Warning: This article contains spoilers for Wednesday's episode of The Handmaid's Tale, "Progress."
This week's episode of The Handmaid's Tale was a doozy, packing an emotional one-two punch in its final minutes.
First, after a tender reunion between June (Elisabeth Moss), Nick (Max Minghella), and their daughter, Nick slipped on a wedding band, revealing to the audience - but not June! - that he's now married. Then June, who made it safely back to her family in Canada (praise be), learned that Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) had been granted his freedom in exchange for secrets and information on Gilead, and she understandably was overcome with rage.
Speaking of Gilead, we were treated to more of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) attempting to reclaim her former power and good standing in the community by breaking in new handmaids, among them Esther Keyes (Mckenna Grace) from the season's early episodes.
It was a lot to take in, and the season is clearly building to what should be an explosive finale. Here, EW talks to The Handmaid's Tale writer-producer Eric Tuchman about all these big reveals and what they mean for the season 4 finale.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let's start with that scene with Nick. How long has he been married?
ERIC TUCHMAN: I can't tell you specifically how long he's been married. There's been some time, a few months, that have passed since the end of episode 3 when they last met, to now in episode 9. I do hope people will gasp a bit when Nick slides on that wedding ring. The thing is, of course he got married in Gilead. Nick is probably top of the list of most eligible commanders. He's a power player on the rise. He's a handsome man of mystery. And Gilead demands its version of traditional family values. So naturally Nick couldn't stay single for very long. He keeps it a secret from June because he's not going to dump this revelation on her and spoil their very brief encounter. And for me, the sequence with June and Nick should feel like a brief respite, a little haven for them to be together with their baby daughter, like a family, away from the pressure and stress of everything that's going on in their lives. And I think Elisabeth Moss as a director, working with our DP Stuart Biddlecombe, and as an actress with Max, created such a beautiful and heartbreaking sequence. I just loved it. I thought this sequence really humanizes their characters and their relationships. It's just for the moment, forgetting about all the epic conflicts that are swirling around them. This is just a quiet interlude for two people who have endured so much, who love each other. Only Nick really understands what June has gone through, but they have to live apart, and it's just a short time for them to be together as a family before they have to say goodbye again.
Sophie Giraud/Hulu; Inset: Andrew Toth/WireImage Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski on 'The Handmaid's Tale' (inset: Eric Tuchman)
He tells her to be happy when they depart, but can these characters ever actually be happy?
I mean, I wanted him to say that because that is what she was struggling with. It's exactly what you're saying. What's happening is new for this person who has been so damaged and so traumatized, even if she's trying so hard to move forward and make things work in Canada. But knowing what she has gone through, knowing the guilt that she has, and the fact that her older daughter is still trapped in Gilead, how can she be happy? And Lizzie's performance, you see when he says that, she's like, "Easier said than done."
We also see Janine [Madeline Brewer] and Esther [McKenna Grace] in Gilead, now that June is gone. Maybe I'm reading too much into things, but is there more going on there with those two than meets the eye?
I really don't think [Janine] has an ulterior motive yet. The thing we were trying to do is just show the evolution of Janine's character through Madeline Brewer's amazing performance. Janine has endured so much, but because of that, she's a stronger person. She's wiser, she's more sensible, she's a survivor, and she still has that tremendous optimism. Nobody needs to take care of Janine anymore in the way June had to. Janine can take care of herself now. And Janine is the one now taking care of the more vulnerable, fragile person, Esther, and for this episode she wants to spare Esther the suffering that Janine herself experienced. And we see in that scene where she approaches Aunt Lydia and asks her to reconsider a punishment that she's planning for Esther - that's a huge step for Janine to do that, to confront Lydia in a very respectful way. The Janine we used to know could never have done that.
It also felt like a big deal for Aunt Lydia to give in like that.
Absolutely. I mean, Aunt Lydia this season has been dealing with being sidelined from her position of power. She's all about reasserting her authority among the aunts and the Gilead power structure. And here, Janine is asking her to do something that is a direct contradiction of what Lydia is trying to do. Yet we see that Lydia takes this plea from Janine to heart and ends up putting the brakes on anything brutal she might have been planning, for now. So that for sure is a step forward and some progress for Lydia and her character.
Speaking of steps, June got dealt a big step back when it was revealed that Fred was granted freedom in return for ratting out Gilead. I'm not sure if I trust Mark Tuello [Sam Jaeger] anymore!
Tuello has more up his sleeve than we've seen, and I'm not sure how many chess moves Mark has thought of in advance, but he's certainly exploited and stirred up the emotional dynamic between the Waterfords, and between them and June. I think he's been waiting and hoping for an opportunity to leverage Fred and flip him into an asset for the Americans, because Fred is such a valuable source of intel. So it's not like Mark isn't empathetic toward June and her trauma, and he's very respectful of her, but he does have the bigger picture in mind. And that bigger picture doesn't necessarily include justice for June and the women who were abused and exploited in Gilead.
I think one thing about Fred is that he's been surprisingly strong and practical when dealing with his case this season and his fate and his relationship with Serena [Yvonne Strahovski]. And it's only when he realizes that Gilead has abandoned him, and instead poses a threat to his family, that he's willing to betray his comrades, and of course to secure his own freedom. So I do think Fred has stayed the course until this episode, and now we see him take the gloves off. He's ready to take everybody on, and I think he may have forgotten that June is out there, and it's never a good idea to underestimate her.
Right, and we see what I have to assume is a sneak peek at that showdown when she becomes so violently outraged at the end of the episode.
In episode 9, she's been trying really hard to be the person everyone wants her to be in Toronto. She's trying desperately to heal, she was honest with Luke [O-T Fagbenle] about Hannah at the top of the episode. She's now united with him to search for and rescue their daughter. She's been pretty successful. She makes real progress with Nick, until she hears that Fred has struck the deal and will be free. So the lid that she's been keeping on her simmering kettle just explodes. And now to set up the finale, where and how does she channel that anger? She demands justice, but if Fred is out, where's the justice in that? How is she going to deal with that and with him? We'll see her struggling with her response to Fred's impending freedom in the finale.
What else can we expect from the season 4 finale?
I think it's primarily about June struggling with how to respond to Fred's freedom. You can expect a very intense, edge-of-your-seat, surprising ride. The conclusion is both shocking and inevitable, like all good endings, and it sets up a lot of intriguing possibilities for the future of the show. So I think it'll be satisfying and provocative, and tracks June's emotional journey from the beginning of the season to the end. If you want to put all the puzzle pieces together, you just stick with June and that really is our roadmap, always. What's next for June? What would really happen for June in this journey? It does take her sometimes to dark places, and it takes her to hopeful places sometimes. She's always at a crossroads. She's always trying to decide which path to take. Whatever she decides, we can understand her choice. We may not agree with it, but at least we know where she's coming from.