SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the Season 4 finale of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” streaming now on Hulu.
Writer, producer and director Liz Garbus is adamantly opposed to the death penalty, something she has explored in such documentaries as “The Execution of Wanda Jean” dating back to 2002. Yet, for her scripted television directorial debut, the fourth season finale of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she delivers an episode that carries out such a sentence.
While the idea “does go against a larger principle I have,” Garbus tells Variety, “they’re very different situations.”
Certainly the biggest difference is that “The Handmaid’s Tale” is fictional — and fantastical in some ways — and was not setting out to validate such retribution for a crime. In the episode, entitled “The Wilderness,” former Gilead Commander Fred (Joseph Fiennes) cuts a deal to turn over secrets about how that new “government” works in return for what he thinks will be his freedom. Instead, he is dropped off in No Man’s Land, where the titular and now thankfully former handmaid June (Elisabeth Moss), Emily (Alexis Bledel) and a number of other refugees from Gilead await. Wanting him to feel as afraid as she did when she was running through woods trying to escape Gilead, June tells Fred to run. He does, but he only makes it a few hundred feet before he trips, falls and the women lay into him.
“What’s interesting about state-sanctioned murder is that, because of our judicial system, death penalties have to go through so many appeals that by the time a family gets to experience it, whatever the catharsis is supposed to be, they’re years later [so] it does not do that for them,” Garbus says. “I think it’s something very different when you’re talking about biblical vengeance that June takes, which is very immediate and it is for her.”
Her scripted television directorial debut on “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” season finale follows her scripted feature film directorial debut (“Lost Girls”) just last year. “The Handmaid’s Tale” project came to her in the fall of 2020, she recalls, and it was something that excited her, despite the fact that it would keep her steeped in stories about surviving trauma.
Garbus had just come off the release of “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” a HBO docuseries about the late author Michelle McNamara’s attempts to figure out who the Golden State Killer was, which she executive produced and directed two episodes of (and was soon to receive a special followup episode). She also had “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” about voter suppression efforts, launching at the time and was working on “The Conspiracy,” about antisemitism. Her extensive documentary résumé includes other such true crime projects on the subject, including “The Farm: Angola, USA,” Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” and “The Innocence Files.”
Diving into “The Handmaid’s Tale” was a chance for explore, “What is enough?” in the healing process. Garbus knows from experience that the answer is not the same for every real person, nor would it be for each fictional character on “Handmaid’s.”
“Some people’s healing is about confronting that evil and beating it, and for other people it’s about shutting it away and not letting it have any more power over your life. That’s the Moira approach,” she says. “What is enough for June and Emily is a very different thing.”
To prep for “Handmaid’s,” Garbus went back and watched all three seasons that were streaming on Hulu, in addition to reading all nine scripts for the fourth season episodes that would come before hers. But because showrunner Bruce Miller doesn’t write a lot of stage direction on the page, she notes, she also watched footage from the fourth season to really study the subtle shifts in stylistic changes as characters traveled to new locations. She was able to get the first three episodes, but then for the rest, she would watch dailies as they came in.
Having to travel from New York to the Toronto-based set to direct meant a mandatory 14-day quarantine period upon arrival in Canada (due to COVID-19 pandemic health and safety protocols). During that time she had a lot of Zoom meetings with various departments, from production design and costumes to talking to the director of photography, having an “upfront” tone meeting with Miller and talking to Moss and Fiennes about the heavy lifting they would both be asked to do, emotionally, within the episode.
Though this work was important to immerse herself in the world of the show, she came in well versed in the subject material due to her work on the HBO series about the Golden State killer.
“I will say that my experience on ‘I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’ with rapists and their survivors was incredibly helpful for these conversations,” Garbus says. “The show has consultants who are talking about these issues about trauma and survivors — the show has all these resources there for any director — but the fact that I had just come off of knowing all of these survivors and understanding trigger points for them and the unexpected ways in which trauma manifests itself [like], what does it feel like to get an apology? was so helpful.”
Garbus was actually working on the special followup episode to “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” (premiering June 21 on HBO) while in prep on “Handmaid’s.” (“We turned in our rough cut to HBO right when I finished my quarantine,” she says.) That episode explores developments for the survivors of Joseph James DeAngelo’s crimes, as well as utilizes footage from inside his sentencing where he apologizes and admits guilt.
“In some ways,” Garbus says, that’s “almost worse. If all he did was walk in there and say, ‘I was hearing voices and they told me to do it,’ and he was just abjectly crazy, it’s like, ‘OK you’re crazy, I have no chance, you ruined this part of my life.’ But then if you actually see him behave like a human being who says sorry, it so woefully falls short and can be re-traumatizing. I will say that [was] one thing that I did share with Lizzie that I think was really helpful for both of us.”
Before June fully commits to killing Fred in “The Wilderness,” she visits him in his Canadian cell. In doing so, he tells her because he is going to be a father now, he understands what it must have been like for her to lose her own daughter. His own meek attempt at an apology for some of his crimes ultimately helps June solidify her plans.
“June is searching for what she’s going to do and what is right for her, and I think that’s the moment she knows, ‘You are not lasting. I am going to figure out how to bring you down,'” says Garbus. “And that rung very emotionally true, given my experience with survivors — not all of them, but some.”
To keep the story centered around the survivors, even in Fred’s final moments Garbus made sure to focus the scene on June and Emily’s faces. “There’s hopefully a moment in there where you feel Fred’s resignation, like, ‘Yeah, I have this coming.’ Deep down he knows he crafted this arc for himself and he thought he was creating a kinder, gentler commander, but knowing that you have to become that also means that you know you’ve wronged and therefore that you deserve some punishment. That was an important moment for Fred’s character [but] for me there was an ecstasy that was on their faces, and for me the emotion in that was total abandon, total liberation, total freedom,” she says.
This is also, in part, because the episode also deals in themes of “control and abandon,” Garbus continues. It begins with a flashback to June’s time in Gilead, when she had to dance with Fred in Jezebel’s as if nothing was wrong. She was being controlled, but she also had to be in control of her own emotions in the moments, which is “the polar opposite to the salvaging of Fred at the end,” Garbus points out. “Those are the poles of control and abandon and they are holding hands; those two scenes are intrinsically, psychologically linked.”
But after one experiences such trauma and actually gets to take action against or about it, there can be another kind of loss, Garbus notes: “You’ve done it and now what’s left? What now?” That is where the fourth season of “Handmaid’s” leaves June because “it’s no longer about, ‘What do I do about Fred?'” But that is also in many ways what the special episode of “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” is about for the survivors. DeAngelo has been sentenced to multiple life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole and the hope is that those whose lives he touched can finally feel a sense of justice.
That special episode, which Garbus executive produced but fellow EP Elizabeth Wolff directed, also digs deeper into the unsolved 1984 murder of Kathleen Lombardo in Oak Park, Ill., which was the case that got McNamara started on her interest in true crime.
“The Lombardo case was something we always just really wanted to get into the series and we couldn’t work it in. We constantly struggled and stuck it here, stuck it there, but it wanted more time. So, we thought we could do it in a podcast, but then we did make this relationship with Kathy’s brother [Chris] and we just thought, ‘What would Michelle want?’ And Michelle would want — just like she did with the GSK — this case to have publicity and to say, ‘Get on it.’ And we really do know there’s so much more to this story — these other related cases that are still unsolved and probably more victims out there,” Garbus explains.
One of the related cases is that of Grace Puccetti, who was attacked just minutes away from her home but lived to tell her tale. Her family didn’t want to discuss it at first, but things have changed through the years and Puccetti sits down with the “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” team for an interview in the special episode.
“There are these interlocking themes between Grace Puccetti and the idea of casting aside shame and talking publicly about this trauma. It just felt like, ‘OK, this is how we can tell Kathy’s story — because we also found Grace,'” Garbus says.
While both of these projects can help survivors see themselves reflected and hopefully help with healing, the “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” special does have an inherent goal of calling other internet sleuths and journalists to investigative action, Garbus admits.
“We know what Michelle was able to accomplish with her L.A. Magazine story and with the book — it was just to keep the pressure and spotlight on these cases. And so, it really was just to continue to inspire the other Michelles in the world. And we know there are many. It felt like the right homage and hopefully it does bring more information to Grace’s family and the others that are out there.”
As for Garbus, while she says she “would love to keep directing ‘Handmaid’s,'” she already has quite a few documentary projects in the pipeline as both a producer and director, including “Fauci” for National Geographic, “Cousteau” for National Geographic and Disney Plus, and “GameStop” for Netflix.
“For some of my own projects, maybe there will be a bit more light in there. There’s so much interest in true crime and I love those stories and I’m dedicated to them, but there are a lot of other stories out there and also things to celebrate,” she says.