Fred Waterford/J Fiennes

Two sentences that demonstrate an utter contempt for the sinners of the world. Meet Fred waterford, the main antagonist of The Handmaids Tale, a dystopian tale from the penmanship of Margaret Atwood.

Who is Fred?

Fred is the chief commander of Gilead. To be blunt, he is religious, and he is mysogonistic. He is a zealot, uncompromising in his beliefs that a woman’s place is in the home. Her place being to serve her husband and bear children for him. He has an unyielding belief that women who have their own careers and lives, along with those that have premarital sex, are jezebels, dirty women. He also believes that the plague of infertility is divine retribution for a woman who dares to defy Gods word.

Fred and his circle of colleagues make up the religious group, The Sons of Jacob.  We see The Sons of Jacob stage a violent overthrow of the government kickstarting the new laws and implementation of what will be Gilead. Attacks have been ordered on the Congress, White House and the Court. Martial law is in place and the idea of women working becomes illegal. The Sons of Jacob follow on with women only able to socialise with their husbands, homosexuality being made a capital offence and fertile women being forced to act as Handmaids to childless couples. The most devastating act that the Sons of Jacob do to mothers is to remove their own children from their care and give them to Gilead wives. With Gilead laws now all in place and the subjugation of women happening, they can see Gilead forming, just as they planned.

Fred is married to Serena Joy Waterford who is an author, activist and stand up for her beliefs. She is everything that Gilead does not want in their women. Fred justifies his loveless marriage to Serena, his wife, with the quote “love is merely lust with a good marketing campaign.” Waterford is weak and socially inept. The only way he can get what he wants is by force and threats.

Fred Waterfords Personality

Fred’s personality is complex and layered. What he would like people to think of him versus the man he really is, are two very different things. In Gilead, Fred likes people to think of him as a kind and just man, someone decent and well meaning, but is this Fred being kind or is this Fred being controlling?

But alongside that “kindness” of Fred, we see the polar opposite version of him. Fred allows Serena’s finger to be cut off. Her crime, simply wanting the best for the children of Gilead. Fred also flogs Serena in front of June. Her crime, assisting him with documentation and hurling an insult at him.

Fred’s personality is also reflected in his home. His study has everything in it that no one else is allowed, reflecting both power and the insidious immorality that he displays. While the study shouts ‘power’, it also has an underlying beauty to it. Very contradictory for a Commander. The Waterford lounge displays many beautiful paintings that the commander would have looted for himself. While Serena’s paintings have a feminine touch to them, the Commanders have an erotic undertone.

Fred Waterford is despicable. He lacks remorse. He has no self-awareness. He has no control. He is power hungry. He is mysoginistic. He is a narcissist. He will portray himself as a victim to achieve his needs.  He is a serial rapist, and he is a murderer

Waterford before Gilead

In the time before Gilead, Fred Waterford managed a marketing agency. We see in flashback that he takes Serena to speak to a college campus about her book” A Woman’s Place”. However, on the way out to the car, Serena is shot. The shooter is labelled a terrorist and Fred promises to find him. He does exactly that and holds the sniper and his wife at gunpoint.  He shoots the wife first. The terrorist almost took away his most precious possession, so he did the same thing.  This gives us another insight into Fred’s personality. Sadistic and unrelenting.

Season One

Season One sees Commander Fred Waterford being introduced to the new handmaid, who we come to know as Offred (June). The initial greeting and soft tone of voice that he uses to say his opening ‘hello’ are a contrast to who he is. Fred wastes no time in making sure his household runs to order and rapes his new handmaid under the guise of ‘the ceremony’.

The indignity of the ceremony  for the handmaid is something else altogether. The handmaid is forced to lie in the lap of the Commanders wife as she is forced to have intercourse with him while being held down by her.

Despite the continual ‘ceremonies’ we can see Fred start to have feelings for his handmaid. We are gifted in flashbacks evidence that this happened before. A cutting remark from Mrs Putnam of “we all know what happened with your last handmaid” gives the hint to the watcher that it was well known through Gilead circles. During one of the ceremonies, we see the Commander touch Offreds thigh, an action that’s forbidden. Offred talks to Fred but is scolded and called an adulteress. Fred asks to see Offred in his office and invites her to play scrabble. Against Gilead law as a woman is not allowed to read or write. Fred hands Offred a magazine, again forbidden since Gilead rule. Fred takes his handmaid to Jezebels, a brothel that the commanders frequent. He seduces her.

By the end of season one, Offred is pregnant, and Serena Joy takes pleasure in informing her husband of this. The last episode sees Fred and Serena watching as their newly pregnant handmaid is led away with armed guards. 

Season Two

Fred and his wife Serena take Offred to the Drs for the formal baby check-up. As Offred is left alone to dress, she is offered a means to escape. She takes it. 92 days later, she is brought back to the Waterfords. Commander Waterford talks of the effort it took to save Offred from the “insidious terrorists” that kidnapped her. Fred knows that if it was clear that she escaped, both he and his wife would be in trouble. Fred covers tracks using his power to make himself and his wife the victims. 

We see Fred overseeing the construction of the new Red Centre. He sneaks into Offreds room that night with a gift for her. A Polaroid of Hannah. A bombing at the opening of the new Red Centre, leaves Fred injured and in hospital. Serena and Offred complete the commanders work while he recovers. Serena also forges his signature to allow a Martha (a Dr in the time before) to treat a baby. Fred delivers punishment to Serena, while forcing Offred to watch. He flogs Serena with his belt.

Fred and Serena head to Canada. Serena does not want to go but Fred tells her this will show women are not oppressed. Ironic really considering he is doing just that by making her go, he is suppressing her right to choose.  They drive through a protest where they see Luke and Moira holding a photo of June and Hannah.

Serena asks to see Offred. Forcing Offred into the bed, Fred rapes her in order to get the baby to come early. The horror of what just happened impacts Offred who retires back to her room. Fred puts her in a car with instruction to bring her back in 3 hours. She is taken to see Hannah, her daughter. When Offred does not come back, Serena and Fred arrive at the house to look for her. Fred argues with his wife, explaining that he did something nice for their handmaid. He blames Serena’s constant cruelty for her escape attempts and it’s during the heated moment that she tells him the baby isn’t his. When Serena tells him they will be ‘on the wall’ for this, Fred tells her that knowing his bad luck, he would be next to her

Fred is at a council meeting and his wife Serena approaches the council about an amendment to Gilead law with other wives accompanying her. While the commanders thank them for their time and for coming, they are dismissed. Serena is taken away while her husband watches. That night when she gets home, Offred finds out that they ‘took a finger’ for the crime of reading, even though what she was reading was the bible. Fred has a conversation with his handmaid Offred and explains that his wife needed reminding of her role in Gilead.

Fred is at home. His wife is caring for Nichole and Offred is at the Red Centre pumping milk for her. Fred brings Nichole to Offred hoping this will stimulate more milk. Of course, seeing her daughter does just that. Fred is persuaded to take his handmaid home with him, so that she can supply milk close to Nichole. Fred knows he will incur the wrath of his wife for this but also knows that he commands the house. That evening he hears a commotion. Fred asks Rita what’s happening. 

She says she doesn’t know. Realising that something is brewing, he runs upstairs to check on Nichole and yells at Nick to form a search party. Nick informs him to stay inside

Season Three

Fred’s wife Serena goes to Offreds room where she sees the commander. He tells her to call 911 but, at great risk to herself again, she says no, following with “we should give her more time to get away.” Offred is brought back to the Waterford house after choosing to stay in Gilead to find her daughter Hannah.

In the Waterford house, Fred yells at his handmaid and reminds her that ‘we’ll all be on the wall for this’ Fred is ignored by his handmaid who speaks directly to Serena. Mother to mother. Woman to woman. Serena knows that Nichole got out by being given to Emily. She knows Nichole is safe.

When Fred leaves the house the next day, he tells Serena that he is setting up an investigation into the kidnapping of their daughter. When he leaves, Serena pours antiseptic liquid on their marital bed and lights a match. Their handmaid Offred sees what’s happened and reaches a hand to Serena. Serena takes it and everyone leaves the burning house. June is reassigned to Commander Lawrence.

The commanders arrive at Commander Lawrence’s home.  Fred has a brief conversation with June who asks on Serena’s welfare. Fred is also ‘questioned’ by her as she tries to gather intel on who and what Lawrence is, what he stands for. Fred tells June  that Joseph Lawrence is a visionary who assisted in bringing Gilead alive.

The season ends with Fred and Serena arrested for crimes against humanity as they cross into Canada. What had begun as a clandestine trip finished with an arrest.

Season Four

Fred and Serena have their legal meetings underway, and they are informed that 9 Martha’s and 86 children escaped Gilead on a plane that landed in Toronto. Fred gets a visit from his wife who tries to get him to drop his charges against her, but he refuses. He then receives a very unexpected visit from Rita Blue, his previous Martha. He talks to Rita of ‘their friendship’ but both the look she gives him and the words she says, make is abundantly clear that there was never friendship. Rita hands him an envelope with the words “I’ll pray for your son”. Fred’s world is upended with those 5 words. He had no clue that Serena was pregnant.

In his prison cell he is visited by June. There is a sense that he is cognisant of the pain he has inflicted, but you have to wonder whether he really is? Is he putting on a front? Was he really apologetic to June when talking about her daughter or was he telling her what he felt she needed to hear?

As part of his deal Fred Waterford is speaking with US government investigators. A plan is instigated between Commander Lawrence and agent Mark Tuello to discuss trading Fred for 22 members of the Gilead resistance.  The deal is set, and Waterford leaves the detention centre set for what he believes is a journey back home to Gilead. On the border bridge he is handed to Commander Lawrence, who is with Nick Blaine.

Now on the Gileadean side, Fred is handed over to Nick. Nick takes Fred to an undisclosed location in unclaimed territory. The territory is wedged between Canada and Gilead. It’s here that Nick hands him to June. Fred continues to try and talk his way of what he slowly perceives to be an unwinnable situation. Fred realises Nick was never on his side. He also now realises what June is really capable of.  June, Emily and many other Handmaids chase Fred, beat him to death and hang him.  

Season Five

The news of the salvaging of Fred Waterford begins to break, not only through Canada but also through Gilead. June confesses her part in the salvaging to Luke and Moira, scaring them as to what she is potentially liable to do.

Serena is informed of Fred’s death and breaks down having flashbacks to their dance at the DC Gala. She demands to see Fred’s body and is informed that his wedding ring and left ring finger were delivered to her. When she is shown a photo of the graffiti  under the body, it becomes clear to Serena that June is responsible.  

I wondered something myself, a question I pondered as I watched Fred’s death play out on The Handmaids Tale. Could or should Fred Waterford have been ‘killed off’ sooner? As I asked myself the question, I immediately knew the answer. No – the timing was right for his demise, and here’s why. In keeping him as part of the storyline for so long, and allowing June to get to Canada, in order for Fred to get his comeuppance, we had to see a complete turnaround of events. 

Fred. The antagonistic, uncaring man who had complete control of his life and a lot of Gilead with it, is now in a cell without control. June, the protagonist who was under Gileads control. Doing what they asked, when they asked, including giving up your child and ritual rapes is now free. Their situations have reversed. In Fred’s death, the situation is almost paradoxical. The thing she wanted to destroy for so long, she has now become. June became the monster.

Joseph Fiennes

The Fiennes acting brothers are well known. Of course, we think of Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort in Harry Potter. But, Joseph Fiennes, little brother of Ralph, is the man we all love to hate as Commander Fred Waterford.

Born in 1970, in Salisbury, Wiltshire, he has a family of creatives circling him. His family’s talents include actors, directors, a composer, a conservationist and an archaeologist. His nephew Hero has the claim to fame of having played the young Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, and his cousin Sir Ranulph Fiennes is the decorated explorer.

Joseph’s work includes an extensive filmography stemming from 1995 to date. He has worked in television since 2008. The Woman in Black at the Fortune Theatre in London extended him his first theatre role. Joseph has a plethora of awards to his name including a Screen Actors Guild Award and a BAFTA nomination. He is known for his work as William Shakespeare in Shakespeare in love. He has shone in Elisabeth, Enemy at the Gates and American Horror Story. It is however as Fred Waterford that we have got to enjoy him on screen since 2017.

In a 2021 interview with Vanity Fair, Joseph was asked whether he did anything special to prepare for the final scenes of Fred Waterford? Joseph said “the past 4 years have been preparation. I didn’t need to psych myself up.” In the same interview, Joseph says “the whole meditation of this character is the corrosive and horrifying effects of power. Having power always trumps the Waterford’s religious beliefs.”

In his chat with Entertainment Weekly in 2021, Joseph summed it up in 4 words. “Blessed be the experience.” When asked about how Fred’s death would happen and whether he wanted it to be less brutal, Joseph said, “it had to be brutal for Fred because of the torment he has inflicted on the handmaids. He’s cruel and sadistic and a little pathetic.”  Joseph was also asked if he would miss Fred to which he responded, “I feel like I’ve come to the end of the road with Fred.”