So much of The Handmaid's Tale so far has been focused on the slow, often frustrating progress of June Osborne's (Elisabeth Moss) fight for her own freedom and, eventually, justice for the many victims of Gilead's reign in the former United States.
With Season 4, that fight finally seemed to gain more ground than it ever has before, and it all culminated Tuesday night in an Earth-shattering season finale that claimed the life of one of the show's major characters and set the stage for a new paradigm in Season 5. It was a shocker even for fans who might have thought they saw it coming, but it's also a development showrunner Bruce Miller has been mulling since all the way back in Season 2.
Spoilers ahead for the Season 4 finale of The Handmaid's Tale.
After years of fighting her way through Gilead's oppressive system both from inside and outside of it, June finally made her way to Canada in The Handmaid's Tale Season 4, where she spent much of the season learning how to continue fighting for those she left behind -- including her daughter Hannah and her fellow Handmaids -- from the other side of a border. That often frustrating struggle hit a major roadblock in the season's penultimate episode, when the U.S. government in exile revealed that they'd cut a deal with captured Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), June's former master. Rather than facing trial for his crimes, Waterford would be granted freedom in Canada in exchange for providing inside information on Gilead and its inner-workings.
This development sent June into a fury, though it wasn't immediately clear exactly what she'd do with that rage. Then came "The Wilderness," the Season 4 finale, in which June cut a deal with the much more sympathetic Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) that saw her exchanging Waterford for the freedom of 22 women from Gilead. But the exchange wasn't quite so cut and dried. Lawrence, who's still balancing his own regrets about Gilead with his own survival instincts, arranged for Waterford to get lost in the shuffle, giving June and her fellow former Handmaids enough time to beat and ultimately murder the Commander. As the episode ends, his corpse is on public display, and June's rage has been channeled into some kind of closure in terms of her struggle with Fred.
Speaking to Deadline about the shocking death, Fiennes himself noted that it's something he and Miller have been discussing on and off for years, because Waterford's demise was alluded to in Margaret Atwood's original novel. They knew it would eventually happen, but they didn't know when.
"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," Fiennes said. "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."
For Miller, timing Fred's death to this particular moment was a key piece of the puzzle for June's development, but it was also a clear example of the Commander's own methods of survival throughout the series. In some ways, by trying and succeeding to maneuver his family out of captivity, he got his way. He just didn't live to see the fruits of it.
"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," Miller told Deadline. "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."
With Fred gone, the major question now is how June will wield the power she's just carved out for herself in Season 5, and what the fallout from Fred's death will look like. It feels as though, after years of struggling against this specific man and what he represents, June has some kind of closure, but how long does that really last in a show like The Handmaid's Tale? Miller noted that, while Season 5 is "going beautifully" so far, the show is still in the early stages of developing the next round of stories. A key question that will definitely linger over the show's next episodes, though, is what happens to June when she realizes that Fred Waterford is over, but her fight definitely isn't.
"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," Miller said. "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."
All four seasons of The Handmaid's Tale are now streaming on Hulu.