It wasn't until The Handmaid's Tale writers' room was breaking stories for the back half of Season 5 that creator and showrunner Bruce Miller realized where the season — the penultimate one for Hulu's dystopian drama series — was going to end.
"I realized around Episode 7 that I really wanted June and Serena to end up together at the end of the season — or at least have a moment together. It felt like the whole season was going towards that," Miller tells Metacritic.
After all, the two women started this journey together with June (Elisabeth Moss) being posted in Serena's (Yvonne Strahovski) home as her handmaid and therefore June plotting her escape and her revenge. But over the course of five seasons, the two had moments of helping each other: Serena let June flee with baby Nicole in Season 3, for example, and throughout the fifth season, June aided Serena, first in labor and then with advice on how to survive being posted in a Toronto Commander's home.
And after all they had both gone through to get out of Gilead in the former America and survive the rise of Gilead in Canada, they are both on even footing for once in the last moments of the Season 5 finale titled "Safe": single women alone with their babies on a crowded train taking refugees West.
"I thought Serena would have ended up on that train before I thought June would have ended up on that train; we came up with that before because she needs a crowd of people to hide in, and she needs a crowd of people in which if she doesn't have identification or any possessions, no one's gonna care. And she needs to get the hell out of dodge. And June ends up with the same parameters," Miller explains.
"Safe" showcases how June gets there, but not how Serena does, which likely leaves quite a few a lot of questions in viewers' minds about her journey. But that's is not all left dangling for the final season. Here, Miller answers burning Season 5 finale questions for Metacritic.
Before encountering Serena on the train, the last we saw of her was in Episode 9 after she got into a random stranger's car, fleeing the Wheelers with her son. Why did you opt not to show what she went through in coming to the decision to get out of Canada and how she succeeded?
The decision not to show Serena until she pops out to the end was simply the point of view of the show — that when in doubt, I always go with June. When June is that busy and you're that busy, you don't think about what Serena is doing. And so, in real life, if we're in June's point of view, part of that point of view is distracted. [She] might later hear that story or not. In this case, I'm indicating that June never knew what happened at that time.
June being separated from Luke as she flees the rise of Gilead is how this story started in the first place. Does ending Season 5 in such a place indicate you plan to bring certain things full-circle in the final season — that you're going back to the beginning, so to speak?
A lesson I learned from Margaret [Atwood, author] is, "Stick with your themes." We can focus on different things — the difficult relationships, how women disagree versus how men disagree — but the show is about motherhood. And so, when you get to the end, we're, once again, showing you where the core of the show is and making them remember where the core of the show is.
Elisabeth Moss directed the finale, and the takes she chose of Serena and June re-meeting have an edge to them because June raises her eyebrow and smirks. How closely scripted was that choice and how does ending the penultimate season on that emotion affect where you're planning to start with them in the sixth and final season?
Most of it is Lizzie and the actors and all the other departments. That little smirk at the end, we had 300 shots to choose from, and it isn't just the shot of Lizzie at the end — it's how you build up to it. And so, all those little moments, especially at the end of the season are very important; you feel like you need so much and you're dropping all these seeds. So, I try to give them as much room as possible. The important thing for me is to watch it and wipe away all of the other versions that I have in my head, [but] I let the other departments add stuff on top of [the script] without my instruction, including the acting, because what I want at the end is to hide over the fact that it's just a puzzle piece: It should look like a painting.
Before June gets on the train, she goes through a terrible ordeal of being shot at in Episode 9, and she buys a bulletproof vest, which all seemed to foreshadow that she might actually get shot before the end of the season. But instead she is run down by a truck. Was that just to avoid being too obvious, or did you feel choosing a truck as a weapon says something greater?
This is what happens in America: people drive into protestors and the idea of wanting to drive your truck over a woman's body could not be more of a Gilead precursor than anything else. He does have a gun in the truck, and he's ready to use it when he gets out, but the truck is what he's using. And the bulletproof vest is a false sense of security: hopefully it keeps you from dying if someone shoots you, but there's a zillion other ways. Someone takes a shot at June once and she puts a bulletproof vest on. And she isn't even wearing it when she gets run over. What I wanted to do was have June do things that we would do because we have experience in the world, and then also have the things that happen be realistic, and it is harkening back to what happens to people we don't like in America — people just try to run them over.
When Nick hears about what happened to June, it is a catalyst for him to finally agree to work with Mark. Why was that what it took for him to make such a decision?
It's two things: One is his plan's not working. He can't lie to his wife and he does like her. But he's also realizing that his feelings for June are not going to go away. And, in some ways, I feel like this is the most romantic season for June and for Nick because all they tried to do is shake each other, and they can't. I love that. And the last thing June does is say, "Please tell him we're OK." They don't even see each other in the finale and you see how much they care about each other — how that has not diminished over time and how Nick is is even more willing to put things on the line. And I think both of them realize, now that they're with other partners, how special the relationship in. And it's not like it's completely full and nurturing — it's a war time relationship — but I think they both think it is essential.
There was a little bit of surprise, it felt like, in Lawrence's tone when he told Nick he wasn't involved with that hit on June. What does that mean for the amount of power he actually has going forward?
Their power is very localized, their power is regional. There's lots and lots and tons and tons of stuff going on that they don't have any idea about, and the machinations, especially, of The Eyes, are very hidden — to the point where almost everything that Nick has done with June would have been okay with The Eyes because cultivating a relationship with a rebel handmaid is exactly what his job is.
What we're looking at is maybe Cabinet-level discussions. Lawrence is gonna go to DC and talk to what is the Secretary of State. They border Canada, so they have an interest in that, and they're building a new Bethlehem, but it's kind of not a state and there's probably six or seven states. I think June is a national problem, and also, MacKenzie doesn't report to Lawrence, so MacKenzie's got a whole other idea and MacKenzie is terrified of her. And rightly so: The last guy she didn't like, she tore apart.
Arguably being in the Lawrence house might have been the best thing for Janine because he wouldn't inflict ceremonies on her and she could see her daughter, but after she told Naomi what she really thinks of her, she was carted away. What does that mean for her future?
She's working very hard to to survive. What she's done at the end, she could be literally hung the minute she gets out of the van, or she also could just get a slap on the wrist for being nasty to her mistress. The key here is that it's all about usefulness in Gilead, and right now Janine was being sort of useful in the Red Center, but not really. They want fertile women, so she's gonna move on to something where she could be useful. And they're not gonna do it nicely.
She produced two healthy children for Gilead that were not only healthy when they were born, they're continuing to be healthy, which is the problem that they have: Kids get to be 8, 9, 10 and die of some sort of heart problem or what happened to poor Rose. There's so many kids who have genetic problems that express themselves later.
While that certainly sounds like confirmation that she'll still be an important player in the final season, what about the Wheelers? Do you have plans for them to return?
I haven't really thought about who comes back next season. I have so many end-game puzzle pieces that I've been working on that I'm hoping I'm gonna have room for anything else. But they have been, and continue to be, spectacularly interesting characters, and they do have a big role in the story and I love what they represent.