June Osborne, with the help of some other former Handmaids, kills Commander Waterford in The Handmaid’s Tale in a shocking season 4 moment. The conflict between June and Fred Waterford had been building to a head, culminating in season 4 when for the first time, June had the power to seek justice. Her arrival in Canada and subsequent testimony against the Waterfords should have been enough to find it. But when Mark Tuello decided to work with Fred, who turned against Gilead after realizing there was no chance he and Serena Joy could return there safely, June’s hand was forced. Making a deal with Gilead, Fred was traded back to the Republic in exchange for 22 women they had held there, but that wasn’t going to cut it for June. Instead, she arranged for Fred to be taken to No Man’s Land, where she and many other former Handmaids gave chase to Fred Waterford before brutally killing him.
The shocking murder of Commander Waterford showed just how the torment June had endured throughout Handmaid’s Tale changed her. The truth of June’s need to kill Fred Waterford comes in her conversation with Commander Joseph Lawrence earlier in The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 finale, when they’re agreeing on the terms of the trade. Lawrence tells her that it’ll never be enough — that no matter what Gilead does to him, it won’t help her. Much of June’s trauma was born at Commander Waterford’s hands, and there’s a very fine line between justice and revenge. Justice was her ideal, but June found herself willing to settle for revenge when the chance arose. The courts didn’t remove Waterford, and Gilead couldn’t help either, so June had to take matters into her own hands.
The killing of Fred Waterford is about June’s attempts at dealing with her trauma and her newfound freedom. June had escaped from Gilead in a physical sense, but still emotionally carried so much of what happened. With Commander Waterford looking like he could be freed himself, June would once again find herself trapped in a world with him. This would be its own mental prison, and June knew it — for June to be truly free, she had to know Fred Waterford could never darken her doorway again. Commander Waterford’s death also speaks to the increased power June has from being out of Gilead. Killing Fred is not something she could ever have done while in Gilead, no matter how brave Offred was. Outside of Gilead, June finds herself able to channel Offred’s bravery, which she says she misses to Fred. June’s personal growth brings much of The Handmaid’s Tale’s story until that point full circle, and its thematic importance cannot be overstated.
June’s need to make Commander Waterford suffer as she had is also clear in the method of Fred’s death. June wants him to feel the fear she did when she was captured, connecting his final moments to her first in Gilead. Since Waterford was one of the architects of June’s fate, then it’s understandable why she’d want to inflict comparable physical and emotional anguish on him in kind. So many women lived (and live) in fear because of Fred Waterford and men like him that it’s a punishment befitting the crime in June’s mind. June also makes sure to bite off Fred’s tongue, which speaks to their own relationship. The finale shows them in flashbacks at Jezebel’s and Waterford’s sleazy behavior (which includes biting her neck and ear), which she had to resist biting back at. Now, she can literally bite back. Fred took June’s voice away for years, and elsewhere in Gilead other Handmaids suffered that fate in a much more literal and horrific way. So in his final moments, June made sure Fred has that ripped from him too, a sign of the flipped power dynamics and role reversals.
The theme of eye-for-an-eye vengeance also goes for the method of Fred’s death in The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 ending, for which June enlists the help of Emily and many other former Handmaids and people from Gilead. Whipped into a frenzy, they chase and then tear apart Fred, bit by bit. It’s deliberately reminiscent of the Particicutions, the ceremony in Gilead where Handmaids kill a man who has committed a serious crime against another Handmaid. Fittingly enough, that ceremony was (in the book, at least) created by Commander Waterford — he is being killed by the very thing he built. As for the Handmaids, they help June because of who she is and what she represents to them — a leader, a hero, a beacon of hope. But it’s also for their own personal revenge, their rage, their traumas. Each one suffered at the hands of a man just like Fred Waterford, and that’s why so many are willing to kill him in The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 finale.
The « Latin » phrase under Fred’s body reads « Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum » — but what does it mean? The phrase makes its first appearance in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 story, though it’s not technically a pure Latin phrase. The graffiti itself roughly translates to, « Don’t let the bastards grind you down. » Instead, the idiom is based on the mock-Latin phrase « illegitimi non carborundum, » which means the same thing. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the message is first seen in Offred’s closet, which was scratched in by another Handmaid. Throughout the course of the series, the message acts as an adage of hope for June as she faces the atrocities of Gilead leading up to her freedom.
June is able to persevere, no matter what comes her way — proving that she took the carving to heart — and is finally able to take down Commander Waterford in the end. The Latin phrase has popped up a few times throughout The Handmaid’s Tale. It first shows up in season 1, episode 4, « Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum. » This is when the phrase is first seen and its origins explained. The graffiti shows up again at the end of season 2, when June etches the phrase onto her wall. The use of it in The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 finale is the most impactful time it’s been utilized, as June can finally say after Fred’s death that she never « let the bastards grind her down ».