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Elisabeth Moss wanted Season 2 ending of Handmaid’s Tale ‘to be as painful as possible’ | The Star

In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, the searing drama based on the Margaret Atwood novel about the subjugation of women by a religious totalitarian U.S. state, such a moment came at the end of Season 2, when handmaid June handed over her baby to be smuggled into Canada but failed to get into the escape vehicle herself.

June had been enslaved as a kind of broodmare for the republic of Gilead after she was captured in the first season trying to cross the border with her husband Luke, who eventually escaped, and daughter Hannah, who did not. She had already made two aborted attempts to flee in the second season, so why walk away from what seemed like her best shot?

The answer is a no-brainer for Elisabeth Moss, who plays June.

“Obviously, she stayed for Hannah,” said Moss, speaking to a handful of reporters in late February, when Season 3 was about halfway through shooting in Toronto.

“Of course, it’s frustrating. Of course, we want her to get out. Of course, we want her to go with (baby) Nicole and be safe. And meet up with Luke and, you know, everyone lives happily ever after. But that’s not reality. The reality is that her daughter is stuck here and if (June) gets out how is she ever going to get her out? She doesn’t know if she’ll be able to get her daughter out before her daughter gets killed or maimed or raped,” Moss said in a phone call.

“The only person who can actually stay and infiltrate and resist from the inside, with the connections that she has and with the knowledge that she has of how things work, it’s her. So for me it’s very simple. And the thing is, obviously we did that on purpose. We knew the audience was gonna freak the f--k out.”

Not just that, Moss said it was her idea to pull “the noose even tighter” by having June put her hand and foot on the van as if to get in and, at the last minute, give the baby to handmaid Emily (Alexis Bledel) and walk away.

“I wanted it to be as painful as possible for the audience,” said Moss, who is also an executive producer on the series. “We could really, really make them mad, so when everyone was up in arms that was exactly what we wanted.”

Why make them mad, she was asked.

“Because that’s the cliffhanger here. That’s the drama. What’s the other story? I just ask you to envision 13 episodes of June in Canada. That’s not fun.”

It’s a fair point.

The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t really the handmaid’s tale if its key character is safe and sound in Toronto’s “Little America,” perhaps organizing petitions or lobbying the Canadian government or doing other ineffectual things to bring change across the border.

If you think real-life U.S. President Donald Trump is hard to negotiate with, picture trying to make common cause with men who rape their handmaids, chop fingers off uppity wives and string up anyone who doesn’t tow the party line.

Besides, keeping June in Gilead has other benefits. Her efforts this season to join with like-minded women and resist the brutal regime inject a much-needed note of hope into what had become very grim TV viewing.

And Moss, who has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for portraying June (a.k.a. Offred), gets to exercise her considerable acting talents against some other formidable performers, especially Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski and veteran American actor Bradley Whitford.

We met Whitford last season as Commander Lawrence, an architect of Gilead. He had taken on as his handmaid Emily — the lesbian former college professor who was subjected to a clitoridectomy in Season 1 and spent part of Season 2 in the polluted wasteland known as the “colonies” — but he refused to use her sexually. And after Emily took revenge on overseer Aunt Lydia by stabbing her and pushing her down some stairs, Lawrence saved Emily by helping her escape to Canada.

When Season 3 begins, June is no longer attached to the Waterfords (Strahovski and Joseph Fiennes), the high-ranking couple for whom she gave birth to Nicole, and has become the property of Lawrence. But his kindness to Emily doesn’t translate into sympathy for June — at least not in the three episodes provided to the media.

Lawrence proves just as adept at belittling women as Commander Waterford was, but he also seems more dangerous because he’s less predictable.

“The interesting thing to me about him is that he is not morally static. He’s in play,” Whitford said on the phone.

“I think he goes through periods where he’s very sympathetic to June’s agony and gets insight into the pain that this system is inflicting, and then I think there are moments where he gets very defensive about it.”

Whitford called performing with Moss, whom he’s known since she was a 17-year-old playing a president’s daughter on The West Wing, “one of the most interesting acting experiences of my life.”

He’s fortunate to have snagged one of the juicier roles for men on the series, especially with Moss and Strahovski continuing to burn up the screen.

Executive producer Warren Littlefield called the relationship between June and Serena Joy, Strahovski’s character, “one of the most fascinating relationships of any two human beings in television … That chess match that is filled with love and filled with hate is, to me, absolutely memorable.”

Throughout the series, Serena has ping-ponged between showing empathy and cruelty to June, who was handmaid to Serena’s husband, Fred Waterford. Serena’s certainty about the rightness of the regime began to crack after Fred allowed her pinky to be cut off as punishment for reading aloud from the Bible. In the Season 2 finale, she helped June send baby Nicole to Canada, conceding the child would be better off being raised outside Gilead.

When the new season begins, with Serena estranged from Fred and struggling with the loss of the infant she’d loved as her own, June appeals to Serena to become part of the resistance — to give all the other little girls born into the regime a chance to live freely.

“June is just trying to get Serena to be the mother that she knows she can be and Serena is, unfortunately, tied to a world that is very hard to get out of,” Moss said.

“The June-Serena scenes are some of our best because they’re so complicated. And June, I think, really sees Serena for who she really is. And she’s not afraid to tell her what she really sees.”

It remains to be seen whether June will get the help she needs from Serena, Lawrence and others, but Moss says we can expect June to “break bad a little bit” this season.

“We’re definitely gonna see her do things that are gonna be shocking and that are going to push people’s buttons, and are going to be risky and extremely dangerous,” Moss said.

“She doesn’t have a whole lot left to lose at this point and so she’s really willing to risk a lot.”

The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 debuts Sunday, June 9 at 9 p.m. on Bravo.

Debra Yeo is a deputy entertainment editor and a contributor to the Star's Entertainment section. She is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @realityeo

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