Spoilers for season 4 episode 10 of The Handmaid’s Tale, “The Wilderness,” and Margaret Atwood’s book The Testaments below.
They say parting is such sweet sorrow—unless you’re a fictional rapist who routinely warps the word of God in order to justify your own cruelty. After four long seasons of doling out torture, assault, and general brutality, The Handmaid’s Tale seminal villain Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) met his demise at the hands of June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) and her pack of ex-Handmaids in Wednesday’s gruesome season 4 finale. It’s a fitting end—seeing Fred hang from the Wall with one less finger to match his now-widowed wife, Serena—and the kind of violent revenge that’s been brewing since the day June first arrived at the Waterford home. “As a viewer, we need this moment more than anything,” Fiennes told ELLE.com. “It was inevitable.” But by the end of the season, it’s clear that Fred’s murder is more than just a bodycount—it’s June’s way of stepping into her true, post-Gilead self.
Below, Fiennes sits down to discuss how he first found out he’d be saying goodbye to the show, what those last days on set were like, and why he’s more than happy to leave Fred’s slimy shoes behind.
Do you remember when you first found out June would kill Fred?
[Showrunner] Bruce [Miller] had hinted to me at the end of season 2 that season 3 might play out like season 4 plays out, but he kept me around. It was only upon reading [the episode] that I really got to see, quite rightly, how he would be repaid in full for all the horror he’s inflicted. I loved it, and I was very grateful that it became a season finale. I think the whole season has been pushing toward something really exciting. Of course, you never know in this world whether justice will be served, but you just feel this impending need. So to tell you the truth, I was thrilled. I was cheering as an audience member, rather than the character.
I don’t know if satisfying is the right word, because obviously it’s very violent, but it was definitely impactful.
It throws up this amazing, complicated question of revenge and the paradox of revenge. June brings Gilead—physically, mentally, spiritually—into Canada. She brings all the horror of Gilead with her, and she is a changed person. There’s a lovely moment in episode 10 when she’s talking with Emily, and she’s so torn and cognizant of the rage that she just cannot stem. Unlike Moira, who really talks about, “We need to find a different way out. We can’t become the monsters that have made us suffer.” I love all of that complexity within the narrative of revenge.
There’s also the scene between Fred and June in the prison, where Fred shows all his true colors. He has such a warped perspective of what happened in Gilead, but he also knows that June is a mother who’s been through tremendous loss. What were you trying to accomplish and communicate in that scene?
That’s one of my favorite scenes ever, and it comes off the back of four years of a relationship with Lizzie [Moss]’s character. Like all predators, there’s that sense of changing the narrative, of blaming the victim and feeling victimized himself. That’s what’s awful and pathetic and horrifying about Fred, and that’s why he will never change. But also, he’s cognizant of the horror. He’s cognizant that he’s a serial abuser. He can utter the words, “I’m sorry,” but I don’t think he’ll ever go as far as stem or deal with that horrific kind of predilection and behavior. I loved it because it was very nuanced. It was beautiful, the way Lizzie responded in shock. He doesn’t need to say that, he’s already got out of the trial, so there’s an honesty. But he’s warped and not to be trusted, even though in his mind it’s a very real admission of guilt and a very real apology. But it’s also imbued with the fact that he knows, and he might even intimate to her that, given the chance, he would do it again.
What conversations did you have with Lizzie or with Bruce coming into that particular scene?
We had a number of hours to really explore and just play with it, rather than intellectualize it. For me, it was really looking at the way predators rationalize the truth and twist the narrative to make themselves feel better and align themselves almost in the shoes of the victim. That was my route in, which is ugly and abhorrent, but I felt, from some literature that I’ve read, that that was the angle I would approach.
There were also a couple of moments that were cut. There’s a crazy mob that are all for the Waterfords, as you might get in any society, a margin of people who are disenfranchised with whatever their government is doing and who will believe the lie of some new conspiracy. There was a scene where there were women dressing up as Handmaids to go to Offred’s home and undermine her, in favor of the Waterfords. So there was a moment where he thinks [June’s] coming into the cell to say, “Call these crazy fans off.” But all of that muddied the water, and quite rightly, it was excluded.
How did you feel saying goodbye to this character? What was that day on set like for you?
Very emotional. I’ve grown to so love and cherish my time and the wonderful relationships I have with cast, crew, actors, directors, producers, everyone. We’re a very tight-knit community. We’ve all seen how this show draws parallels, as [Margaret] Atwood’s novel did, with society, particularly in terms of a recent administration in the States. There’s a part of me that feels so honored to be involved in a show that caught the zeitgeist, was so prescient, and continues to be prescient on really important themes. I’m sad to leave behind such a great company who have raised my game as an actor, but also I’m elated to not have to grow that awful, itchy, grizzly beard and step into the slimy shoes of Fred. I feel rather happy that I don’t have to go down that really nasty, treacherous road again.
Is there any chance we’ll see Fred again in flashbacks?
I would love to see a flashback of the really early years. I’ve always felt, certainly for subsidiary characters, it’s so helpful to have those backstories. I think back to a particular flashback where Serena and Fred are in a cinema, and he turns to Serena to say, “They’ve stormed the Capitol.” It was so weird to think on that when you think about [the] Jan. 6 [attack on the U.S. Capitol]. I was just reminded of what a stunning, cautionary tale this is on the fragility of democracy and the dangers of extremism.
Now that Fred is gone, who do you think is the villain of the show?
Well, everyone’s got blood on their hands now, from June to Tuello to Commander Joseph and Nick. I think there’s very little way back morally for June and anyone that participated in the murder of Fred. As much as we feel that’s justified as viewers, in the real world, one would hope that forgiveness has to begin with a sense of pity and understanding. Of course, the show is not about that, and we do need retribution and we do need a sense of justice, but is that the justice?
I don’t think there’s any cardboard-cutout villain, but I think everyone has been tainted by the villainy of Gilead. You could say Aunt Lydia, but we know from The Testaments that might be a different route for her. I think the tentacles of Gilead are rooted in Canada now, so I’m going to be really curious to see how those complexities play out.
And now Serena is on her own. What do you hope to see happen for her and her child in the next season?
It’s very tantalizing, isn’t it, that she might become a Handmaid? Wouldn’t that be incredible? But then it becomes a different Handmaid’s Tale, and so I’m not sure if they would go down that road. That relationship with Tuello is quite interesting, but again, for me, he’s a marked man in terms of the way that he went outside of the jurisdiction to assist in the murder of Fred. Fred’s death, as much as it was about the rage and the need for June to find some sense of justice, it was also to make him go through a set of feelings that she, and thousands like her, had gone through. It was less about the actual death. It was more about, now you’re going to taste fear. Maybe that’s something we’ll see Serena go through.
Over these past four seasons, how have you worked to embody this character and then separate yourself from him at the end of the day? I assume it’s a dark place to be in.
It is, and I have to take a very big, long breath before I jump on a plane and go to Canada to film. Most actors love villains and bad people, but I haven’t found any mileage or fun in that because, like our dystopian setting, it is all too real and people like Fred are all too real. Especially with the most important people in my life being two wonderful young girls and my wife, to be synonymous with Fred just flies in the face of everything I believe in. So I find that tough. Obviously I want those who know me to be proud. Of course, they’re proud of my work and the success of this, but I wonder when my girls grow up, whether they really will be proud of this particular piece of work. That’s a tough one to negotiate. He’s so slimy and nasty, and it’s pervasive. And because you’re surrounded by articles of this kind of behavior, it’s really quite nice not to be going back to this territory.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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