The Handmaid's Tale season 3 finale: EP Bruce Miller answers our burning questions
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the season 3 finale of The Handmaid’s Tale, “Mayday.”
Showrunner Bruce Miller is comfortable asking even himself that question of The Handmaid’s Tale’s season 3 conclusion, having ended it on a note of unsettling ambiguity. With June (Elisabeth Moss) successfully getting dozens of kids out of Gilead in a plot that was just crazy enough to work, she’s now left on the other side of the rebellion: stuck in Gilead, suffering from a gunshot wound. She’s in the care of fellow handmaids as we bid adieu to the season, but such treasonous behavior should have every viewer asking: How, exactly, will she escape severe, likely deadly consequences?
It’s but one of many questions we had coming out of this action-packed run of episodes, which left several other pivotal characters’ fates up in the air and rigorously explored the limits and realities of activism. EW caught up with Miller about our lingering questions coming out of the finale, the dark path June went down this season, and much more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How are you feeling about season 3 now that it’s completed?
BRUCE MILLER: For me, the intention was to show June as a real hero, not a fictional hero. It’s one thing to decide to be a rebel; what does it look like to actually do that? What does that mean? We watch a lot of TV and movies where people are appointed rebels, and then they don’t want to go get their hands dirty. What I was looking for from June is, what’s the real process of going from a normal person to being someone who’s basically fighting a guerrilla war. There are steps that go into that, and a lot of changes happen in who you are and your moral code. I didn’t want to skip over all that. The big journey for June is, at the beginning, she says, “I’m a rebel,” and then the entire season is answering, “Wait, what does that mean?”
Well, let’s talk about June’s dark path this season. The most shocking moment, for me, was when she chose to watch Eleanor die in episode 12, in a moment that resembled a pivotal Breaking Bad scene in a lot of ways. Was this June’s point of no return?
Oh my gosh, yeah. June is confronted there. We like to show those kinds of moments, where she’s really making a moral turn. This is a complicated situation. This is a woman, Eleanor, who thinks she’s going to get out of Gilead and is very unhappy about it. The idea that she’s going to go back and live her life with her husband — it’s strange that her suicidal impulse came not when she was going to stay in Gilead, but when she found out she was going to get out. What’s her life going to be like after that?
For June, it’s an incredibly pivotal moment. June has an outsize sense of empathy. It’s one of her personal defining characteristics. She likes the fact that she is that way, and we see that in her. It’s both a burden and a benefit. Here it’s really tearing her apart, the fact that she cares about this woman; even that is a double-sided coin. Just because you care about her doesn’t mean, in this extremis, you interfere or not. For June to let someone die, someone who she likes and thinks is valuable in the world, it’s a huge moment for her. There has to be a point where she’s like, “There’s too many things piled up, I can’t stop. I can’t stop or all of this has been a waste.” I know people say that and people think about it in movies and TV. But what I really wanted for June was that the stuff she has to go through — she’s never going to forget. It’s not like it’s just “The ends justify the means.” It’s “The means are going to wham you forever.”
Diving into the finale, this escape she’s pulled off is something that June would go on the wall for. That last shot of her being carried away, into kind of terrifying uncertainty: Where do we go from there?
Yeah: “What now, big dog?” [Laughs] As an audience member, you’re 100 percent behind it. But what happens now? It’s the moment you don’t see normally in the story — now what’s she going to have to do? Is she going to have to pay for it? Is she going to find some other way to survive? Has she given up and basically decided or thinks she’s going to die in Gilead, and [will] cause them as much pain and do as much pain as possible [until] then? One of the lessons that June has gotten over the last few years is: Everything they tell you is impossible, ignore that. At the beginning, it was, “You’re never going to see your child again. You’re never going to fall in love. You’re never going to talk to your husband again.” All of these things. Every single one of them she’s done. So when they tell her, “Don’t do that, you’re going to end up on the wall,” she’s like, “F— you. You said don’t do everything else, and I haven’t ended up on the wall, and I’m not on the wall, and when I end up on the wall, it will be for a good reason. This was one of them.” If the guardians pick her up on the corner and take her away, I don’t think she’s not going to have a smile on her face. She was trying to piss them off. And she did.
It feels like, given this very dramatic and successful plot, Gilead can never be quite the same. Is that a safe assumption?
Well, yeah. I think you want to move the story forward. You want things to change. You don’t want to think of this as a franchise, where we’re in the same place with the same people doing the same thing all the time. I think we’re beyond that in terms of telling stories, where, at the end of every episode, you’re where you were at the beginning of every episode. In this new age of so much television, that kind of storytelling is a little frustrating.
To that point, it feels like every other episode now, there’s another major character in Canada. Do you see that as becoming an increasingly large part of the story? Or, say with Serena and Fred — they’re now locked up, are their stories not necessarily as central anymore?
[Pauses] I think that we’ll be following those stories. I don’t know if it’ll wind up being more time in Canada — it depends on a lot of other things, what decisions we make — but all of these people are spokes off of June. They’re directly connected to her. As long as they’re directly connected to her, their fate matters to her. Her friends and the people who love her in Gilead matter to her. They are making efforts, they are getting into contact, they are all living their lives. Also, what happened to her enemies is of interest to her. And if it matters to her, it matters to us.
One of the elements of the finale that really struck me was the way we followed the journey of the first girl who comes to the Lawrence house, whose name is revealed to be Rebecca in Canada, and really investing in that child’s experience. There are so many children going on this very uncertain journey. How did you see that part of the finale?
You picked up exactly what I was trying to do with that character: Show June what it’s like from someone else’s point of view. So really, it isn’t so much to show you or the audience or me; it’s to show June what she’s putting these kids through, so she understands that. It isn’t necessarily that she’s going to stop. But for me, it really struck me as, “Oh, sh—, she doesn’t have any idea what’s going to happen.” Anytime June talks to a child, to me she’s talking in some ways to her own daughter. Here, she points a gun at a child; she’s pointing a gun at her own daughter. Her relationship and her understanding of her experience and seeing her go through it on both ends for the audience is saying, “This is yet another analogue to a possible Hannah story.” And it’s not, for once, a terrible one. She actually gets out.
Looking ahead to season 4, it’s early days. But what does that next chapter look like for you, in the broadest sense?
You don’t want to be setting up season 4 in season 3. Audiences smell that coming. They’re too savvy now. They don’t watch a few hours of TV a week, they watch a million. They would see that coming. So what I do is completely screw myself at the end of the season. Then you think, “Oh, there’s a whole bunch of smart writers who will come in next season and solve that problem.” That’s what you try to do. You don’t try to end with the exit door marked. I was trying to end without the exit door marked. In season 1, she’s getting into a van and being taken prisoner; as far as we know, she won’t come back from that. That was a black hole. Here, she’s being taken through the woods. In the final episode of last year, she’s standing having made the decision to stay, but not really knowing what she was going to do next. What I try to do is put myself into a box as much as possible, so the audience really feels like this story ended, and when we move on, we’re going to be telling a story in June’s life. The short answer to your question, and I don’t think this is spoilery, is we follow June. It’s June’s story. Where we’re going is where June is going. The example of that in the finale is we find out the plane left because she was laying on the ground, having been shot, when it flies over her head. We don’t show all those kids get in the plane. We don’t show them taxiing, worrying about radar. We see what June sees. Moving ahead, that really is our mandate, and it also keeps us tethered to Margaret Atwood’s book and world. June was the point of view she chose. As long as we stay to that, we’re seeing Gilead through Margaret’s eyes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.