The Handmaid’s Tale: Joseph Fiennes on Commander Fred Waterford’s Fate

This story contains spoilers for the fourth season finale of The Handmaid’s Tale.

In The Handmaid’s Tale’s fourth season finale, Fred Waterford finally gets what he deserves. The episode, titled “The Wilderness,” ends with Elisabeth Moss’s June gathering her fellow Handmaids-turned-refugees and, with the help of her beloved Nick (Max Minghella), beating Joseph Fiennes’s villain to death on the wooded border between Gilead and Canada.

It’s as gruesome and satisfactory a conclusion as we could’ve hoped for from a show that’s become known for beating trauma relentlessly into our skulls, as if otherwise we’ll forget what trauma is. As season four fades out, Moss’s heroine has done what she’s longed to do since she was first kidnapped and placed in the Commander’s home: put Fred on the wall.

Since 2017, Fiennes has deftly played June’s abuser with a slippery countenance that keeps viewers guessing: Will he help June? Will he see the error of his ways and turn on Gilead? But those moments have been fleeting at best. Mostly, we’ve despised Fred, which made his demise feel sweet—for the man who played him, as well.

“I’m quite happy to shake off Fred, to tell you the truth,” says Fiennes over video chat from his home in Spain. Framed by soft white curtains, wearing a blue-checked button up with top two buttons undone, it’s almost possible to forget he’s been playing such a vile character for so long. “He served his time and it’s been a great journey, but there is just something that makes my skin crawl with Fred. I’m really happy that I’m getting distance from him.”

I spoke with Fiennes a week before the dramatic season finale debuted for a conversation that went both macro—the parallels between Fred and the misogynistic, power-hungry men who plague us in real life—and micro, discussing how he felt about Fred’s death, what it was like to film those last scenes, and the ending he just couldn’t see for Fred.

Vanity Fair: How and when did you find out this would be The Commander’s end?

Joseph Fiennes: I guess I always knew from the novel that a certain Fred Waterford would invariably get his comeuppance. What I love about the series, what Bruce [Miller] and the writers have done with a book that’s just over 300 pages, is they’ve managed to explore every nook and cranny of Margaret Atwood’s genius. And in doing so, they haven’t raced ahead in a Game of Thrones way and thrown everyone overboard for the sake of satisfying the audience, though I know that might be frustrating—especially when people want to see Fred and Serena get what they deserve.

So, I knew it would happen, but I’m rather glad that they kept him as long as possible because for the audience, I think it will be a huge reward. If it had come sooner, well, audiences would be deeply satisfied, but I think it’s interesting that we’ve gotten to explore this paradox of revenge. Given the length of time June has been executing that need to revenge, to bring closure—the paradox being that it inevitably doesn’t bring closure, and in fact perpetuates the issue; she becomes the monster she seeks to destroy—we needed that time to see the full departure of the high spiritual June into the low, vengeful angel.

Though you knew Fred’s death was inevitable, what was your reaction to reading those scenes?

I was thrilled that it was part of the finale. And I was super psyched not just for myself, but for the audience, knowing they’ve been so patient. There’s a reward in seeing Fred extinguished in the way he is. I mean, I’m sad to leave all of the wonderful people that I’ve grown to love very much, but I am thrilled at the same time.

Did you do anything special in preparation for Fred’s final scenes?

In many ways, the past four years have been preparation. I didn’t really need to psych myself up. What I was really reaching for—and maybe this is too detailed for the answer—but: I don’t think Fred has become a different person by any means. But I think he is forced to take a look at himself through the circumstances he finds himself in, which wouldn’t necessarily have happened if he was in Gilead. My favorite scene of the whole season is when June visits Fred in his cell. It’s a complex one—victim and predator—and I think there’s a part where Fred does seek forgiveness, and thinks he gets it. At the same time, we’ve got to do a scene where June feels justified to do what she ends up doing. It was a delicate walk to have someone cognizant of the horror he’s inflicted, wanting forgiveness and being remorseful—but at the same time, there was a sense that he would do it again if given the chance.

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