Any number of real-life incidents have conspired to make Hulu’s “The Handmaid Tale” topical, if not a little more terrifying than the authoritarian premise already was. Witness the recent news that a woman has just been convicted of a crime — the crime, apparently, of laughing at the nation’s Attorney General. She faces up to a year in jail.
But there’s more to this adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel than its timeliness. Stars Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd and Joseph Fiennes have all garnered praise for their deft and magnetic performances, and critics have also singled out the meticulous work of the show’s directors, most notably executive producer/director Reed Morano, who helmed the first three installments, which debuted on Hulu last week.
In her review, Variety critic Sonia Saraiya described the show as “a worthy, heartbreaking adaptation of the text, anchored by strong performances and profound visual grammar.” In this recent feature about the making of the drama, Atwood herself, who was a consultant, called it “strong.”
All in all, it’s not surprising that “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which released its fourth episode on Hulu today, was renewed for a second season. In this interview, which combines two conversations a few months apart, showrunner Bruce Miller talks about his take on the series, its approach to nudity, characterization and tone, and the possibility that Offred might get pregnant.
When did you become aware that a “Handmaid’s Tale” TV adaptation was in the works, and why did you want to be part of it?
About a year and a half ago. I first read “The Handmaid’s Tale” in college, and I’ve reread it over the years and always found it fascinating. As I got further in my television career, I began to believe that TV was really the best format to tell this kind of story, one that takes place in such a huge and complicated world.
What was the approach you pitched for the TV adaptation?
When I went in and pitched the story, I said “The success or failure of this project rests entirely on attention to detail.” Gilead needed to be drawn precisely, and needed to feel real, or the story wouldn’t feel scary.
What were the most notable debates in the writers’ room about?
I think some of the largest debates we had surrounded the racial mix of Gilead. In the book, it’s an all-white world where people of color were sent away. We considered and ultimately decided to change that. In a book, it’s easy to say the’ve sent off all the people of color — but on a TV show, seeing it all the time it’s harder. Honestly, what’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show?
One of the other big arguments that I recall was the fate of [a core character who is not Offred] at the end of episode 3.
How much did you consult with Margaret Atwood? Were there a number of conversations between her and you, or were there one or two longer conversations about big-picture questions?
Margaret and I communicated quite often throughout the whole story-breaking process and throughout filming, regarding big and small details. This book has been adapted as a film, opera, play, etc., so Margaret had a lot of unique information to impart to us based on those other experiences.
When you asked Atwood questions, were there any answers that really surprised you?
What surprised me most was how many specific details she remembered about her thought processes during her writing of the book. She wrote the book 30 years ago and has written many, many, many things in the interim, and yet she remembered her reasons for making many decisions large and small.
What was it like having Atwood on set? Were you pleased with her performance in the scene she’s in?
I was spectacularly pleased with the scene she was in, and she was a ton of fun to have on set. Honestly, I think the cast and crew were mostly, like myself, struck dumb with awe to be in her presence.
Obviously it’s the intent of Gilead’s overlords, but both Serena Joy and Offred don’t have all that many ways of filling up their days. What did you do to fill up their days and personal agendas?
We didn’t try to fill up their days. Their lives in Gilead by nature have an oppressive sense of boredom and forced solitude, which we did not want to shy away from. They each have some things to do — Offred shops, Serena Joy knits and works in the garden — but we tried to use their isolation as a motivator for their actions.
In the first season, will there be flashbacks to pre-Gilead lives for all the main characters, or just Offred? And if so, will those flashbacks be woven in and out of the entire season?
Throughout the season, we will see flashbacks of many character’s lives pre-Gilead. They are threaded through stories where we are exploring those character’s lives in the present day.
Will we see scenes of the resistance movements, or anything taking place outside of the town that Offred, Serena Joy and the Commander live in?
In Season 1, we do see some pieces of the resistance movement and the “Underground Femaleroad,” and we see a lot of the world outside of Gilead in flashbacks. But the present-day story, with Offred and her limited point of view, takes place mostly in the environs around the Waterford house.
Is it possible that Offred could get pregnant this season?
Will we see a lot more of the Aunts’ lives or their histories?
I’m fascinated by the lives of the Aunts but we only got a chance to scratch the surface of their corner of Gilead this season.
It seems like there’s an intentional sprinkling of humor in the show. And to me, in the real world, it’s more obvious than ever that humor and satire can be used as tools of dissent.
Exactly. That’s why it’s great here. There are a few moments where Offred says something out loud [that could get her into trouble.] There’s a moment between Offred and the Commander in the second episode where some words are out of her mouth before she can stop them. It’s funny, but also, in that moment, it’s terrifying. It’s like, “He could laugh, or he could cut out my tongue.”
One of the things that’s striking about it is that the world is really dark but at the same time, the show doesn’t feel hopeless.
I’m very optimistic about humanity, and one of the things you’ll notice about the show is that whenever anybody runs into a random person, that person almost always helps them. Offred is like a friggin’ ninja in this world at keeping herself alive. I find hope at the end of every episode — that she’s survived, usually with her wits and the power of her intellect. There are lot of things that [work] against her, but the fact that she survives is the hopeful part. It’s not a grim show, it’s not a hopeless show. There’s tons of emotion and connection, I think. There’s kind of a despair porn aspect of [TV] and I don’t believe in that.
Many critics have commented on the economy of the storytelling and the spareness of it, which is reflected in the aesthetics and in the number of things that are actually going on. The show is not overdone, if that makes sense.
I definitely feel like this show does well picking something simple and digging around in it, as opposed to trying to glue on a lot of things. It’s about stripping things away.
You hired multiple female directors.
All except for one [of the first season’s five directors].
Can you talk about the show’s approach to sex? Because so much of the story really centers on the women’s bodies and how they’re regulated or used. How do you show their bodies — or their own desire for sex?
It was partly a matter of surrounding myself with smart writers, smart women. But for me, when it comes to sex scenes, I think about what the scene is actually about, and write from there.
One of the things that [Elisabeth Moss] was very interested in from the beginning was that Offred misses sex. She misses that connection. She’s getting “sex” but she’s not getting sex. The Commander is the same way — he’s getting sex but he’s not getting intimacy, and he needs it too.
We have almost no nudity. There’s one scene in the pilot and there’s a scene where Janine is naked [in the Red Center]. She just didn’t want anything on that came from that place. It was about taking off Handmaid stuff, it was about a moment of freedom. That’s the only thing she has left that’s hers — her body.
Sometimes a scene is about nudity, but almost always, it’s not. It’s about other stuff, it can be about a connection. We oftentimes shoot with actors who are naked so that you’re not [technically challenged when it comes to camera work]. But I don’t think we’ve ended up with very much nudity in the show at all. In the book, Offred talks about her body and how she doesn’t like now. It defines her now. She used to like looking at her body and now it’s the thing that defines her, and that drives her crazy. Even when she gets in the tub, in the pilot, she doesn’t look down at her body. She looks straight ahead.
Nothing is by accident. We think about what she would be thinking, what does it mean to show skin? How much skin would you show? How does Serena feel about nudity? There are flashbacks of Serena and the Commander at one point — do they take off all their clothes?
Do they have sex outside that ritual?
No, that’s not allowed. Sex is for procreation. In the world we have created, neither the Commander nor Serena Joy believe they could conceive a child together. That reality drives the tension in the relationship with Offred.
You were filming and in post-production at the time of the presidential election and its aftermath. Did you dial up anything, or tone down any element of the show in light of the election results?
I didn’t make any conscious decisions to change anything after the election, but I’m sure it had a subconscious effect on me, as it did all of us.
Do you think the reception to the show would be a lot different if it had premiered a year ago? Do you think it’s better for it to premiere now?
I think Margaret Atwood’s story has proven to be relevant in almost any time period, but I think with Americans and the world so focused on extremists in politics right now, it definitely draws attention to the show.
One of the things that makes “The Handmaid’s Tale” an enduring work is the fact that it has many elements of a classic thriller. Was it important to you that the TV show have that kind of suspense-driven framework?
Atwood’s world really lends itself to the thriller genre. Offred is constantly in mortal danger, and violence can come at her from any direction. That’s the core of the show, and I don’t think we’ll have any trouble sustaining it.