible Fred Waterford is dead, shunned by Gilead and killed by June and other handmaids. So, to both of you, knowing how people invest in this show week after week, year after year, how would you explain what happened to them?
MILLER: The first thing I would say to a fan is we do those kind of things so the fans can kind of plum their own feelings about them.
So, that do you feel bad? Do you feel bad and great? Do you wish that they had spent more time tearing him apart? Do you think he got off easy? You know, in some ways, the whole point of the show, and I think nowadays especially is to make people feel something, to feel connected to something, to other people’s stories because we’re a little missing in human contact. So, but what I think I would say to them initially is the Commander is dead. Long live the Commander. The fact is that there are plenty of Commanders. It’s a long fight. What you don’t want to get caught up in is the victories or the defeats that June is going through. I think the lesson she is learning is the lesson we’re all learning, which is it doesn’t matter how many elections you work on, there’s always another election to throw yourself into. I think a lot of our problems in the world are thinking that fights are as soon as you kill Fred in the woods, your problems are over. It’s a long struggle, and that’s what we have to get used to in this world is long struggles.
FIENNES: How can I add to that? I mean, it’s just so eloquent.
I think what’s really interesting is what Bruce has delivered is for me the paradox, and he summed it up wonderfully, but yes, patience, as Warren Littlefield said, is rewarded. That’s so, so great for an audience because they, like June, have been through the fear and the horror, and I think the death of Fred is not so much important as the journey towards death.
What Bruce has written is, and the need for June is not just to kill him outright, but to make him suffer the fear and tread in the shoes of all those that Gilead and he have put people through. So, I think there’s a great sense of reward, and as Shakespeare says, the truth will out, and here it has.
DEADLINE: So, where does that take the tale?
FIENNES: Well, I think it’s going to be interesting to see how next season Serena might have a version of that same narrative. The audience need to see people walk the plank as they forced others to walk the plank, and there is a higher justice system, And, for myself and the audience, that is partially why I love this show.
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