Costume designer Ana Crabtree did not need to be on hand for an outdoor location shoot for “The Handmaid’s Tale” in Toronto on a frigid night in early March. But there she was, shivering outside the Toronto Hilton with the rest of the crew and key cast members as director Jeremy Podeswa lensed an emotional confrontation scene. “I wanted to check the lines on Serena’s overcoat,” Crabtree explains.
Crabtree’s attentiveness to the outerwear she crafted for the character, played by Yvonne Strahovski in the series, is indicative of the dedication found throughout the “Handmaid’s” company. Bruce Miller, showrunner and executive producer, knows that it was this level of devotion that propelled the Hulu/MGM Television series to stunning success in its freshman season, raking in eight Emmy Awards including the top prize for best drama as well as drama actress for star Elisabeth Moss.
A dystopian narrative set in the not-too-distant future where women have lost their civil rights, “Handmaid’s” became a pop-culture phenomenon and a bitter tonic for unsettled times. Season 1 set the bar almost impossibly high for Season 2, but Miller and Co. delivered a show that managed to get even darker and more complex as the storyline branched out beyond its source material, the famed 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood.
“It’s the attention to detail that makes the show feel more real and more involving,” says Miller. “Our crew and cast are a collection of people who are all storytellers. Everybody feels that their job is to bring the audience some more information, whether you’re painting the wall or placing butchered cows in a window.”
Filming outdoors in Toronto in the winter is not for the faint of heart. On March 2, the “Handmaid’s” team was all over the city, shooting in a bar in the hip Queen Street West district before moving to the Hilton later that night. Base camp for the actors and crew is a clutch of trailers parked in a muddy empty lot dotted with half-frozen puddles, a result of the chill wind blowing off Lake Ontario.
The shoot in the circular driveway of the Toronto Hilton stretches past midnight. Between takes, Strahovski swaps Serena’s teal pumps for Ugg boots and dances around to keep warm. As crew members layer on hoodie upon hoodie, a production staffer passes around a plate of warm cookies. Actor Max Minghella (Nick Blaine) playfully entertains himself by kicking the prop cane out from under Joseph Fiennes (Commander Fred Waterford — Serena’s husband) while he’s walking.
The tale told by the “Handmaid’s” troupe may be bleak — really bleak at times — but the working environment among cast and crew is warm and collaborative.
“It’s really a joy to work on this show,” Minghella says. “I wasn’t expecting things to be so much richer this year, and they have been. Not just in terms of what I get to do as Nick but in terms of the storylines and the worlds we’re exploring. There’s a lot more complicated stuff. It’s a lot less black and white.”
The challenge for Miller and executive producer Warren Littlefield in the new season has been to move “The Handmaid’s Tale” past the basic story told in Atwood’s 311-page novel. Miller came to the project at MGM with an overarching pitch for at least three seasons. He continues to consult with Atwood on the major storytelling points during the production of Season 2.
Miller notes that “Handmaid’s” made a fair number of story changes to Atwood’s text in Season 1, but they were subtle in nature. Season 2 was more of a blank canvas to extend the story of Offred, played to near perfection (and a boatload of awards) by Moss.
“There was a little more freedom in Season 2 because we were allowing ourselves to get away from the claustrophobia of the [Waterford] house, which was so the core of Season 1,” Miller says. “It was scarier in Season 1 to make variations on the actual story that was in the book. Season 2 was a little easier because now we aren’t changing Margaret’s story — we’re adding to it.”
The overriding theme of Season 2 has been motherhood, and how women cope with that role in varying circumstances. In the brutal world of Gilead, environmental degradation has turned most women infertile. Those who can still bear children are held by the Commanders of Gilead as baby-making sex slaves who are lorded over by their arch wives. Moss’ Offred starts the season pregnant and on the lam in Boston, but by the midpoint of the 13-episode run, she’s back in her red robe and bonnet in the Waterford house, waiting to give birth.
“Handmaid’s” is a showcase for the volcanic talent of Moss, the “Mad Men” alum who won her first Emmy last year in seven nominations. “You can write the hardest thing that you can think of for anyone to act and she can absolutely do it,” Miller says. “I wasn’t surprised, but I am in awe of the strength that she brings to the fore, and her work ethic.”
Moss says she’s proud of how the show has evolved in Season 2 and the storytelling choices made as the narrative moved beyond the novel. “Margaret welcomed us into her world, and now our team is opening doors to places we knew about but didn’t get to fully experience,” Moss says. “By trusting and learning new characters who we read about but wanted to know more [about], we took people we did know and learned more about how they’ve become who they are. I think it was bold and challenging — and so rewarding.”
But as much as “Handmaid’s” tells the story of the transformation of Bostonian June Osborne into handmaid Offred, it was important to widen the lens with flashbacks and stories that follow the lives of other characters, says Littlefield. The target audience for “Handmaid’s” has no shortage of other high-end drama choices on their main menus. With a few notable exceptions, the critical response to Season 2 has been strong: enough for an 80 score on Metacritic through the first seven episodes and a 94% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
“We’re very aware that last year’s excellence is not good enough because we’re in this age of extraordinary content,” Littlefield says. “Season 2 is more ambitious. We tried to open the scope of the world without ever losing the intimacy of our story.”
The generous use of flashbacks for multiple characters in the show’s second season was anticipated in the plotting and pacing of the first, Miller says. The goal has been to deepen the backstory of the key characters while also underscoring what has been lost in the uprising that led to the establishment of Gilead as a nation-state. The use of Boston’s Fenway Park as a site where the crack of the bat has been replaced by the sound of Taliban-style public executions is meant to jar the audience. The same goes for turning what is portrayed as the abandoned offices of the Boston Globe newspaper into a temporary safe house for Offred while she’s on the run, with the help of Minghella’s Nick, the highly conflicted chauffeur and occasional bagman for Fiennes’ Waterford.
“That’s what makes it so powerful and poignant,” Littlefield says. “This isn’t an old warehouse. This is the Boston Globe.”
“Handmaid’s Tale” was well into production in 2016 when the U.S. saw the cultural pendulum swing wildly with the transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump in the White House. The show seemed to uniquely capture the zeitgeist of fear and anger stirred by aspects of the Trump administration’s agenda. By the time Miller and his writing team reassembled for Season 2 last fall, they’d been living under the Trump administration for more than nine months, and it shows — albeit in what Miller hopes are subtle ways.
“Absolutely [Trump] is informing it,” he says, if for no other reason than the writers and actors and all the creative people who make the show are living through these times, he adds. That said, “Handmaid’s” is a work of fiction, not a polemic.
“People ask a lot about ‘isms,’ Miller observes. “Is it a show against totalitarianism, a show against religion or theocracy, and how does it stand on feminism and gender issues? My feeling is that I have opinions on that as a viewer of the show. But as a creator, the more I think about that the less interesting the show becomes to watch. The show isn’t preachy. It’s the story of a woman, with all her flaws. Reaching for relevance is the best way to become irrelevant.”
“Handmaid’s Tale” also made its mark last season in part because of the stunning visuals established by director Reed Morano, who helmed the first three episodes. The painterly look and feel was inspired by studying the rich hues of artwork by Dutch Masters and Soviet-era propaganda material.
“It’s a terrible beauty, to steal a phrase from Yeats,” says Fiennes. “The juxtaposition of the gorgeous, cinematic poetry and the horror of the story — when they jut up against each other, it becomes compelling and thrilling to view.”
The much-praised “Handmaid’s” ensemble came back stronger in Season 2 because of the foundation laid in Season 1. But the fact that so many questions were left unanswered about how Gilead came to be gave the actors a great deal to build on.
“I’ve never played anybody as long as I’ve played Nick,” says Minghella, who is also a busy director. “To come back to a family [of cast and crewmembers] is a unique and wonderful experience.”
Fiennes had never been on a TV series that survived to a second season. And “Handmaid’s” was quickly renewed for a third season just a week after the second premiered on April 25. There’s a feeling of confidence that comes with the certainty that the show will endure. “We’re really driven by knowing that there’s an audience out there with an understanding of the piece,” Fiennes says.
Strahovski, an alum of NBC’s “Chuck” and other shows, feels a greater kinship to the flinty Serena and the “boiling rage” that simmers just beneath the surface. She’s a former professional woman who sacrificed her ambition for the sake of what she believes is the greater good of saving the planet from the spreading plague of infertility.
“Now that I know her really well, it’s a different experience to play her,” Strahovski says. “I know her baseline — and her baseline is that she’s miserable. She has no outlet anymore. She’s the type of person who turns to rage very quickly.”
There’s little glamour in the world of “Handmaid’s,” on-screen or off. The show’s stages and production offices are based at the sprawling Cinespace studio complex in an industrial strip in northwest Toronto. The writing staff works out of Los Angeles, but Miller, Littlefield and others relocate once shooting starts.
The winter production timeline can be challenging given the unpredictability of snow and rain, and the relentlessly gray skies. But there’s no question the setting fits the material, just as the “Handmaid’s” material fits the turbulent political moment in the real world with its cries of “Resist!”
“The reason there is hope within the show is because June doesn’t give up the fight,” Littlefield says. “That allows us to continue on the journey, as dark as it may be.”