SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the first three episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 4, streaming now on Hulu.
After titular handmaid June (Elisabeth Moss) successfully liberated dozens of Marthas and children from Gilead at the end of Season 3 of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she wasn’t looking back. As such, Season 4 began with her quest to get herself and her closest conspirators to safety, now that word of what she accomplished was spreading and their lives were even more on the line than usual.
They spent some time hiding out at a farm, where June empowered a young wife (Mrs. Keyes, played by Mckenna Grace) to take her own revenge on the men who hurt her, but eventually Nick (Max Minghella) found June, who was taken back to be tortured for information on the rest of her friends’ whereabouts.
June has always been a tough one to break, and she withstood a form of waterboarding before providing false information to send the guards on a wild goose chase. But ultimately after having dinner with Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) and seeing her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) imprisoned in a box and afraid of her, June gave up the information.
The women were rounded up to be carted off to a Magdalene colony, where they were supposed wait out their time in between ceremonies, but before they got there, June planned yet another escape, managing to get all five of the women out of the car by holding Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) down. Unfortunately, though, not all of the women survived, which will further complicate June’s arc as episodes go on in this fourth season.
Meanwhile, up in Canada, Moira (Samira Wiley) and Emily (Alexis Bledel) were still working to help the refugee children of Gilead, while Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) awaited their own legal fate while learning that a plane full of children got out of Gilead — and that they now had one of their own on the way.
Here, “The Handmaid’s Tale” showrunner Bruce Miller breaks down some of the biggest plot developments at the start of Season 4, including the escape sequence, the complications that will come and Serena’s surprise pregnancy.
June has been on the road to getting out of Gilead before, and there have been many heartbreaking things that stopped her, but watching her friends get shot and mowed down by a train seemed to really kick her into gear. How did you come up with that sequence at the end of Episode 3?
When June’s in Gilead, I always think, “It’s Gilead, she’s not going to get out.” They have a whole apparatus to keep her in. That apparatus is also set to protect her life, so anytime she has an opportunity to put those things in opposition — to say, “You can either keep me and hurt me, or let me go,” that what she’s trying to. She wants to pressure them into making a decision. This is a moment that’s happened 1,000 times in the show, but now they know how to take advantage of it. They communicate really quickly and they take a shot when their odds are very slim. Twenty-percent of them did make it. I was trying to make it realistic, but also June gets lucky sometimes and unlucky other times and this time it’s both: It’s super lucky they came on this situation where they could get away because these trains last five minutes when they go by.
But there was still death by train first.
Oh yeah. The reason I thought about that was, first of all, it’s very hard to judge that particular thing when you see it coming, so I know people get hurt that way all of the time. And also, I wanted it to have a cost for June right in front of her because honestly when people say something’s going to be hard and then it turns out to be hard, everybody’s shocked [by] what hard feels like. But this is what hard feels like: you make decisions and people can die in front of you and you are nothing but full of regret and mistakes and that doesn’t go away. Her journey out of Gilead is very hard, and although we show a lot of those trials and tribulations, we are very nice, compared to what those situations are in actual life.
Would you classify Hannah as an example of that nicety? She’s in a box, which brings to mind the kids in cages at the border, but she is not being starved or denied medical care or seemingly physically abused. Yet, it’s still enough for June to give in.
Seeing her was probably less of a factor than Lawrence saying, “Of course they’re going to hurt her.” And they’re already hurting her more than June would accept. So I think what it is, is they’ve already terrorized her by getting her there and June is trying to stop it.
It seemed like June took Mrs. Keyes under her wing, almost as she would her daughter. Is she now being set up to be a new June, leading a rebellion?
At the end of the year it’s actually Janine’s arc of leadership. She takes a lesson from June and really by the end has to take on a mantle of leadership, and she does. It’s a protégé story: What does her protégé turn into? A lot of her ruling philosophy is the same as my mother’s parenting philosophy, which is, my mother just thought about what her mother would do and did the opposite.
Where does that leave Aunt Lydia? June didn’t hit her in the end when she escaped, so what does that say about their relationship and was there a more brutal version you decided not to use?
Going into the fourth season, those decisions are made in conjunction with the actors because they know the characters so well. June is telling you how close she is to killing Aunt Lydia by how she’s holding that thing, and Lizzie’s performance is so much richer than anything we could ever write. So what you’re always fielded with is writing shorthand for your actors. But they certainly did play with the amount of ferocity in that scene; that was really up to them in the moment and up to the director, which was Elisabeth Moss. It was a moment that was measured out: you want to dial it in close as a writer and as a producer and then if you’re lucky enough to have wonderful actors like these, you can get some flexibility. When Aunt Lydia says, “Don’t,” it’s like, “You don’t want to do this” and I always got the feeling from Ann Dowd that this was not the first time she was at the other end of someone about to swing something because at least in her head she’s always known if they got their hands on something…
After leaving so many behind, including Hannah; watching more friends die; convincing Janine to keep going, how much of the regret you mentioned a minute ago also includes guilt for June?
I want her to feel responsible. Whether she feels guilty is a slippery thing because who’s guilty, who’s responsible? It’s really Gilead. But yes, she is weighted down, hugely, by what she has done, thought, wanted to do, how her desires have changed, how ruthless she’s become and how she finds satisfaction in violence sometimes. The entire show is, “Look what I’ve done. How can I resolve myself?”
Speaking of looking at what someone has done, you made Serena pregnant after Yvonne had to hide a real pregnancy for a year! What went into the decision to let the character experience her dream now?
We always had discussions about whether Serena was fertile because the fertility crisis really focused so much on men, and also, the more research we did on how infertility work, generally it’s a continuum, not an on-off switch, in most men. And the stuff they’re doing in Gilead with the environment and the water is all geared towards increasing male motility. So, there’s always been an idea of, “What happens if you give characters what they want more than anything?” and when you start out a show like this, that’s the first conversation we had. What does she want more than anything? A baby. And we had conversations in the writers’ room about what would happen if she got that, and then you start tallying it up. But also, Yvonne’s an incredible actress and it’s something I was absolutely fascinated to see that character go through, both because I want her to feel all the good feelings, but also I want her to feel what it feels like to have that baby away from her and to not have control over that child. But, I think in a lot of ways it’s the worst case scenario for the audience because they’re going, “Oh shit, Gilead works.”
Perhaps also because after all she’s done, does she deserve to have a child; does she deserve to be happy?
Well, there’s two parts to that question. She clearly doesn’t deserve to be happy, but maybe there’s a world where she deserves to have a child and have it be taken away from her.
To that end, what is the trajectory of Serena and Fred’s legal situation? Will we see a trial this season?
I’m not going to tell you what happens in [Episode] 8, but in that we do a lot of court stuff. It took us a long time to write it, Lizzie directed the episode, it took a few days to shoot. We did a ton of research for the season. Basically it’s the refugee experience and recovering from trauma of all kinds. And so, you want it to be accurate in terms of the personality traits and how they go through these experiences. And so, also we want to be realistic in how much legality they’re involved in. There’s a human level of justice and a political level of justice, and we’re interested in the human one.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” streams new episodes Wednesdays on Hulu.