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SYFY WIRE Awards Season

The Handmaid's Tale flipped the script on Joseph Fiennes' Commander Waterford in Season 3

By Jennifer Vineyard
The Handmaid's Tale

Welcome to Awards Contenders. This month, SYFY WIRE is talking to the actors, directors, designers, and craftspeople whose work was featured in the best movies and TV offerings of 2019, and who are now the leading awards nominees. Today, we're speaking with SAG-nominated ensemble cast member Joseph Fiennes of The Handmaid’s Tale.

At this point in The Handmaid’s Tale, Commander Fred Waterford has lost his rank and his power — and has been arrested as a war criminal for his crimes against humanity in the construction of the theocratic regime of Gilead. And according to Fiennes, who has imbued this character with such tantalizing ambiguity, it’s about time that Waterford got his comeuppance.

This is a man, after all, who once supported his brilliant wife Serena on her book tour, but then allowed the committee to chop off her finger when she dared to read from the Bible. Fiennes helps us see the parts of Fred that Serena once loved — before she betrayed him — and he makes the man’s heartbreak palpable.

Fiennes chatted with SYFY WIRE about Fred’s fall from grace, the ramifications of power in Gilead, and the end of the Waterfords.

There was a faintly homoerotic moment this season between Commander Waterford and his new bestie, Commander Winslow, when Winslow put his hand on Waterford’s back. How did you two manage to turn what must have been a simple stage direction into a glimmer of sensual tension?

We’re always sharing ideas and thoughts and riffing around the scene, instinctively adding more tension in some ways. And Chris Meloni is wonderful at being fresh and alert and finding new things. He’s available to listen to how the scene is going, versus what was prepared. What was written originally was that he was supposed to put his hand on my knee. It was much more blatant.

But what transpired was more kind of a boyish locker room contact, and he couldn’t quite discern where it was headed. It was just one beat too long, and that brought a certain discomfort to Waterford. And that came from Chris really offering some different ideas to our director on how to approach the scene, and it was something great that Chris brought to his character, the belligerence to his character, because this man is kind of untouchable. He’s kind of the epitome of all powerful men.

And through him, Fred has a taste for the first time of what it’s like to have a predator linger too long on him.

Commander Waterford and Winslow Scene | The Handmaid's Tale S3E07 Part 4

Fred has always exemplified that kind of man, and Winslow was the role model of where Fred would like to go with his ambitions. It became very interesting this season when Fred’s power got ripped away. What was that like for you to play?

It was the most engaging season for Fred in that regard. It was wonderful, starting the season where his house has burned down. He’s faced with the truth, once his mahogany desk and double-breasted suits have disappeared. He’s faced with the reality of his wife’s depression regarding Nichole and the suffering of the female psyche. I think that lands on Fred in a big way. So you have this journey where he starts from nothing, he’s an outcast politically in his own world, his wife was gone … It was a lovely place to start, to want to win his wife back for the right reasons.

He’s torn.

We have this wonderful juxtaposition where he loves these strong women. June has a power beyond what he could possibly obtain, which is the ability to survive. He has a great respect for her, and a type of love for her. But it’s complex in that he understands the brutality of this world, and what it means for women, for Serena and now potentially for Nichole. So he’s opened Pandora’s box, and he sees the effects of power and the misery. But he’s tasted that apple, and he won’t give up that ambition, even in the fact of trying to prove to his wife that he’s a good man, that he could live a normal life. Not when you have Winslow dragging him to the higher echelons, and encouraging him to manipulate the Nichole situation politically.

We see in flashbacks that he was a supportive partner and a decent human being, before Gilead corrupted him. Did you ever build more of a backstory for him, to figure out how that happened?

Yes, I had. My feeling was that yes, he had a genuine love of a very powerful, brilliant woman, who he supported up until the point where the Gilead architecture fell into place, which sidelined this woman. And yet Fred couldn’t stand up. His weakness has been that he couldn’t stand up for his true beliefs, for the love of his life. I think he had a genuine love of what Gilead could have been, and should have been. I don’t think he had any idea that it would sideline Serena the way it did. I think he genuinely felt they would be a sort of power couple who could move through the political world and reshape its moral compass. They were good people, in their hearts, but with the wrong ideology. But once he got a taste of power and a sense of his own intellect, I don’t think he wanted to relinquish it.

Well, now he has to. What was your reaction when you saw that he would be arrested as a war criminal?

I think somewhere in the back of his mind, he’s always been looking over his shoulder, and wondering if a blur of red and white might stick a knife between his ribs. I don’t think he would have ever imagined it would be Serena. That’s the big shock, because he had given himself up completely to her, and then to be sold out by her? That’s just as devastating as being locked up for being a war criminal, if not more so. I feel like he can’t go back to Gilead either way, because he’ll have to say something about Gilead to the courts, to lighten his sentence. And living with the pain of Serena’s betrayal is the biggest tragedy.

If he can’t go back to Gilead, he certainly can’t go back to Serena. This split seems final.

That would be my instinct, but you never know. Selling out Serena, in turn, seems to indicate as much, for sure.

Do you think Fred learned anything? Does it register with him, the totality of what he’s done? Or does he remain a true believer?

I think he seems to not be able to say, “I am sorry for the extraordinary amount of devastation that I’ve caused.” He’s been in such a high position, so disconnected from the pain that he’s inflicted on his wife and Offred – not just June, but the previous Offred, who took her life. I think it’s maybe like Macbeth, where you’ve just taken so many lives, it’s become tedious. You ignore it and go on perpetuating the pain. Certain kinds of people are more into self-preservation than any kind of moral integrity, and it’s very hard to imagine them coming back to reality.