Walking onto the Toronto sound stages of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is akin to walking into a misty haunted house — your eyes take several minutes to adjust to the thick, foggy air concealing an otherwise normal living room and kitchen set. That ambiance is necessary when it comes to creating the Hulu and MGM studio show’s dark signature look; in fact, the style is just as important as the lens zooming onto Elisabeth Moss’ face as she silently burns a piece of paper. That wordless, close-up shot, or the “Lizzie Lens,” as the crew now affectionately dubs it, hasn’t just inspired myriad pop culture parodies in the wake of season one; it’s become a metaphor for the silencing of women everywhere in Gilead.
“There’s an emotional complexity to this season,” Moss, who spent months on the press circuit following the first season’s release, reveals. “Last year we dealt with a lot of big issues and a lot of big, emotional moments. This season is more complex and almost more mature emotionally, dealing with things that are really tricky. Performance-wise it’s been incredibly challenging. You’re really diving into some complex, emotional work. That’s our way of elevating it performance-wise this year.”
As soon as episodic director Mike Barker calls “cut” Moss springs up and inspects the playback, proving her producer role is no vanity title. Later, she perches on a director’s chair in video village with creator Bruce Miller, chatting and sharing YouTube clips as the crew turns the cameras around. You’d hardly know that she and the show had just come off a historic 13 Emmy nominations for Hulu and several key wins, or that the show would go on to claim the same trophies at the Golden Globes. In fact, the only indication of the groundbreaking success this cast of characters recently enjoyed can be found on the call sheet and on the signage plastered around the studio, where a pseudonym for Moss and for the show itself has been implemented for security reasons.
It’s a far cry from this time last year, when these players were making a show in a bubble up in Canada while down south Donald Trump’s government was poised to takeover the country and catapult “The Handmaid’s Tale” into one of the most relevant dramas in recent memory. That, combined with the awards and a narrative that picks up where Margaret Atwood’s original source material ends, and there’s a lot of pressure (not to mention eyeballs) on the next chapter. But for Miller and his team, the second season still boils down to the exact same thing that “Handmaid’s” always has — the story itself.
“The nice thing about the awards and the accolades and the kind word that we got was that they reinforced the older decisions we made,” Miller says. “That gives you confidence in your vision of the show. It enables you to add even more layers and more subtlety; people seem to be having a good time picking it apart.”
Another nice thing has got to be the increased episode order (13, up from 10 in season 1), and a bigger budget in order to build out some of the concepts introduced in Atwood’s original tome. While the colonies, where Alexis Bledel and Madeline Brewer’s respective characters Emily and Janine wind up, are the highly anticipated set addition, Miller reveals the crew is also expanding Little America with a new permanent apartment set for Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), and that they’re continuing to build out Gilead itself with flashbacks for vital characters like Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes).
“Margaret Atwood is the mother of our world and so we use her as much as we possibly can,” Miller says. “When we ask her thoughts on something she gives her thoughts. And if we decide to do something else she’s not precious about the world she created… and she has every right to be precious about it.”
The showrunner points to predominant themes of parenthood and pregnancy when the show returns as examples of building on Atwood’s vision, but notes that refugees, female rights, rebellion, terrorism, race and class continue to be launching points for episodic stories. He likens Offred’s pregnancy, which was revealed at the end of last season, to a ticking clock winding it all together; all of the theoretical concepts of the fertility-centric Gilead are now becoming reality, and the writers wanted to explore how the leading characters might respond to that.
“The end of the book is so frustrating for people; part of the point of that ending is that it just leaves you hanging,” Miller says. “Here we do some un-hanging and the story continues. So that’s satisfying — for all of these years you think, ‘What happens next?’ And now we get to explore some of that stuff.”
Much like last year, Miller says they left plenty on the cutting room floor when it came to picking and choosing which stories to follow. While having three extra episodes “definitely helps,” to tell more, he prefers spending time in the few worlds they’ve built out rather than taking a quick “glimpse” at something and then moving on.
“Instead of doing one story in the colonies you can do actually do a whole thing in the colonies,” he explains, revealing that viewers will see where that narrative goes over the course of a few episodes rather than one standalone offering.
It’s that character study approach to storytelling that has attracted season two guest stars like Clea DuVall, Cherry Jones, Marisa Tomei and Bradley Whitford, and has viewers invested enough to sport handmaids costumes in protest at real-life political rallies. Meanwhile, Hulu has duly taken advantage of the parallels, hiring women to silently walk around in red robes and white wings in an advertising stunt at the SXSW festival last March.
Story-wise, Miller promises a similar elevation as they incorporate more real-life events into the plot (every incident in the novel and now the show is inspired by historic, social and economic moments or underreported human rights issues around the world), while continuing to raise the stakes for the characters viewers have previously invested in.
“Anything that makes me shudder makes me feel like it’s something we should do. If it’s ooky in real life, well that’s our baseline — ooky,” Miller says.
The second season will dive into “terrorism” and “what it feels like to be a country in transition,” which is something Miller notes many around the world are feeling right now.
“Big forces are fighting and you’re just this one human being,” he says. “So we have a lot of stuff with Mayday and the other rebel groups that are fighting. There’s also the people who are fighting from Canada to make things better. What it’s like to live in a place where there’s instability and what does that instability feels like? And for The Commander, what is it like to be in control of this, going from inexperience to a big role of leadership? Americans can definitely relate.”
But while producers, cast and crew were thrilled to have inadvertently shone a light on issues last year, they note they will only continue to do so if it serves the story.
“Unfortunately in America we seem to be living in a pre-Gilead world and so our drama seems to be backlit and illuminated by the drama of the real world,” executive producer Warren Littlefield says. “However, we’re not really trying to take that real world drama and portray it onscreen. We’re really trying to be true to our characters and our dramatic narrative. The fact that it feels more relevant than we could possibly imagine? That adds to the power of our show, but we need to be mindful of being storytellers and separating ourselves from MSNBC.”
Moss adds that she’s received a lot of feedback from people across the world who say they’ve dealt with similar issues as what has been portrayed in the show so far.
“To us that means the world,” she says.
She notes that while she hopes this has not become a “new normal,” she recently received an email that depicted how bad working conditions were for women working in garment factories.
“I sent it to Bruce and said, ‘Holy s—.’ That kind of thing you feel very deeply and you feel a sense of responsibility to tell the truth,” she says.
That truth made — and continues to make — the show hard to watch for some. Miller concedes the second season is potentially harder given the emotional investment he hopes viewers now have in the characters, but he isn’t looking to outdo himself or play into the pressure that inherently comes with returning for another season following a groundbreaking, award-winning first run.
“I just want to make another great season,” he says. “When you start playing ‘Can you top this?’ you just make ridiculous narrative choices — or at least I do. So I would much rather just try to think clearly and solidly about the stories we’re telling so that it’s compelling because you’re in it, not because it’s compared to last year.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” returns with two new episodes April 25 on Hulu.