SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of the Season 2 finale of The Handmaid’s Tale that was posted on Hulu last night.
“It’s our job as people who are telling fictional stories [that] if you’re going to reflect the world, show the world as it is,” The Handmaid’s Tale showrunner Bruce Miller said of the bracing Season 2 finale that Hulu put up late last night.
Last year’s Emmy Best Drama winner saw Elisabeth Moss’ June/Offred in “The Word” episode hand over her infant daughter to fellow rebellious Handmaid Alexis Bledel’s Emily at the last moment to escape the repressive regime of Gilead but not attempt to leave herself. This follows an often harrowing second season of the almost assured future Emmy nominee full of revelations about the collapse of American democracy, the machinations of forced childbirth amidst global infertility, state-sanctioned rapes, exile, violence, torture, the swimming pool executions and the shocking cut of the finale that finally unveiled a society gone mad on dogma where no one is safe or to be trusted.
Packed with strong performances all season from last year’s Emmy winners Moss, Bledel and Ann Dowd plus Amanda Brugel, Max Minghella, Joseph Fiennes, Samira Wiley and Yvonne Strahovski as the complicated, callous and compromised Serena Joy, the latest run of The Handmaid’s Tale took on an even harsher timeliness deeper in the era of Donald Trump.
In the opening weeks of work on the third season of the drama based on Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed 1985 dystopian novel, Miller spoke with me about the pivot of the Season 2 finale, the cultural touchstone the show has become, and where next year will go on Tale. The former co-EP of The 100 also ventured on The Handmaid’s Tale’s Emmy potential ahead of tomorrow’s nominations announcement and how that future at least could be bright.
DEADLINE: I often like to start these at the end, so why does June stay in Gilead at the end of the finale?
MILLER: Because she’s a mother. She has one child who’s going off to safety and one child that’s still here so she stays for her daughter Hannah. Whether she’s going to help her daughter or whether she’s going to try her hardest to injure Gilead, it really comes from two things. One is her mom saying you’re stronger than you think, which is something she realized about herself throughout the season. The other is her daughter saying why didn’t you try harder?
When she finally sees Hannah, Hannah says why didn’t you try harder to find me?
And she’s going to try harder and I think that after having a season where all these things that were seemingly impossible have come to pass I think she’s willing to take a chance. She’s not so willing to leave her eldest daughter behind.
DEADLINE: Not leaving someone behind feels like it could be the chorus of a portion of this country right now, as much of The Handmaid’s Tale has come to. How does it feel for you to have seen the show, perhaps even more so than the book, become a cultural touchstone, for better or worse?
MILLER: I don’t really have anything to compare it to in terms of my own personal experience. I mean, Lizzy was on Mad Men and West Wing and things that were at the center of the conversation for a very long time. For me I’m just thrilled that people are watching and watching carefully and getting something out of it.
DEADLINE: I think it become more than getting something out of it. The show has become a warning beacon to some and an inevitability to others…
MILLER: Well, in terms of how, the similarities they see between Gilead and the world around them, first of all I would love for there to be no similarities. I would love it to be an irrelevant television show that people watch and think that would never happen. That’s my dream, but you know I think that what people connect from the show to their real life is really the part of it that I try to leave to the audience.
What we were trying to emulate is that connection to the real world that was in Margaret’s because I found the book terrifying and this show is supposed to be scary – and I think it is.
DEADLINE: I think certainly Season 2 is particularly scary, horrifying and harsh in many ways. Was that something that worried you in terms of keeping the Season 1 audience and even growing it?
MILLER: A bit. I’m really of two minds. On the one hand, I am a quite timid television viewer. On the other hand, these things are happening in the world and just because they’re happening out of sight doesn’t make them any better or any more palatable. It’s our job as people who are telling fictional stories, if you’re going to reflect the world, show the world as it is.
Show the parts of the world that you can’t see, make people understand what it means to be raped. What does it mean to be raped? I think you know the world right now is a complicated, difficult, painful place and a lot of that happens out of sight and the fact that we’re dramatizing it is really painful, but it’s a lot less painful than what people are really going through.
DEADLINE: With that, the Emmy nominations are coming a day after the finale goes up on Hulu. What are the chances you guys could pull of a consecutive Best Drama Series win?
MILLER: (laughs) God, I don’t know. I’m still reeling from the first time. You know, the recognition that the show has gotten is beyond my wildest expectations. We’ve made a good as show as we can make and there’s a lot of other great material out there, great performances out there so the competition is quite fierce as it always is in a 500-channel universe, in a streaming, infinite streaming universe but you know I think we have a good chance because I think we made the show we wanted to make.
DEADLINE: You are avoiding my question Bruce…
MILLER: It has been quite a year so I would be very, very proud and honored and very excited for my colleagues if we are able to make another stand at the Emmys. I would be very proud and feel complimented by the honor.
DEADLINE: I obviously can only assume that Margaret Atwood would be back on the Emmy stage with you guys if you win again. What does she think of Season 2 overall?
MILLER: She was thrilled with Season 2. She was thrilled and frazzled and very complimentary. Margaret was just incredibly positive, incredibly complimentary, loved the variety of different types of episodes and voices.
DEADLINE: How did that make you feel the second time around?
MILLER: I was very happy. It makes me incredibly nervous when she watches the season, but it turned out OK.
DEADLINE: Made me think, do you feel sometimes that there is too much emphasis upon the real politics connected to The Handmaid’s Tale when you guys are trying to tell a drama?
MILLER: People read things into the show just like you read things into anything — because you’re bringing those feelings to the table because they’re happening in our real world. I love the fact that people find that it’s relevant. I mean, all you’re trying to do with a TV show honestly is make people feel something strongly. The fact that people feel a lot of things strongly with this show just feels like a great compliment to all of us.
DEADLINE: As we saw more and more of wider Gilead this season and its relations with refugee-straining Canada and the rest of the world, I became more struck with how much of our world, our handheld technology, seems eradicated in just a few years of theonomic rule. Why is that? Seems a totalitarian regime would want the platforms for propaganda…
MILLER: I think that was a lot of the mandate of Gilead and some of that is for security reasons and some of it is aesthetic. They want the world to look and feel like a traditional American world and some of those technologies just don’t fit into their aesthetic. In terms of television specifically, it was excised out as a matter of control.
Their plan is to slowly reintroduce it but for now the men have access to computers and why would the women need to watch TV? The men have access to all of that stuff on their own version of the internet. So, I think that they have very carefully proctored the environment so that it looks old and traditional. Things that don’t fit into their vision of it have disappeared. But there’s another reason, the technology also changed quite a bit when they were worried it was affecting fertility. People stopped using cell phones in general, people stopped using WIFI in general and people stopped honestly sending out to a great extent radio and television signals because of that, which made taking over easier in some ways I think when the birth rate drops that fast, people go into a panic and anything they think possibly could affect fertility is out.
So, we are starting from a slightly different baseline than where we are now. But, our idea is that over the seasons you’ll see the things that you know even if they were officially gotten rid of have snuck back.
DEADLINE: Certainly, Canada in this season in particular represents some of what was lost, on a multitude of levels, but will that evolve going into Season 3 and beyond?
MILLER: Canada being a refuge and an ally of the remaining United States in our show is awesome but it’s also an awesome responsibility and a lot of pressure. So, I think we’re going to make sure in the future we play both of those things, that Canada is a savior and Canada is a real country, that has real problems and their own real problems, and you know certainly they are trying to help the refugees from Gilead but there’s only so much agitation you could do when you’re a guest in another country.
DEADLINE: Speaking of a guest in another country, this season spent some serious time with Samira Wiley’s Moira, now starting a new life in Canada but still reeling from her life shattering in what was America just a few years before, and being forced into becoming a sex worker for Gilead’s elite and visiting VIPs. During Season 1, there was I thought insightful criticism about how the show fumbled or ignored the issue of race from the near-future America to Gilead’s surge back to the social formats of racial oppression, specifically black women and their historic utter lack of agency or rights. I know you heard it, so how did you take it on for Season 2?
MILLER: We’ve made an effort to I think in Season 2 and going into Season 3 to think about and turn over how exactly a place like Gilead in the form that we’ve developed it would deal with race. How would the characters feel about race even in a society where race became a secondary factor to fertility, all of those kinds of things.
In the approach to Moira’s character, look at it more of a kind of a curve and a process of our audience — we read their comments and we listen to what they think. The criticism I think has been very thoughtful all the way through on lots and lots of different very sensitive subjects. Internally and externally, we’ve had very respectful and reasoned discussions that have helped us work that criticism into the show in different ways. The function of what we’ve been able to do with Moira in that aspect is a function of Samira’s skill and her true and deep talent. Honestly, I don’t think it’s a reflection of trying to go somewhere, it’s more a reflection of letting Samira take us to all the places that she’s taking us to. She’s amazing.
DEADLINE: The finale leaves Elisabeth’s June still in Gilead but once again out of the Waterford home, for better and worse. It also leaves several other characters on the run or on the ground…
DEADLINE: So, will we see’s Alexis and baby Nicole again, have they escaped Gilead’s clutches?
MILLER: We’ll certainly see them again. I’m not going to tell you whether they get out or not but we are going to see Emily and baby Nicole again. They’re certainly going to play a big role in Season 3.
DEADLINE: Now, we saw Emily leave and one of the things we also saw before was her stab Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia and leave her on the floor bleeding out. Where will that lead us to? Is she still among us?
MILLER: When I sent the script to Ann, I titled the email No, Lydia is not dead.
I mean, I don’t think that could kill Aunt Lydia. It would take a lot more than that. Aunt Lydia is a tough woman and so I think she is going to return. This was a spasm of violence by someone and Aunt Lydia is going to have to deal with that. What does it mean to be reviled in that way by these girls who she knew?
She will return next year and deal with what happened to her. She will also have to deal with what happened next, a child that was born in Gilead is on its way out to the border and that’s a terrifying thing for her. That’s the thing she works the hardest to create, that’s who she is.
DEADLINE: If Lydia is surprised by what Emily did, Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena has been a revelation this season, both the character and the actor…
MILLER: I agree, Yvonne’s been spectacular this season. We have an incredibly strong cast and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we have Lizzy Moss as an executive producer, an actor’s actor creating an environment for the whole cast to thrive in.
So that being out of the way, the season for me with Serena has really been about motherhood, something she’s always wanted. She’s going through an experience that you know I know that me and my wife went through and a lot of people go through and oh, sh*t, the clock is ticking, here comes the kid, what kind of parent am I going to be?
DEADLINE: Oh yeah, and it really does change everything for her.
MILLER: Yes, that’s been her journey. What kind of mother am I going to be? And I think for Lizzy’s Offred, Offred is trying to make sure that Serena is a competent mother because although Offred feels like I’m hoping that my kid won’t grow up here, I have to be realistic and cover my bases. If she does grow up here, someone’s going to have to take care of her and that someone is going to be Serena, I need to teach her how to be a mother.
She did that so well that in the end she did the most motherly thing of all, which is sacrifice her own feelings for her child’s safety and you know her child’s future. I think that Serena, I don’t think Serena’s done in any way despite what has happened to her, her marriage to Fred, the seemingly loss of status and Nicole. In this episode the great thing or in this season she realizes that her skill is not having a child but being a mother, which are two different things and, in this season, she learns what being a mother is.
DEADLINE: So, with all the players at the table, can you tell me what will Season 3 be like?
MILLER: Season 3 is really about blessed be the fight. It’s about June rising up to either save Hannah or change the world. About her wanting to hurt Gilead, to knock Gilead back on the field so that she can weaken this place. It’s an insurrection season about June being stronger than she thinks.
Yet, right now, as we’re in the early stage of putting that next season together and the aftermath of Season 2, which dealt a lot with motherhood, that theme continues to some extent because that’s the theme of Gilead.
DEADLINE: Sounds like you have an idea, a season or two or many more from now, of how this all ends…
MILLER: Yes, I’ve been kind of gradually piecing together where do I want the characters to end, where do they settle, where’s the end of this chapter of their lives. Some of them might end up dead, some of them might end up far away or fighting a war or all sorts of things. I have an instinct as I like to call it, an instinct for most of the characters and other ones I don’t and certainly they shift around.
I very much try to speak to where am I, where’s this person heading and what are the central parts of their personality that gets bent or changed during the time that we’ve seen them on the show? We know when they come out the other end that we’ve seen that big change that they’ve gone through.
DEADLINE: Third seasons can be tricky like that in a trajectory for almost any series. Is there a bit of this all has to be reinvented now to make it work anew?
MILLER: I’ve learned from other shows that a lot of times you’re going into a season like there’s nothing here. We don’t know what we’re going to do. We’re certainly thankfully not in that position now on this show We have lots of ideas of what we’re going to do but I think that it’s something that being a professional television writer you deal with all the time.
The issue here is that it is hard with an Emmy sitting on your keyboard to type around it because it gets in the way so you got to throw that out and just get back to writing. For a Season 3, I very much rely on the muscle memory of doing what I know how to do, which is you sit down, you start talking about a season, you break it down, you see what’s interesting.
It is daunting of course. It is scary, of course. You know, the worry about f*cking it up is huge all the time at the front of my mind, but you really have to put all that stuff aside and just try to tell a story that you are interested in and you hope the audience is interested in it too.