Joseph Fiennes says The Handmaid's Tale season 4 finale is 'a dream end to a despicable character'
"It sets up season 5 wonderfully, in a powerful, complex way," the actor adds.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the season 4 finale of The Handmaid's Tale.
"Blessed be the experience."
That's the tongue-in-cheek answer Joseph Fiennes gives when talking about what could be his final time playing Commander Fred Waterford on Hulu's dystopic drama The Handmaid's Tale. In Wednesday's season 4 finale, he met a violent end at the hands of June (Elisabeth Moss) and her fellow handmaids, who savagely beat him to death. The last we saw of him, his headless corpse was hanging from the Wall, and fittingly, he had one less finger, much like his wife, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski).
EW caught up with Fiennes after the finale to talk about his character's death, whether he'd ever return to the role, and why he's ready to be done with double-breasted suits.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you read the script for the finale, what was your gut reaction?
JOSEPH FIENNES: I was super-excited. I felt that it really delivered the finale that I felt, and I think my castmates felt, was needed and deserved for the fans. And it felt right for Fred. I knew it was inevitable, as it says in the novel that Fred meets his demise in a salvaging, but this was a much more complex salvaging, similar to Gilead's but owned by ex-handmaids and June in a completely different way. I thought it was brilliant. I think it sets up season 5 wonderfully, in a powerful, complex way. I was super-psyched, and it seems like it paid off.
When I spoke to showrunner Bruce Miller, he said he didn't recall the conversation but that you said you had talked about Fred's death as far back as season 2. Is that true?
Well, Bruce is a wonderful showrunner in that he is always open to conversations, emails, and collaborations and thoughts. And since day one, he's been greatly open to just sharing ideas, and his ideas of where the character might go. Because as actors, we get the scripts very last-minute, most television shows do, so there's little time to prepare. So any information prior to getting the scripts is really helpful, so you can sort of filter in your head the kind of general arc of that season. He doesn't give too much away, but I interpreted the conversation we had at the end of season 2, and this might just be my interpretation of what he said, it felt to me that he had indicated it was possibly season 3 would be the demise of Fred. And I thought, well great. It was in the book and is inevitable. I was always sort of looking out for that script that would suddenly reveal his ending, and that day never came. And then we had a conversation at the end of season 3 and he said, "I think we're pretty much [killing Fred] in season 4." And that was a pretty concrete kind of suggestion, there was not much else to interpret off of that conversation. [Laughs]
Whenever you found out exactly how his death would happen, was there a part of you that wanted it to be less brutal, for lack of a better word?
No, I think it had to be brutal for Fred because he's put people like June and other handmaids through such a hell and torment and fear in his creepy, pathetic, sadistic fashion. And he has to be shown that same route, and has to grasp the full meaning of fear. I think over and above his death, however brutal that might have been for Fred, I think it's the journey to the gallows that he has to experience. It's so important those tables have turned and to get a form of justice, because June has been so spectacularly let down by the justice system in Canada. So it's a kind of poetic, paradoxical, complicated justice, but justice nonetheless, and it's deserved.
Earlier in the episode, there's a brilliant scene between June and Fred where he apologizes to her. Do you think he actually has any remorse in that moment, or do you think he knew she was going to come for him?
It's my favorite scene, too - of the season, not just the episode - because it's quite a few pages, and because of COVID restrictions mostly this season has been two actors in the room, and what better actors than Lizzie or Yvonne or any of the cast [to do that with]? But you know, it's also four years of relationships that plow into the scene, so it was fully loaded. She's seeking to kind of unravel some form of justice in her mind. And Fred is seeking nothing from her, I think he's surprised to see her. I think Fred is as a sort of serial, kind of repeat offender in a sort of predatory fashion seeking to almost realign the narrative to excuse himself of his past transgressions, if you'd like. I think he is, as genuine as Fred can get, I think it's more about him being able to wipe the slate clean in order to move on and feel good with himself. But I don't think it comes at a real understanding of her pain. I think he's got a sense of having a son and how important that is to him, but it's important through a sort of Gilead lens, not through a sort of humanitarian lens. So I think it's kind of meaningful to a degree, but I think it's so off-cue, as you might expect from Fred. He doesn't gain anything from it. For him, it's the predator I think reworking the narrative to make him and her feel aligned as victims together. So he feels good. I think it's a terrible sort of predatory fashion of dealing with transgressions.
And the irony is that in the moment he apologizes, that's when June decides once and for all she needs to end him.
Yeah, exactly. There has to be a moment. I mean, she's got to find the fuel to kind of seek out revenge, because she's so cognizant of her rage. She's so in tune with the idea that she's going to lose a part of her higher self if she seeks this kind of revenge, but she also needs 100 percent reason to do it. And she gets it in that moment. He apologizes, and I think she can see that he's a repeat offender, that it will just go on and on if he's not hurting someone else. But it's a lovely thing to play [as an actor] in so many different colors, and layers, and textures. And we played it over quite a few hours in many different ways. So it was a dream to do, a dream scene, and a dream end to a despicable character.
In that last scene, you're being beaten to death in the woods at night. What was filming that like?
That experience was freezing and fearful. I got to set maybe around about 2 in the morning or something, maybe 3 or 4 in the morning. And it was minus, I don't know, several degrees. And I made my way into the thick of the wood in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. There were all these flashlights and stuntwomen playing handmaids who could outrun me in a second. I knew that they were just champing at the bit. So when action was called, boy, I had to run and my heart was in my mouth. And it was a pretty tough terrain to run on. It was muddy and slippery, and cold and dark. So I felt I got a glimpse of what Fred was feeling at that moment, and it's not a great place to be. Luckily I only had to do that a few times. I can't complain. The other handmaids had to do it several times with another stunt guy. And so kudos to them, but it was good. It was palpable, and it all fed into the sort of fear that as an actor you're seeking to rely on.
Was that the last scene you filmed, or was it a different one, and what was that experience like for you? I imagine it would be bittersweet.
It wasn't [the last], I think that might have been the penultimate. The last thing we shot was Fred being given by Tuello to Nick and Commander Lawrence on the bridge. It was bittersweet, and it was kind of epic - this crossover and the transition from Canada back to Gilead. That was the last scene. And it was a lovely, sad, bittersweet goodbye to all those people that I've adored working with and moments that I've cherished, and it's a series which has huge, resounding parallels in our real world. It's vital and important and tough to watch, but it's a conversation that needs to be had, especially around women's rights and the fragility of democracy. So I just felt like I've been a part of quite a powerful show with some extraordinarily talented people. And I feel very blessed. Blessed be the experience.
Bruce actually mentioned that because of the nature of the show, with so many flashback sequences, we could maybe see you again. How do you feel about that?
Wouldn't that be lovely? I don't know if the audience would particularly want to see Fred back, but I guess it would be a flashback - maybe if we visited him before he is the awful creep that he is or becomes - but I'll do it in a second. Any excuse to see all those wonderful people that I love so dearly. So yeah, next time you speak with him, push him for that.
If this is the last time you play him, will you miss playing a character as dastardly as Fred?
I felt like I've come to the end of the road with Fred. I won't miss him so much. You know, I made a decision with Fred that he would toe a particular line. That there may be glimpses of opportunity to redeem himself, but he would never take them. I think he's too attached to power and the protection that the regime offers. So in that regard, there wasn't much change for Fred. It could have come if there was a season 5, maybe, if he had really gotten to know his son and the worth of that relationship. But even then, I'm not sure, I think Fred would use it for political gain. But who knows? So I think I made a decision with him. He is the face in many ways of the regime, and there are so many regimes through history full of people like Fred and they don't seem to change. And that is the hard, sad truth, that you get enlightened people and you get people who are the opposite, and sadly I think Fred is in that darker corner. So for me as an actor, I think I've come to the end of the road, and I'll look back fondly, but I'm happy not to wear the double-breasted suit again.