‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Showrunner Wishes The Show Was Irrelevant
“The road to hell is a lot scarier when you realize you had this chance to get off of it at some point, and you didn’t recognize it,” Bruce Miller, showrunner of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” told me.
It was hard not to wonder whether he was talking about the fictional world of Gilead or America in 2018.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” ― a show that can feel terrifyingly on-the-nose ― is set in a brutal dystopian future in which childbearing women’s bodies are treated as reproductive hosts for the theocratic society’s most powerful (cis, white, male, Christian) leaders. Now in its sophomore season, the Hulu show is exploring what happens to Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and her friends after the events laid out in the Margaret Atwood novel upon which the series is based.
Season 2, which premiered on April 25, offers up more information about the creation of Gilead, the colonies that subsidize it, and the internal dynamics of the punishing society.
Ahead of the premiere, HuffPost spoke with Miller about the pressures of offering definitive answers to a beloved feminist story, the Me Too movement’s influence on the production of the show, and why the show is watchable despite being the most stressful thing on television.
Season one of “The Handmaid’s Tale” essentially ended where Margaret Atwood’s novel did. I’d love to hear from you a little bit about the process of creating Season 2 where there was no Atwood roadmap.
I think there was an Atwood roadmap. We’re certainly living in her world ― the world that she created with the characters she created. Even more important, there’s that kind of Atwood-ness, the way the stories are told and what themes they explore. We tried very hard to get our heads around that the first season so that we could continue that in the second season. Normally, in a television show, you don’t have anything to go on. The other thing [is], I read the book a long time ago. Everybody I know who reads the book is furious when it ends, because they’re dying to know what happens next. I spent 35 years thinking about Season 2, since I read the book.
Well, in Season 2 we get a definitive answer to the question of what happens next. The book, however, ends on a note where you can interpret it in many ways. Were you at all nervous about the responsibility of giving that answer?
I’ll give you two answers. First of all, I’m nervous about everything. I’m a guy adapting one of the great feminist works of forever, who the hell do I think I am? Of course I’m nervous. I’m nervous all the time.
But in this case, I think that Margaret was so encouraging to me and to the writing staff, so enthusiastic about the stuff that we were coming up with, very encouraging to us to break rules and go in this direction and that direction. She’s such a storyteller, such a writer’s writer. In some ways we were more nervous about mucking up her vision of the future, her vision of the world, but in the end, that really gave us a lot of confidence to move forward and say, OK, the person who created this world is not trying to break down our office and beat us with a stick. Maybe we’re coming up with stuff that could be good.
So, yes, you’re terrified. It’s scary to start out adapting such a sacred book, and then it’s terrifying to continue to adapt [it], especially after people liked the first season. If people hate the first season, there’s nothing to lose. People like it, they want to see what happens next, and we want to make sure that they are satisfied.
How much was Margaret Atwood involved in plotting out this season?
As much as I could possibly pull her off her … [pauses] She has this whole other job as an author.
Margaret and I started talking about Season 2 really halfway through Season 1. Once you start planning in your head how Season 1 might end ― and I knew where it was going to end ― I started to talk to her about things that I thought I might do. She was close to the writers at the beginning of the season. I think she’s a little busier this year, but she still reads every script and every outline and calls with thoughts and sees cuts as they get finished.
I take as much time as I can get. I want to grow up to be Margaret. We’re excited by any involvement she’s willing to bestow upon us. It’s obviously essential. It’s beyond counsel. This is Margaret’s world, we just live in it.
At the Women in the World conference, Margaret Atwood said that her one rule for Season 2, which is obviously the same rule she had for the book, was that everything had to have actually happened somewhere, sometime. Can you reveal any specific examples from Season 2 that you drew from history or current events?
I am a very strict adherent to her philosophy. It was something she used for the book. It’s what keeps [the show] from turning into torture pornography, and we’re not interested in making something that’s torturous for the sake of being torturous. I would be sick to my stomach if that’s what we ended up doing. We definitely try to show as little as possible when we do those things. Just enough to tell the story and make the emotions hit.
But there’s a scene very late in the season where two people get thrown in a swimming pool with their legs tied to weights. It’s a very updated version of a very old concept ― they would have wells where they would throw the witches. They would throw them in there, I think [they were called] dunking wells, to drown them. That’s how they would execute women, [because it] was considered nicer. No hanging or cutting heads off. No blood. Which to me just sounds like a horrible misunderstanding of what it probably feels like to drown.
Our modern version is in a swimming pool and they’re chained to kettlebells. The type you’d find at the gym. It’s updated in a horrible way, but it’s very much tied to a legal remedy that’s been around for a very long time, focused very much on women.
Are we going to see more about the way that racial dynamics operate in Gilead this season?
Absolutely. When we adapted the book, I made the decision to not make it an all-white world, as it was in the book, but to add diversity into Gilead to make it represent people of color visually and narratively in that world. We’ve been lucky that we have amazing characters and amazing actors and so we’re able to follow lots of different characters and we do that a lot more this season. The first season was so focused on Offred.
I know that there was criticism in the first season [about how the show handled race]. I think me and all the writers took that to heart. It was very reasoned, thoughtful ― the internet gets a bad rap, but boy, they were very thoughtful and smart and polite and interested and seemingly trying to be helpful. It was a very helpful conversation for us to witness.
Moving forward, we’re trying more and more to integrate race into the stories and address race in the stories, and I think we’ll hopefully keep improving. I think we did better this year than last year, and we’re always energized that there’s places to go in the show. The last thing we want to do is ignore something interesting. So, in a show that covers religion and women’s sovereignty over their own bodies and politics, we certainly have a lot of heavy loads. It’s always daunting to take on even those, but we’re thrilled that we have interesting places to go in Gilead still.
Last year, watching the show, it felt sometimes terrifyingly on-the-nose. Do you feel like this season is going to resonate with audiences in that same eerie, prescient way?
God, it would be so lovely if it was completely irrelevant. That would be really, really nice. It’s hard for me to comment on how people are going to consume the show and how they’re going to put it in their life and how it’s going to affect them. [Season 2] certainly affected me more than Season 1.
I think it’s partially because we’re getting revelations all the time about what kind of government we have, and I think those revelations can’t help but make you think about what’s happening in Gilead and how the precursors to an upheaval in government, what they feel like to go through. We cover that a bit more in Season 2, the lead-up to Gilead. I certainly couldn’t watch the season without feeling those connections, but I’m not going to tell anybody else what connections to feel. If they don’t see it and they get something else out of the show, God bless. I just want them to feel something.
The world of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is really bleak in a lot of ways, but the arc of Season 1, in some capacity, felt like it was leading toward hopefulness. Did you worry at all about having to undo that hopefulness for Season 2?
I worried about it and I didn’t want to do it. I don’t like that two steps forward, one step back, just to reset so you can have another season that has the same dynamics. I think that Offred is confronted by moments where she pushes and she has small victories and big victories, and she had lots of them in Season 1. Much of the impossible becomes possible. She never thought she’d see Moira again, she never thought she’d see her daughter again, and those things happened. So I think that even though things get difficult and they ebb and flow on levels of difficulty, I don’t think she was deterred in her hope, in general.
The most inspiring thing about her is that she has her snarky sense of humor, her internal voice. June is very much alive in there and very much strong and still planning and scheming ― and trying to live, not just survive. So as long as we have that, I think we have hope.
I always feel like the show is hopeful because our world is not Gilead. It always makes me feel like, wow, if Offred could make a stand and try to change things in her world, what am I doing sitting on the couch? I should be able to change things in my world. My world’s a lot easier and more friendly and less dangerous than her world. Every time she survives at the end of the episode gives me hope.
As you alluded to, it feels like complacency in the face of rights being encroached upon is one of the themes of Season 2. Is there anything you hope that audiences might take away from seeing the pre-Gilead flashbacks? They sometimes feel more terrifying than the dystopian future.
I agree. Her flashbacks in the book always felt more terrifying. The road to hell is a lot scarier when you realize you had this chance to get off of it at some point and you didn’t recognize it. I’m sure we’re not trying to instruct people on what to do, but you can lay out in a TV show: This is what happened to Offred because she acted in a certain way. That’s the only lesson I can try to lay out, is a lesson for Offred in this particular position.
That I think people extrapolate [from] and generalize to their own lives, is something I don’t feel comfortable doing. That feels like I’m mansplaining the show, trying to shove it down their throats in a certain way and I would hate to do that.
Do you feel like the Me Too movement informed anything about the marketing or the production of this season?
Absolutely. The Me Too movement ― it was our industry. It’s central to who we are, and it’s our friends who were being victimized and our friends who were being accused and having their careers shortened. I know personally as a white guy, I feel like an idiot. You feel like all this stuff was going on in front of your eyes and you didn’t see it and it was happening to the people you are closest to, the people you work with for years and years and you just feel like, how much did I miss?
I go through a lot in my life thinking “what an idiot you’re being,” but this was a particularly bad one. It makes you feel like you’re blind to the stuff that really matters about those people’s lives. Not only was it happening, but they felt, if you didn’t recognize it, they felt like they couldn’t say anything because either [people felt] like it didn’t matter or it was too painful. So the first feeling for me was just shame of being a part of it, a player in a system, and not recognizing how terrible it was being to some people.
I think that our show, we were in a lucky position, because we were already trying so hard for diversity, especially diversity of gender. We had taken a lot of strides for storytelling, narrative reasons that I think would have been the strides I would try to take if the Me Too movement had happened and I had been on another show. We were already trying to hire as many women for as many key positions as possible, just because it was important to our show and our storytelling.
Well thank you so much for chatting with me, I’m excited about this season.
Thank you. Get a bottle of scotch.
I’m stressed out but I’m excited.
That’s perfect. That’s just what I’m looking for.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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