Have “The Handmaid’s Tale” finally turned the corner? After four seasons of horrors and betrayal, our heroine, June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss) was pushed, almost against her will, into the relative freedom of Canada. Meanwhile, her former captors and abusers, the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) are also in the Great White North. The pair have been on trial for numerous crimes against humanity in a de facto United States courtroom. But, the hit Hulu series has certainly liked to tease and then rip away any sense of optimism in this exploration of the authoritarian alternate timeline Margaret Atwood first devised in her landmark 1985 novel. Somewhat surprisingly, Fiennes suggests hope and a fight against the evils of Gilead (formerly a portion of the continental United States) might just be on the horizon.
During an interview last month Fiennes remarked to The Playlist, “I think this season is all about freedom, the fight back, the bite back, resistance, and reconciliation. What I love is there’s a bit of pain to go through in the first part. But what you have is you get to lean in, on all the relationships, the fallout between couples and partners and loved ones stuck in different places, being brutalized and the others patiently waiting and not knowing. And then you get that kind of reconnection and in that connection of great struggles and I love the season for that, but so it’s all about repair, reconciliation, and freedom. And maybe there’s a sense of that. Maybe people in the pandemic, there’s a sense of light at the tunnel. We need a sense of repair. We need a sort of an uplift and maybe people early on will sense that with “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But I think as you get through the middle part into the end it’s a good feeling. I think people will be up on their feet at the end.”
Fiennes, who earned a supporting actor Emmy nomination in 2018 for his portrayal, also discussed the unique twist the Commander and Serena discover at the end of the latest episode, Fred’s understanding of Serena’s manipulations, and much, much more.
The Playlist: What are your feelings about Commander Waterford’s predicament this season and what he sort of been going through?
Joseph Fiennes: Well, my feelings personally as Joe, is that he should go for a rough ride and never get out. But from Fred’s perspective, the oxygen is fast running out.
At the end of episode eight, Serena and the Commander discover they have supporters out of the blue in Canada. And it appears as though the relationship is more so solidified now because I don’t know if they think they can win.
Well, it’s an interesting one. I believe there’s a miracle early on, around about episode two or three, when it’s revealed that Fred is the father of the son and Serena is pregnant. And I think for Fred, this is a miracle from God, but it carries great meaning it optically fulfills his dream, which is the perfect Gilead family. A commander, a wife, and a son. But on top of that, I think for him, it made the whole crusade, the whole pain of what it was for him to go through in his mind has paid off. And I think when it comes to the testimony [portion of the trial] he pipes up in many ways. I think during the testimony like all predators, he would rationalize the situation and put the blame firmly on June. And I think he just can’t hold himself. So, he lets himself go a little bit in the testimony and it could all just blow up in his face. But luckily what he says in his belief about the crusade and Gilead and what it was all about and bringing a population back from a terrible toxic world has paid off. And it’s interesting that there’s a group outside willing to embrace the Waterfords. And on the back of that, he might use that in terms of spin-doctoring, he’ll use that core group to sort of maybe pull himself out of this situation of impending jail time.
I don’t understand legally how that’s possible, but I’m sure that the show will figure out a way to give that a spin.
You’re right. It’s not legally possible. You’ll come to a place where he’s, it’s the sort of between the devil and the deep blue sea and he’ll make some kind of deal and it’s that deal, which will get him out. But I think he’s boiled up and Serena is boiled up, but if there is a future for them, if they do manage to get off or get off lightly, or even if he has to go down and Serena gets out, I think it’s all about Serena getting out or his son getting out. I think now Fred has put himself second in terms of who should survive. But I think Fred would feel very happy if Serena got off and their son got to go back and live in Gilead, or she got to bring their son up. I think in many ways he would sacrifice himself for his son. And that’s the new thing about Fred. I think he’s less selfish? I think that the impending birth of his son has changed him somewhat spiritually.
There’s a moment in an earlier episode where June lays out all of Serena’s terrible characteristics. And I feel there’s never really been a point in the series before where anyone has described her as a master manipulator, an actor, etc. Fred must know that his wife is all these things, right? He’s too smart not to realize this.
I think he does. I think he’s happily allowed her to manipulate him. I think she is fiercely intelligent. I think whenever her intelligence or June’s intelligence – I’m thinking back in season one – shows itself, it raises itself up. Fred uses all of the protections of the regime to beat them down. I think he’s a fragile, weak, not super intelligent guy, but I think he recognizes her manipulations. I think he thinks he’s been getting away with so much taking Offred to Jezebels. And I think he’s been living his life that he doesn’t mind being manipulated by her. I think he actually loves strong women up to a point where they don’t diminish his intellectual mind. Not quite as much as June does, but [this season] he turns around to Serena to say, “Listen, I’m a product of your manipulations. I’m here because of you. We are both here because of you and what you’ve put us through. And I see you now and I see you clearly, and Nichole’s not your baby, and time to stop all of this we’re in a different place.” So, I think he goes off on another tangent. I think he does have this aha moment of truth with Serena. But out of that, they have a child. I don’t think they will fall back in love and continue as they did in the past. I think they’ll forge a relationship of convenience. It’s a contractual one now in order to get out and get through the trial.
Were you aware of where the storyline was going for Fred and Serena before the season began?
Bruce indicated to me at the end of season three, where we might go with Fred, but it was just a rough sketch of an idea. When I started in March 2020, my first day was working with Lizzie. Actually, she was directing and I did one day and then we went on hold. I had read maybe the first three scripts during the COVID break. And I knew kind of roughly Bruce’s idea of where we might go. I knew it was going to be light for me in the first part and heavy towards the end. But no, I didn’t know. I’ve never really known that much really. I’m kept in the dark pretty much as I have been this season, like all other seasons.
Has Bruce has never said to you, “O.K, long-term. We see Fred in the next season or the season after that sort of in this space.” You don’t have a long arc for him beyond just what is given to you?
No, it’s only every year it’s been season to season, this is a rough journey and sometimes he’s on track and sometimes he delivers something completely different. So, it’s quite difficult because I’m so used to a sort of film where you have the script for months and you can really plan and think, and it’s very different for television. And in this sense, it’s been tough, but I have to say, we got the scripts much earlier [this season]. So in terms of production and directing those scripts got to directors and producers a lot earlier, which allowed them to lay down the groundwork. And so it felt like a very efficient production company. It’s always been efficient, but I just, that sense of having material early, so all the departments are on top of it early was you could see there was a benefit in that, but I didn’t get the finale right up until maybe two weeks before shooting so which is not bad. Sometimes I get it like a week before.
“Handmaid’s” was one of the first shows actually that went back into production, at least in Canada, that I know about. Did you feel like everyone had to be more on their game because of the conditions of shooting?
No, it was very strict, tough and kudos to the production team and all the nurses, the doctors. I think we did 27,000 tests, 2000 gallons of hand sanitizer. There were protocols in place. There was circles onset, the inner circle, outer circle. We had bands to wear where you couldn’t come in and certain zones. And as a consequence, we never got shut down. So, it was a hard and very, very organized regime, not unlike Gilead. I think it was kind of military precision and it worked, but also on the creative side, what was interesting was the writers were reduced to only having a few people on set, maybe two to three people. So, I call this, the sort of the great season of the two-handers, it’s almost like theater. It’s like you go in and you have several pages of two people in a room and ordinarily, you’re used to great crowd scenes and bells and whistles, but it’s lovely paring it back. And when you sit back and really digest, you get wonderful scenes where layers of characters are revealed and you get to really spend time with characters that you haven’t in the past. And so there’s been a benefit to the paring back.
Can you tease at all where Fred’s journey might go over the last episodes of the season?
Well, I think that Fred is the consummate spend doctor. He’s the PR guru, if you like, that’s his gift. And he will work a way of his predatory kind of attitude has been in the past to rationalize the change, to twist the narrative. So, I think we’ll get him. He’ll find a way when it gets really difficult, he’ll find a way or a maneuver that might just give him some more oxygen.
Hulu recently announced that the season four premiere was their biggest premiere episode, whether it was a movie or a TV series in their history. Are you surprised that over this many years now that the show continues to grow in popularity?
Well, that’s amazing and that’s kudos to production and direction and writers, but I wonder whether it’s timing, but whether in terms of a great show and maybe, a lot of other shows have been on hold maybe, I don’t know what the science is behind it, but I know that we’ve got an incredible season. I like to think this season is as strong and powerful as season one. I think this season is all about freedom, the fight back, the bite back, resistance, and reconciliation. What I love is there’s a bit of pain to go through in the first part. But what you have is you get to lean in, on all the relationships, the fallout between couples and partners and loved ones stuck in different places, being brutalized and the others patiently waiting and not knowing. And then you get that kind of reconnection and in that connection of great struggles and I love the season for that, but so it’s all about repair, reconciliation, and freedom. And maybe there’s a sense of that. Maybe people in the pandemic, there’s a sense of light at the tunnel. We need a sense of repair. We need a sort of an uplift and maybe people early on will sense that with “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But I think as you get through the middle part into the end it’s a good feeling. I think people will be up on their feet at the end.
I know that Bruce did an interview recently where he said there could be up to 10 seasons of the show, which would be shocking because most series don’t go that long. Has Bruce or anyone told you, “Hey listen, this part of the story with you and Serena that it’s this many seasons? Do you have any idea how far they want to take it?
All I know that any television contract is contracted for six years, but they can finish your contract whenever, but that’s what every actor signs up for. And with a show this successful, I understand that. And if it’s got a fan base and, of course, the narrative of the book has been exhausted, but who knows, television can explore different avenues and can be really exciting. I think at the end of this season, people will probably want a lot more and they’ll get a sense of why we want a lot more. This is the fight back. This is bringing down the patriarchal regime, the awful theocracy, the evils of Gilead, and maybe to enjoy so much torture, there needs to be a rebalance. So, maybe there are a few years of just that kind of how we get the fall of Gilead possibly, but we’ve got the testaments, we’ve got these the wonderful, “The Testaments.” And I think there’s probably going to be a way of segueing from “The Handmaid’s Tale” to “The Testaments.” So, who knows how many years, but we’ll see for me, it’s season by season. It’s just, I think let’s see what the reaction is at the end of the season to see if it’s how many more Bruce could pull out of the bag.
Is there anything you’re working on at the moment or anything that you’ve got upcoming that you’re excited about before you have to go back to it?
I’ve got a nice window of several months or more. And the first thing is just being back with my family because I missed them so much during COVID. I was seven months away [because of] the travel restrictions. So, my first port of call is the narrative of domesticity. And then after that, I’ve got three projects that I was sort of entering coming out of the script, first draft delivery, and then working with writers. So this is my continued year of development. And maybe at the end of this year, we might have something shootable.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” season 4 is available on Hulu.