A sprawling nuclear wasteland covered in dirt that sizzles and smokes as it’s disturbed? Check. Grey-blue-clad women with no protective gear who are finding their body parts falling off and their days numbered? Check. A purgatory so far removed from society that all hope seems to be checked at the door? Check, check, check.
Margaret Atwood didn’t dedicate much ink to the Colonies in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but the few brief mentions of the place where Gilead sends its worst offenders were enough to inspire the creative team behind the Hulu and MGM re-imagining, and to make it a central part of the storytelling and world-building in the show’s second season. The wasteland was first introduced in this year’s second episode through Emily (Alexis Bledel) and Janine (Madeline Brewer), two handmaids who have been sent there to clean up the land until their inevitable deaths.
“The first thing was to capture the dehumanization. These women have already been stripped of their names and their freedoms and their economic power and their autonomy over their own bodies and here they’re stripped of their womanhood — they’re turned into nothing,” showrunner Bruce Miller tells Variety.
The scenario is one take on the Colonies, which were used in the novels to threaten handmaids and other detractors into submission. Handmaids who are unable to bear children after three placements in Commander homes are sent there, as are some gender-traitors — including men. At one point in the novel Offred worries that she could be sent there for rejecting a proposition from her doctor, showcasing just how real the threat is without ever actually visiting it. The most vivid description Atwood offers is through Moira’s own take on the place, which she serves up to Offred when the friends reunite at Jezebels.
“In the Colonies, they spend their time cleaning up. They’re very clean-minded these days. Sometimes it’s just bodies, after a battle. The ones in city ghettos are the worst, they’re left around longer, they get rottener. This bunch doesn’t like dead bodies lying around, they’re afraid of a plague or something. So the women in the Colonies there do the burning. The other Colonies are worse, though, the toxic dumps and the radiation spills. They figure you’ve got three years maximum, at those, before your nose falls off and your skin pulls away like rubber gloves. They don’t bother to feed you much, or give you protective clothing or anything, it’s cheaper not to. Anyway they’re mostly people they want to get rid of. They say there’s other Colonies, not so bad, where they do agriculture: cotton and tomatoes and all that. But those weren’t the ones they showed me the movie about,” Atwood wrote.
The Colonies, as they translate for the series, are the worst of the bunch and reserved for women only. It’s the place where Emily, Janine and a slew of other “unwomen” are sent to atone for their sins before death by helping to make the land fertile and clean again — two recurring themes in Gilead as a whole.
“None of them expect to leave this place, so what kind of culture develops at the end?” Miller says he wanted to explore. “They come up with rituals of their own, they come up with justice systems of their own. We looked at a lot of work camps and concentration camps and what kind of culture developed in the gulags and all those kinds of things. What really happened, what things do people focus on, what do they forget about? How do they keep themselves from going insane or running away and getting shot?”
When it came time to procuring the actual setting for the Colonies, Miller, episodic director Mike Barker and set designer Elisabeth Williams were intent on finding a place that matched the show’s visually romantic landscape, but one that could also showcase all of the horrors that take place once you really start looking.
“As much as it is like a concentration camp that’s not what we wanted to portray. We made a specific point of making it romantic like the series but on a deeper level kind of unnerving when you consider what is going on there,” Williams says. “These women who are called ‘unwomen’ are not useful for Gilead because either they can’t bear children or are being punished for something, so they’re sent there to work until they die. It was important to us to create that concept of deadly work and set it against something that looks kind of beautiful.”
To find inspiration, the team took a deep dive into visuals from concentration camps and other repressive states, but they also looked at nuclear wastelands around the world, from Chernobyl to Fukushima. To recreate those looks, they scouted as far north as Sudbury, Ont., where there are still functioning mines. Eventually they settled on a secret quarry location north of Toronto that allowed for easier access and a lower travel budget. The spot was scouted in the summer when it was a little more lush and full of life, so the scenes weren’t actually filmed until the winter in order to take advantage of the area’s natural decay. The goal was to feature burnt oranges and an ocher color scheme that popped against costume designer Ane Crabtree’s light blue-grey dresses.
“We added to that by bringing in some little trees that we had spray-painted brown and different dead branches and whatnot to give it that contaminated look,” Williams says. “Then a lot of it was also done in visual effects. It was important to Bruce to have these women in a natural setting. The idea is that Gilead is going to reclaim the contaminated earth and turn it back into something that is farmable, so basically they’re using existing buildings that would be close to the quarry.”
She adds that the particular barn where the characters live was selected thanks to its perforated walls, which allowed natural light in through the wood slates. The crew then filmed many of the scenes at sunset or sunup to take advantage of that detail and add to the romantic tone.
“We wanted it to be beautiful. Startling but beautiful because that’s one of the things in Gilead and the way we shoot the show: beautiful and awful often go hand-in-hand. Gilead is very into appearances so they want it to look like a romantic kind of work camp,” Miller says. “It’s a church of redemption where people are earning their place back into the good grace of God by performing labor, where in reality that’s bullshit and they’re just being worked to death. It’s cheaper to use disposable humans.”
The beauties of this fictional world never seem to end.
New episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” stream Wednesdays on Hulu.