SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Smart Power,” the ninth episode of the second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
As the second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” marches toward its season finale, it is offering new hope in the story by proving that not every society has fallen as far as America.
In a pivotal ninth episode moment, a Canadian official kicks Gilead Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) out of the country, where he has been visiting with wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) on a diplomatic mission — because the handmaids’ letters finally came to light, outing Waterford as a rapist and revealing the truth about Gilead’s society. Ethics ultimately trumped any plans for a trade deal.
“As we were writing that story it certainly felt like we were falling definitely into the tracks laid by the #MeToo movement,” showrunner Bruce Miller tells Variety. “But it wasn’t intentional in terms of setting up what we were going to do.”
Canada had been depicted as an asylum for American refugees. but the revelations drew a line in the sand as protestors — including June’s husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle) —furiously picketed Waterford’s delegation, holding signs listing the women’s names. That led to Max Minghella’s Nick meeting up with Luke, delivering not just the letters, but the news of June’s pregnancy.
Here, “The Handmaid’s Tale” Miller talks with Variety about breaking Gilead’s own #MeToo story, defining Canada’s politics, and how the show is working towards the disenfranchised women working together.
The women’s letters were kind of like Chekhov’s gun for the first half of the season. What made this episode the right time to expose them?
We were looking for an interesting way for them to be revealed, in a way that actually had a personal impact on Gilead and the commander and the rest of our characters — because everyone who came into contact with them were so moved by them. We were moved by putting the stories together.
How did recent news headlines being dominated by responses to sexual harassment and assault stories affect the way you wanted to tell this part of the story?
Once we were doing what we were doing, we were seeing that obviously we were treading over the same territory. And I think it helped us, learning from how these stories come out and how the first thing people do is attack the voracity of the writer and we were able to use that — which I don’t know that I would have necessarily come up with that having not seen it so many times. You start to realize there’s a rhythm and a certain kind of defense that happens, so we were able to use those, including we have a line from a Canadian official who says, “I believe the women,” which we wrote and then we were kind of like, “Oh my gosh, that sounds very much like what’s on the news these days.”
What discussions did you have in the writers’ room about how the Canada would have avoided turning into the dystopia that America embraced?
The conversations that we had were really about the histories of the countries [and] how they were founded. America was founded by, in a lot of ways, a cult of puritans who had no interest in religious freedom except their own and were very strict about “only people who are puritans can live among us.” Canada doesn’t have that backstory; Canada doesn’t have that origin story. So I think it isn’t often that you can get down to the basics of a country and [see] “How did they start and how is that a direct line to how they are now?” But certainly in this story we did.
How have you worked out how far Canada will go to save those in places like Gilead?
The discussions started with the UN, really — and we had those discussions in season 1 thinking about how the outside world would deal with Gilead. How do liberal democracies deal with a pariah nation, a totalitarian theocracy? We looked at the way people dealt with Iran after they had their revolution and places like that. And it was really the UN talking in very broad, international terms before we could really sit down and say, “OK well how would Canada handle this?” There are, luckily, international current examples that we could turn to, and there was research we could down to, and we could kind of figure out what would really happen — what happens before you open trade relationships with the country and who comes to talk? What exactly are those people asking and trying to figure out? And how do the protocol people respond to the spouse of the person that’s visiting? All of those things were incredibly carefully researched, and then it started to come together that you think about why it would happen and then you’re like, “Why exactly would they do that and what is the bigger global, international dynamic that makes them operate that day?” And a lot of it has to do with the fact that America has a lot of nuclear weapons and Canada has none, as far as I know. So the power balance is there, and you understand why the Canadians are a little more open to a conversation with people who they also find reprehensible.
Bringing in the character of Mark (Sam Jaeger) to offer Serena a way out feels a bit like the new Chekhov’s gun.
He is the personification of it.
How does his offer, especially coming on the heels of such violence from Fred, affect her going forward?
I think her eyes are open to the mistakes and the mistakes that are not working themselves out. I think she had a certain amount of patience with it. She was OK with things working out slowly — these kinds of transitions are difficult, she knows that; she’s not an idiot. So there’s that feeling of “OK we’re going to break some eggs to make an omelette.” But she’s starting to feel like there’s no omelette at the end of the rainbow, to mix my metaphors wonderfully. But it isn’t disillusionment, I don’t think. She’s already been disillusioned by what Gilead could be or what it should be, but I think now, it’s the fact that the bad is completely wiping out the good.
Will Mark return?
Not this season, but I would like to [see him again]. He was a terrific actor and a lovely guy, and it’s very like us to have a terrific actor come do one scene. To have this one long scene where you have to get someone whose excellent to go toe-to-toe with Yvonne, which is hard because she’s so strong. I think if the situation presents itself, they have really nice chemistry.
Nick (Max Minghella) and Luke came face-to-face in Canada. How did you work out just how much Nick would tell Luke about June (Elisabeth Moss)?
That scene has really taken so much from what you know the actors can do performance-wise. I felt like for Nick, knowing how emotional O-T can play — he really, even though he’s holding it down, can have anger and upset swirling around — I just couldn’t imagine him looking in his face [and admitting he was the father of June’s baby]. When you see the scene in your head play out, you can’t imagine Nick throwing that on top of this guy that’s already broken. We didn’t have to [have] Luke ask if it’s the commander’s baby — but we did. We pushed that opportunity for Nick to tell the truth, and he didn’t, he decided to tell a lie. I think it was a plus in his personality that he lied. He sometimes seems a little less of a touchy-feely, perceptive guy — he comes off as more quiet and standoffish sometimes — but I think he’s very perceptive.
Why did you want Nick then return to Gilead and tell June the truth about seeing Luke?
It’s interesting because we really try to shy away from scenes where someone tells another character something the audience has already seen, but in this case, it really matters, what he says and how he says it and in what order — and what he leaves out and how she reacts. But he doesn’t sit down and kind of spit out all of this stuff. As it goes along, he’s modulating what he’s saying, and it’s really about how hard it is for him to tell her all of these things because he’s really more in love with her every time he finds out more about her. When he finds out the kind of guy she married before, he’s more in love with her. So I think that’s really the undercurrent of it all — he comes back and has to tell her all of these things that are going to hurt her feelings.
Serena and June started to form an alliance when Fred was in the hospital. Since she returned to Gilead with her eyes wider open, how is that relationship evolving?
We’re used to an all or nothing relationship where you trust someone or you don’t trust someone [but] the thing is, Offred has to trust Serena, even when she’s not trustworthy. And it’s a hard thing to even trust someone when they are trustworthy so it’s even harder when they’re not. So I think it’s about where their interests align, but I think it’s never going to be a friendship but being mindful of different types of relationships between women that are at different depths is what we’re working towards. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, there are certain places where their interests overlap, and certainly their personalities overlap — they’re both incredibly smart, incredibly strong, to a certain extent very patient, they both have a little bit of a temper. There’s a lot of things they have in common!
June told Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) about her concern for her baby with Fred’s violence. Is Lydia trusting what she’s hearing or feeling manipulated?
I think over time she is trusting June more, and I don’t know if it’s on purpose. I think if you asked Lydia, “Over time would you trust these girls?” she would probably say, “No no no, they’re never able to make their own decisions.” And that’s her kind of intellectual way of thinking, but in real life there are people who just earn your trust, and that’s the problem. If you think about all of the things that have happened this season and all of the ways they’ve clashed, there’s still a scene in the previous episode where Aunt Lydia says “I’ll hold you responsible if you mess with Janine,” and she goes, “Yeah I’ll hold myself responsible.” It’s like a normal conversation between two people. So I think they are moving towards that. And as reluctant as they both are to trust one another, they’re finding these levels of overlap.
What will it take for the women to realize the strength in these alliances and try to take some of their power back together?
I think in little and big ways that’s been our mode moving forward. You want to show, often, just the pure power of these women working together. To me it’s fascinating that, even in a state — meaning a situation — where they are in every way shape and form muted and all of their levers of power are completely taken away from them, they still find ways to influence the world, work towards positive change, all of those kinds of things. And the thing that’s great about that is their power comes from them, it doesn’t come from external sources. It comes from the fact that they’re smart, and from the way they see the world, and all of those different kinds of things — you can’t take them away. I just love the fact that no matter what resource is squelched they always find a way to find another resource. There’s a line earlier in the season where June’s mom says how resourceful women are, and the thing that I like is that we’re starting to establish very much that there’s cross-pollination between the groups of women — that the groups of women are, even with the best efforts of the men to keep them separate, they are helping each other out. The Marthas and the handmaids and the econo-wives, to a certain degree — all of these classes that are smushed down, and the patriarchy is trying to play against each other, it isn’t working.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” streams new episodes Wednesdays on Hulu.