The first two seasons of “The Handmaid’s Tale” had its audience experiencing the brutality of a misogynistic, dystopian regime through the eyes of the titular character, June (Elisabeth Moss). Yet at the end of the second season, she accomplished a seemingly impossible task: She got her newborn daughter out of Gilead.
“She’s winning more because she’s figured out the game,” showrunner Bruce Miller tells Variety. “She’s a very patient character and, especially the way Lizzie plays her, she’s incredibly observant and she’s a great listener. And over time she’s accrued enough information; she has more tools in her toolbox and feels better suited to the game.”
When the third season picks up, mere moments after June decided not to flee to Canada with her baby and Emily (Alexis Bledel) but to instead go back for her older daughter, she is still somewhat on that high of her success. And in that frame of mind, her plan seems “very simple,” Miller continues. She believes she is just going to be able to “use [Commander Lawrence] to go get my daughter and get out.”
But of course, things won’t be so simple as that. “She takes her shot and fails in the first episode,” Miller admits, noting that this sparks a deeper desire to get involved in the resistance movement against Gilead.
Ahead of the third season premiere, Miller talks with Variety about the tone of the show going forward and what to expect Gilead’s reaction to be regarding June being back, as well as expanding Lawrence’s (Bradley Whitford) role and Emily’s refugee journey.
The second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was unflinching in the traumas its characters experienced, from Fred (Joseph Fiennes) raping June to Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) having her finger cut off as punishment for asking that the female children be allowed to learn to read. How do you approach the tone going forward?
We’re experiencing the show through June, and when she feels brutalized, we feel brutalized, and her resistance is coming up. Although the brutality is still happening, you don’t have to show as much because it doesn’t have as much of an effect on June. Our rule of thumb is always showing the things you need to see to understand why she was thinking or feeling what she was thinking or feeling. Now those are the things at the beginning of the season that are driving her.
Why do you think it doesn’t affect her as much? Is the win she had with getting the baby out skewing her sense of what she can accomplish?
I feel like she’s an extraordinarily different person this season, and she’s been changing every year quite a bit and a lot of that is just the fact that she’s had some failures and successes that she can draw on. She really tried to do some big things; she tried to put herself in Fred’s good graces over a two-year period and she worked on that for a long time. The other successes — how many people told her she was never going to see her daughter again? She saw her daughter again. How many people told her she’d never get her other daughter out? She got her other daughter out. She’s had victories that were really hard won and took a long time, and she knows investing in this is going to pay off. But I think her whole personality is so much in flux because in order to be a person who’s actively rebelling, you have to use parts of your personality that we don’t. June has such a huge amount of empathy, but she has to kind of set that down in order to do some of the stuff she needs to do, and that’s a lot of the conflict of the year — the personality traits that are June’s and the personality traits she feels she needs to accomplish a goal.
And of course the Gilead regime who won’t be happy they lost a baby, which in many situations would seem like cause to just put the people responsible for that baby on the wall.
Gilead is a lot of things, but one of the things is, it’s not super consistent; it’s not super predictable. In the time June’s been around, they’ve lost a lot of handmaids and they’ve been very reluctant to kill fertile women.
The resistance movement seems like an opportunity for June to feel a bit more empowered. Are you modeling it after anything specific in history or literature?
My model was always the White Rose movement in Germany, which was a peace movement during World War II, an anti-Nazi movement, and they ended up killing all of those people. But the thing I was fascinated by was those victories were tiny but they were hugely felt, and so that’s what I keep thinking about with June — because her determination to succeed and her strategic thinking, even if she succeeds 1% out of a 100% plan, you realize when reading history how damaging that is to the confidence people have in their governments and how disquieting it is to the people in power. That was the thing I was really impressed by: What’s it like to be in Gilead doing something from the inside without any real outside help?
How did you decide where to pick up the new season?
The goal was really to say, if she wasn’t going to leave, what’s her next five minutes plan? It was a question of being very thoughtful about what June would be thinking in that moment and not what TV June would be thinking.
You mentioned how June is changing, but her influence on the people around her has also caused them to change. How does her involvement with Lawrence affect him this season?
June coming into his life and June being so assertive in terms of what she wants and what she needs, it’s all the things that attracts him, intellectually to her — he thinks she’s fascinating and entertaining and really interesting — but also because he’s unpredictable and smart and strategic, she’s dangerous. And he keeps rethinking, which is what I think makes him an interesting character because he’s not wishy-washy; he’s actually ambivalent. I think he feels hugely strongly about the strides he’s made with Gilead and hugely strongly about the mistakes and the terrible things he’s done. He’s Gilead and the mistakes of Gilead. The fact that June stayed for her child — the fact that she actually went full-force and tried to get the kid back — [that’s] balls out. And that kind of balls out, very strong decision-making by June I think inspires and changes Lawrence over the course of the season. That’s one of the stronger arcs of the season. She’s not Emily sitting in the room; she’s constantly saying, “Do this for me, do that for me, help me do this or that.” And he reacts in good and bad ways, as all of us would.
Serena also proved to be similar thus far, but she, like June, had a real moment of putting her child first at the end of the second season. How does that decision drive her emotionally, and affect her relationship with her husband, going forward?
Her identity as a mother was established last year by her sacrifice, but you get a lot of baggage when you have that blessing of being a mother. And in this case she’s really feeling like she’s been separated by her child, and we know from June you don’t get over that. And so I think that that driver is really interesting for Serena because Serena made the decision that she thought was going to be right to be a real mother and put her kid first, and then she sees how hard it is. It was a two-second decision. She spends a lot of the decision trying to come to terms with and, then perhaps undo, her decision. And Fred recognizes that he pushed her to the edge of sanity. He respects Serena and he loves Serena and he would very, very, very much like to find a way to be something to her that’s not awful, so he spends the whole season trying to do something for her. It’s beautiful and it’s very selfless and it’s creepy and awful because of what he’s doing and because of what Gilead’s doing. But he really sees after the last two seasons that he’s f—ed it up with Serena and changed into something he doesn’t want to be. He’s a man who’s trying his hardest, honestly, to try to turn over a new leaf. And it works itself out in interesting ways because how does someone we think has an immoral compass [change], and do we believe him?
Last season you did a lot with the world-building of Canada and the Colonies; how did you approach expanding the audience’s perspective of the larger world around Gilead this year?
I don’t think it’s inherently interesting to go to a new place and see more of the world. There’s kind of a fascination with world-building and that can become kind of the point of a show, but what I like to do is what Margaret did: stay in June’s point of view and when she’s exposed to something that’s the tip of the way Gilead functions, follow that. When she goes to D.C. and can see how people are treated and how different that is from how she is treated near Boston, those kind of experiences help build June’s perception of this world. And I like us to have June’s perception of this world.
Looking a bit more specifically at Canada, though, so much time has been spent with Moira (Samira Wiley) and Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and their very specific experience there. What will Emily’s journey look like?
People are still leaving their children to go to school and trying to build a life, and Emily walks into that carrying Gilead with her. One of the things we’re exploring is that Gilead is within these people and it changes them forever, and a lot of the conversations we had with the UN in Season 1 about refugees was about how they resettle and what’s that like psychologically. To me, it doesn’t tell the brutality of the story of a place like Gilead if you get out of there and everything’s fine. That’s not the way it works. So for Emily, I loved the story of her in this season trying to figure out a way to be some version of herself again. We do it very measured. We’ve got Clea [DuVall] and Alexis, two astonishing actors, so we can really tell this story of this couple who doesn’t figure it all out. It takes a long, long time and there are hitches and starts, and you’re trying to tell a pretty intimate story and both of those characters are pretty private. You don’t want to feel like you’re butting in, but you want to feel like their story is progressing.
The third season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” premieres June 5 on Hulu.