‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Postmortem: Joseph Fiennes on the Commander’s Many Power Plays

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Joseph Fiennes as Fred Waterford in The Handmaid’s Tale. (Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the “A Woman’s Place” episode of The Handmaid’s Tale.

“He looks like a Midwestern bank president,” Offred remarks of the commander in Chapter 15 of The Handmaid’s Tale, as he prepares to deliver the benediction that begins the monthly breeding ceremony. The Handmaid goes on to mention other details about the seemingly benign man who will soon use the authority vested in him by the Republic of Gilead to rape her, noting his “neatly brushed silver hair,” stooped shoulders, silver mustache, blue eyes, and “large hands with thick fingers.” None of those identifying markers accurately describe Joseph Fiennes, the actor who portrays Commander Fred Waterford in Hulu’s version of The Handmaid’s Tale. Svelte where the novel’s commander is beefy and boyishly handsome compared with his much older counterpart, Fiennes’s Waterford more closely resembles a strapping 40-year-old New York lawyer or Silicon Valley tech tycoon than a retirement-age Kansas banker.

Speaking with Yahoo TV, Fiennes cheerfully violates a standard Hollywood rule by insisting he’s actually older than he appears in the series. “I’m knocking on 50,” the British-born actor says, laughing. “So I feel pretty middle-aged. I’m much older than Yvonne [Strahovski] and Lizzie [Moss]. But you’re right, I’m not 65.” (For the record, Fiennes will turn 46 later this month, making him 12 years older than both of his 34-year-old female co-stars.) Whether Fred looks like he’s 45 or 65, though, Fiennes feels strongly that his appearance doesn’t alter the character’s fundamental menace. “It’s a rape culture,” he says of Gilead. “For me, it’s spitting hairs as to the age of the monster. It’s abhorrent whatever way you look at it.”

Beyond physical appearance, Fiennes’s performance parts ways with the character in the novel in another key change that could also be chalked up to age. Margaret Atwood’s version of the commander is relatively secure in his authority over the household and the women in it, a self-confidence that perhaps stems from the respect the young are expected to give their elders. The Waterford we’ve watched throughout the series to date exudes less comfort with the power that being an architect of Gilead has conferred upon him. His uneasiness in his role as master of the house is on full display in the show’s sixth hour, “A Woman’s Place,” not just in the present-day sequences, but also in the flashbacks to the pre-Gilead America. Those sequences reveal that Serena Joy was once the alpha in their relationship and, as the author of the bestselling book that gives the episode its title, a willing accomplice in making their once-theoretical theocratic state a reality.

Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale. (Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

It’s Serena, for example, who insists that Fred keep the faith when his resolve seems to waver once the marching orders to overthrow the U.S. government are issued. “There’s pain now — so much of it,” she whispers to him in a darkened movie theater after he voices concern about the hurt their actions will cause. She’s equally assertive when it comes to their sex life. In a flashback seen earlier in the episode, a between-meetings Serena races Fred upstairs for their latest attempt at a babymaking session. “I’m not your boytoy, I need to be romanced,” Fred semi-jokingly says as his wife tears at his clothes, trying to slow her down long enough to deliver a prayer blessing their union. “That’s a little tongue in cheek,” Fiennes says of Waterford’s “boytoy” reference. “It’s young love, and they’re in the throes of passion. That’s their tragedy: They came from a position of boundless love and are set in traditional values, but they lose each other.”

In fact, “A Woman’s Place” depicts the exact moment where the Waterfords go their separate emotional ways. Emerging from a meeting with the future rulers of Gilead, Fred tells Serena Joy — who has been patiently waiting in the hallway to address the group — that the all-male room isn’t interested in hearing her speak. “I won’t give up trying,” he vows, as she makes her way to the exit doors promising to see him at home. As soon as she’s gone, one of Fred’s collaborators enters the hallway and emphasizes that Serena Joy’s educated voice won’t be welcome going forward: “This is our fault; we gave them more than they could handle. They put so much focus on academic pursuits and professional ambition, we let them forget their real purpose. We won’t let that happen again.” In the span of two sentences, Serena Joy has been reclassified from the collective “we” to the external “they,” and Fred allows it to happen without any argument.

Without her knowledge or consent, Serena Joy is excommunicated from the Gilead inner circle. (Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

“Serena Joy was this extraordinarily powerful voice in the room,” Fiennes says. “That was his big attraction to her. She had the ideas. But as Gilead came into fruition, she and Fred became the architects of their own unhappiness,” Fiennes says. “Fred recognizes that, and as he ascends through Gilead authority, he doesn’t support his wife. He doesn’t deny his authority in order to stand by her. He goes with it, because he’s ambitious. It’s a real tragic story, I think, Fred and Serena.”

And yet, Fred’s willing betrayal of his wife is clearly eating away at him. That’s why his attempts at asserting his husbandly authority often come across as petty rather than powerful. When she tries to engage him in a discussion about an upcoming event, he simply brushes her off. “I’m sure you’ll make it all look perfect,” he says, condescendingly, and consciously putting her in the place she designated for herself in her book.

Fred’s discomfort in Serena Joy’s presence also explains his willingness to invite Offred into the private world of his study. While his wife knows his past all too well, this Handmaid is a blank slate. Furthermore, as his employee — more than that, his property — he’s already approaching her from a position of power. (For his part, Fiennes points out that the suicide of Offred’s predecessor deeply unsettled Fred, causing him to question his control over his household and resurrecting the doubts he once expressed to Serena Joy and has since tried to suppress.)

Offred isn’t blind to Fred’s insecurities, most notably other peoples’ perceptions of him and the society he’s helping to build. In a pivotal encounter midway though “A Woman’s Place,” Fred upbraids her for paying insufficient attention to his complaints and dismisses her from the study. Pausing at the door, she summons her courage — and swallows her pride — and turns around with a seductive expression plastered on her face. “I’m sorry,” she says, pitching her voice at Marilyn Monroe-levels of breathiness. “Can I stay here with you? Please?” It’s obviously an act — she knows it, and he knows it as well. But it’s the kind of pantomime of sultriness that Fred also knows he’s meant to respond to as a red-blooded male. Summoning her over to his desk, he allows his hands to linger on her body as he moves his face in close to hers. “Kiss me,” he half-asks and half-orders, and when Offred’s first kiss fails to maintain the illusion, he forces her to do it once more, with feeling.

Fiennes remembers performing multiple variations on that scene with Moss, and says that their performances changed as they observed the way the power dynamics in the room kept shifting from Fred to Offred and back again. “There were different nuances to it, because we were studying each other and enjoying the play on power on losing control,” the actor says, revealing that the scene was originally scripted to be part of the fourth episode, but showrunner Bruce Miller decided to delay it for “A Woman’s Place.”

“Fred has been corrupted on power; he’s drunk on authority to a degree,” Fiennes says. “He feels empowered, probably because he doesn’t have power in the bedroom — he can’t get it up with Serena — and he’s finding his sense of control through the Gilead architecture and uniform. I’ve really thought of this series as a study in the corrosive effects of power.” Sure enough, Fred chooses the cruelest possible power move to end his encounter with Offred. After savoring her second kiss, he looks down at her with a smile that’s equal parts affection and disdain, and banishes her again, saying, “Sweet girl. Big day tomorrow — get some sleep.”

Gilead’s Handmaids are put on show for a visiting trade delegation from Mexico. (Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

The “big day” that he’s referring to is an elaborately choreographed dinner overseen by the Waterfords in honor of a visiting trade delegation from Mexico. This state visit is yet another reason why Fred is struggling to solidify his authority, this time within the larger republic rather than just inside his home. After all, if the visiting diplomats aren’t impressed with what they see, Gilead’s new government faces economic ruin just as they are trying to consolidate power. This is all narrative territory that Margaret Atwood was only able to hint at in her novel, as Offred’s point of view didn’t extend to Gilead’s diplomatic policy. And, in a chilling development, we learn exactly what the government intends to use as barter for trade with Mexico: Handmaids.

It’s an economic model that deliberately recalls the shameful centuries-old days of the American slave trade, and, like many self-professed men of faith at that time, Fred has been able to sublimate his religious beliefs to the gods of capitalism. Or, as Fiennes puts it, he’s learned to compartmentalize. “He’s able to detach himself from the realities of what’s going on. We’ve already seen him involved in this thinly veiled excuse for procreation that’s nothing short of rape,” he says. “He’s fully cognizant of the fallout, but in his mind, he’s reaching for the greater good. And the Handmaids are already so low on the social-class structure that they are nothing more than walking wounds.”

For all his failings, Fred ends “A Woman’s Place” on a pair of triumphs — one political and the other personal. First, the Waterford-hosted dinner bash is a resounding success, ensuring a Mexico/Gilead alliance. Later on, back at home, Fred and Serena Joy enjoy their first intimate coupling in months, if not years. And why shouldn’t they celebrate? Like the old days, they’ve just teamed up to execute a masterful feat of stagecraft, one capped off with an appearance by the only currency that matters in a fertility-challenged world — children. At the height of the dinner, Gilead’s population of young boys and girls are led inside, brightening the room with their shining faces. And there’s Fred amidst the gaggle, beaming proudly as if he’s the father of these children, which, in a sense, he is. He may not have anyone to call him “Papa” in the childless house he shares with Serena Joy and Offred, but he’s helped birth the new society these kids will inherit.

The Waterfords overseeing their successful dinner party. (Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

At the same time, watching Fred enjoy that victorious moment inspires a potent psychological question, one that eludes Offred in the book. Having a baby is Waterford’s duty, both as a man of faith and a leading citizen of Gilead. But how much does he actually want to be a father? As a man who is already demonstrably insecure in his own authority, does he have the capacity to love and raise a child? Asked that question, there’s a momentary pause on Fiennes’s end of the line as the actor — who has two children in real life — contemplates his alter ego’s state of mind. “I’ve always felt, in a weird way, that there’s maybe an undercurrent of blame towards Serena,” he eventually replies. “And the great joke is that it’s not her fault! That sense that they tried for so many years, and that she let him down because she’s supposedly barren. Maybe way, way back in the mind, there’s the thought that he could be sterile — I don’t think Fred has worked that one out. He’s past that point [of fatherhood]; I think he would love to have [a child] as a marker of his prestige, his authority, and his masculinity. But I don’t see him as a loving father figure to a child. It would just be another badge for him to wear.”

New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale premiere Wednesdays on Hulu.

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