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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Season 2: Joseph Fiennes on the Political and Personal Contradictions That Drive His Performance

Does Commander Waterford want to be a father? Yes, but for not the reasons you might think.

The Handmaid's Tale  -- "Faithful" Episode 105 --  Serena Joy makes Offred a surprising proposition. Offred remembers the unconventional beginnings of her relationship with her husband. Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

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[Editor’s Note: This interview contains mild spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2, Episode 4, “Other Women.”]

Of all the characters on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) is perhaps the least sympathetic — which makes talking to Fiennes about the man who holds the lives of so many women in his grasp so fascinating.

“I think with Fred there’s a sense that he espouses the party line,” Fiennes told IndieWire. “I think he is a believer in certain areas, but I think he’s deeply cognizant of the sacrifices people go through because of his actions, or the actions of Gilead, that it has on people like Offred [played by Elisabeth Moss] right in front of him. The big impact it has on her — I think that he is a man caught in the moral complex of his situation. I love that, it gives me a lot of places to go.”

It’s a character evolution Fiennes has been tracking since the beginning of the series, especially thanks to the flashbacks that have offered new insight into Waterford’s evolution with the rise of Gilead. “What’s really important, and really important to a conversation outside of Gilead, which is in today’s society, is why men do the things they do, and why they perpetrate these awful, sort of predatory acts,” she said. “I think one could take a kind of root cause of that back into the way men interact together, whether it’s at work, and certainly in terms of Gilead.”

As seen in Season 2, Episode 4, “Other Women,” that underlying tension is very much present in the relationship between the Commanders of Gilead, as we see in a scene where several high-ranking men gather to shoot skeet. “The way they are in that shooting scene, that sort of one-up-manship, and the ambition, the need for promotion, the struggle in this sea of piranhas, all trying to get a bite.”

THE HANDMAID'S TALE -- "June" -- Episode 201 -- Offred reckons with the consequences of a dangerous decision while haunted by memories from her past and the violent beginnings of Gilead. Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) from left, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), shown. (Photo by:George Kraychyk/Hulu)

And Waterford’s place in Gilead society at that moment is a bit tentative. “There’s a psychological fallout, and I think Fred is really one that suffers from that, and he kind of deals with it by taking it out on the women in his household, to reclaim his sense of power, because often in the work of men, they can get a sense of being demasculinized, if that’s the word. I think that’s a really important scene in terms of how he interacts with the women in the household.”

This, of course, includes his relationship with Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), which has featured no shortage of complications since the rise of Gilead — and her resulting shutout from a place of power into the role of obedient housewife. “It’s curious, isn’t it? The Commander’s really drawn to powerful women and yet he’s in a place where powerful women can’t exist. So we have this wonderful conflict,” Fiennes said. “He genuinely loves and fell in love and married Serena, I think, because she was this wonderful voice. She had a voice that spoke to him, that agreed with his fundamental tendencies of the shape of the world that they think should be in place. So they shared those points of view.”

Of the Commander and his wife, Fiennes observed that “there was an absolute love. These two were joined at the hip. They were a power couple, going to the pre-Gilead church meetings — I imagine that they really sang from the same hymn sheet, if you like, and were really connected. And he really adored this woman that was a writer, and that had a voice, promoted all the things that he felt a part of and wanted the world to be a part of.”

But as Fiennes noted, “it’s curious that at that moment, when Gilead came into effect, that women weren’t allowed to keep that voice, that he never stood up and said, ‘I disagree with that.’ That’s the biggest failing, I think that he actually loved the idea that he would get a chance to have a voice and didn’t protect his wife on that. I think it’s sort of, ‘I’ve been given a desk, a suit, this place of authority, and I’m not going to let Serena actually come near to taking that, or challenging that.'”

Fiennes clearly thinks about all of these issues deeply — the evidence being how much Fiennes looks to communicate with showrunner Bruce Miller about the show. “Bruce is a busy man. I write very long emails to him, poor thing. Just as he’s trying to complete a whole other episode,” he said with a laugh. “Certainly, I use what’s on the page, and also, use what’s out there… I feel a tremendous pressure — there are elements in our world that we are discussing that [Margaret] Atwood has so pointedly and brilliantly put down as a sort of feminist piece of literature that speak to us in our society today. Within that feminist conversation is a conversation about men. I try to keep an antenna about that conversation and use that as a thread.”

THE HANDMAID'S TALE -- "June" -- Episode 201 -- Offred reckons with the consequences of a dangerous decision while haunted by memories from her past and the violent beginnings of Gilead. Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), shown. (Photo by:George Kraychyk/Hulu)

How does Miller react to these emails? “Sometimes, he’ll get into the conversation. And sometimes he’ll say, ‘Yeah, I think we better get on a call.'”

One big question for Waterford, especially given the fact that his Handmaid is pregnant and now safely under his roof: Does he actually want a child? Fiennes didn’t hesitate to answer: “Yes. I think he absolutely, above everything, above it even not being his own child, I think it means so much to him.”

However, the answer isn’t as simple as that. “But it means a lot to him because of promotion. It means a lot to him because of status. The Commander who has a child — it’s the Gilead picture-perfect sort-of family. And I think he genuinely believes that the world has to be populated. I think he’s in agreement that we, in terms of the rape culture that Gilead is, he sees the necessity of it. He wants to participate in it. I think he wants a baby.”

Oh, and believe that gender matters here: “He wants a baby son as well, I think, because the standing of a young boy in Gilead — it would be monumental for him. So I think a lot of it is, sadly, is about the look. He would become a very high ranking commander if he had children, whether they’re his, or Nick’s, or not, who knows.”

IndieWire then asked if Waterford actually cared if the child would be his biologically? “I think he’s deeply hurt. I think he has a care, I think there will be repercussions.”

That said, Waterford’s committed his share of sins. And it’s yet to be seen what the consequences might be.

New episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” stream Wednesdays on Hulu.

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