‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Showrunner on June ‘Dreading’ Leaving Gilead as Much as She May Have Looked Forward to It

The Handmaid’s Tale -- “Vows” - Episode 406 -- After a shocking reunion with a dear friend, June contemplates the possibility of freedom, and confronts the unfulfilled promises she’s made to herself and to Luke. Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and June (Elisabeth Moss), shown. (Photo by: Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Vows,” the sixth episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 4, streaming now on Hulu.

(Spoilers are also ahead for “The Testaments,” Margaret Atwood’s followup novel to “The Handmaid’s Tale.”)

The moment fans of Hulu’s adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” thought would never arrive finally did: June (Elisabeth Moss) got out of Gilead.

It was a moment more than four seasons in the making when a touch of luck had Moira (Samira Wiley) happen upon June in the aftermath of explosions and drag her to safety by way of the boat on which she was doing her humanitarian missions. She had to sneak June onto that boat, and slightly trick June in order to go, but once she was aboard, there was no turning back. For a few moments, the crew debated what to do with June when they got stopped at the security checkpoint and June said she would turn herself in and take full responsibility for sneaking onboard, but in the end she gave a fake name and was on her way to Canadian shores.

Once docked, though, June couldn’t quite get herself to move off the boat. Her reunion with her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) happened aboard the vessel, as he couldn’t wait a moment longer, and the two stared at each other for a few heated moments before she broken down in apologies that it was only her and not also their daughter who got out.

June eventually leaves the boat with Luke and Moira, although she lingers for a long time on the ramp before actually touching a foot onto the dock and letting out a breath that everyone had been metaphorically holding for years.

This family reunion, although only partial, comes well ahead of how the literary characters’ stories played out. “The Handmaid’s Tale” showrunner Bruce Miller breaks down the challenges the couple will face now that they are together again but their family is incomplete — and June has a lot of trauma from which to heal.

June originally didn’t want to get on the boat and then she was going to turn herself in at the checkpoint. She ultimately didn’t, but the war in Gilead is not over and her daughter is still back there. How much did that  influence her hesitation in getting off the boat, maybe more than fear of the unknown or disbelief she’s really in Canada?

Those things are connected. We focus the show on June’s point of view and that was really our guiding post. When you look at that moment, that moment is very much the way June would remember it — not the way someone from outside would see it. What I wanted to do here was stick with what the show was, which is, “What does it feel like for her?” And my feeling was that that moment lasted forever for her. By that point, what I was trying to put into it was she was as much dreading it as she was looking forward to it.

In that long pause while she stands there, was there ever a version of the cut where you showed flashbacks to her memories, to show whether she’s more concerned about what she left behind or what she may walk into?

When June was in Gilead, her memory of Luke and home was what sustained her and gave her strength and was her anchor. Now it’s swapped: she’s feel so at sea in Canada that her thoughts of Gilead are so much more grounded and easy to understand. It just takes place over a longer period.

Early in the show’s run I loved to pose the question whether or not Luke and June would recognize each other if they met again, given everything they’d been through to get to that reunion. Now it’s not a hypothetical anymore. So, how hard will it be for them to see the old Luke and June in each other, and do they need to just let the idea of “old” go and find a new relationship?

I think the only option is No. 2, which is to move forward with who you are now, but the desire and what you’ve been dreaming about is Option A, which is just, “The person’s going to come back and they are going to be exactly the image that existed — the June-shaped hole in his life.” But now that I’ve seen the actors go through it, I would say how they recognize each other is incredibly easily — so much of them is still connected, and a lot of that has to do with that they were able to still move their relationship forward a bit while they were apart. He knew a little bit about what she was going through and she knew a little bit about what he was going through — just enough. If she had never found out that he was alive — if she had just assumed from Moment 1 that he was dead — that would be a very different thing. But, even in our strange little world, they’ve had a little bit of time to get used to this.

June getting used to freedom, undoubtedly, will be a whole other issue, but there’s so much in play, does she really have time to process what she’s been through?

June dealing with what’s happened to her does not end with her standing on the shore of Canada. Unfortunately that is the refugee story that the world is dealing with and has been dealing with forever — and also the sexual assault and trauma story. It’s a long and bumpy ass road from gut-wrenching trauma to any kind of normalcy. And when it comes to that, she’s still in Gilead. Her heart, her brain, so much of who she is is tied to Gilead. There’s push and pull. I want June to nail Serena and Fred and all of those people and get them in jail. I also want June to forget about those people and move on with her life. And June wants both of those things. It turns the story dynamic from “Schindler’s List” to “Sophie’s Choice”: you see these horrible things that happened but then the aftermath is just as traumatizing because all of a sudden you’re able to take a breath and step off the gangplank onto Canada. That was a cold day!

Wasn’t most of the boat stuff just on a soundstage, with built sets and green screen?

No. We shot the show to shoot in the summer, so all the stuff you saw with the boat was supposed to be in the summer, but [due to the COVID-19 pandemic-forced production pause] it was in the dead of winter. And most of it was on a boat, on the dock, but it looked so much better for us to really have that low sky and winter light. We built an amazing version of the inside of a few pieces, but we shot as much outside as we could because it just felt like, if we’re going to do this, let’s do this in a way that feels like you’re really out there in the freezing cold. It’s also cost: you can only do so much in CGI, post, so anything you can save shooting, we do.

Now that she is out of Gilead, how much will we see of what she left behind?

Any story that June is connected to or feels responsible for or has influence over, we’re still going forward with those stories. It’s part of our world and part of June’s story, especially Janine and Lydia and all of these other people she’s left behind. It’s not like she’s left them behind anonymously; she left them behind in a state. We still have lots and lots of stories and dynamics and I wanted to make sure I left a core of people. The venom is high [for some] and the connection is high, so all of those people, it’s like there’s a June-shaped hole in their life and they’re all filling it in a different way.

Getting June out of Gilead at this point is very different from Margaret Atwood’s writing, so how does your roadmap for events in your adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” affect what you plan to do with your adaptation of “The Testaments”?

There is a roadmap that Margaret and I talked about as she was finishing up [the book]. Luckily I was in a very weird position of having her be very interested in making sure that my road was clear, and you don’t always get that. But I feel like I have a lot of flexibility between the two stories, in terms of what to do in that interim time. I don’t feel like I’m jammed in between them.

Are you heavily influenced by the idea of casting? By the time “The Handmaid’s Tale” ends as a series, Jordana Blake, who plays Hannah, could be old enough to play the version of the character in “The Testaments.”

The first thing is to make sure it’s a great show on its own. I hope that “The Handmaid’s Tale,” when it’s done, you can buy the DVD and put it next to [the book] and it’s a good companion piece. That’s the same thing I hope for “The Testaments”: you want it to be a companion piece to the novelistic world so you’re taking little parts that they didn’t explore. It shouldn’t be just a nice spinoff.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” streams new episodes Wednesdays on Hulu.