Get Ready for an Even Darker Dystopia on Season Two of 'Handmaid's Tale'
"It's hard to tell a story about a terrible world without being a little terrible."
With leather muzzles, handcuffs, and men in black capes, The Handmaid’s Tale is back for a second season. Last year, the Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel won eight Primetime Emmy Awards, including best drama, and adhered closely to its source material. But season two picks up where the book left off.
At five weeks pregnant, the handmaid Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is shuttled away in a black van, clinging to the hope that where she is headed will be better than where she came from: imprisoned in the home of Commander Fred and his wife, Serena Joy. In the republic of Gilead, a totalitarian theocracy, handmaids like Offred serve one purpose: to provide a fertile body their Commander can rape in order to bear a child, whom she will be forced give up to him and his wife.
Yet Offred bucks the system. And when the show debuted on the heels of Trump’s inauguration in 2017, The Handmaid’s Tale became a rallying cry for feminists, with women donning the iconic red robes at marches and protests. Now, in the aftermath of #MeToo, the show has a new eerie resonance when it comes to the subjugation of women. In the season two premiere, Offred is told, “All of that smart girl bullshit is finished, do you understand?”
Bruce Miller is the showrunner for The Handmaid’s Tale and a longtime Atwood devotee. VICE caught up with him over the phone while he was home in LA preparing for the show’s season premiere.
VICE: This upcoming season begins where Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale ends. How closely do you try to stick to Atwood’s intent?
Bruce Miller: After the book ended, that was the end of the story [Atwood] wanted to tell. She has been incredibly enthusiastic about the ideas we've had—encouraging us to go off the map more than we were comfortable. Encouraging us to be as bold as possible.
The most important thing to me was to maintain the Atwood-ness of it. That feel of her world. Although we're moving past some of the specific plot moves, that's the spirit [in which] we want to take it forward.
Season two feels even darker than season one. How do you avoid venturing too far into violence and becoming exploitative?
I would feel like a failure if what I was creating was exploitative violence porn—that's the farthest thing from what we want to do. The rule of thumb that I try to follow is we never show anything that we don't need to show to tell the story. We don't linger past what is giving us the impact we need to move the story along. It's a very subjective line. Also, we do follow the mandate that Margaret put out when she did her book: that nothing happens on the show that hasn't happened to women in real life, or is currently happening to women in the world somewhere. That doesn't mean you still can't be far too violent and far too dark.
We're telling a bigger story, and this is part of the story. So we show just what we need to show to communicate how it would change Offred's feelings, or what kind of warning it would give her. It's hard to tell a story about a terrible world without being a little terrible.
You changed a line in season one that was too close to “Make America Great Again.” Why did you make that decision?
Every time I heard it, I was out of the scene; I wasn't in the story anymore. If you watch a TV show and one of the characters is named after your neighbor, all you think about is your neighbor. You stop thinking about the show.
And it seemed that we were making a point that we hadn't been making. When we were talking about the show, the slogan wasn’t out there—but by the time we made it, it was. It was such a central part of the discussion, politically, that it seemed we were pointing at the direction of a particular candidate, and that wasn't our intention.
The Handmaid’s Tale has become a touchstone for many on the left—people fighting for women’s rights have been donning the red robes in protest. How do you feel about the response?
I'm stunned and blown away. It's a testament to Margaret and to Ane Crabtree's iconic costumes. This is a story Margaret wrote and a world that Margaret built, and we are bringing Margaret's world to life.
A lot of the power of it is bringing it to a wider audience. It isn't something we're creating. It's a surprise that people are so affected. On the other hand, I've wanted to do this project for 30 years—it's got to be meaningful in some way. It stuck with everybody who's read it. All my writers, it was their favorite book—before I hired them. So there's a big impact that doesn't have anything to do with the show. But when you have anything that helps people become cathartic about their own personal experiences, or helps them see what are their deep, dark, painful secrets they feel isolated in, and realize that a lot of other people have the same deep, dark secrets, then [people realize] they're not so isolated.
The Handmaid’s Tale is largely the story of abuse of power, especially in how women are treated. How does it relate to the #MeToo movement?
It's in my industry. As much as we're grappling with things in our storytelling, this is something we have to grapple with in our offices, with people I've been working with for 25 years. You feel like an idiot when all of this stuff is going on right under your nose and you never noticed. You feel terrible. You haven't been doing your job. You haven't been a good steward of the other human beings in your office. It's given us a good spasm of honesty. Everyone is talking about things that have happened to them, talking about how they wish someone like me had responded to those things. It's been a huge, quick, and very difficult education.
On our show, we are committed to having women writers and directors. It's what you would want to do on a show that's so married to a female point of view. When people are coming out and telling these secret stories about things that have happened to them, things that were traumatic, I think: "We can tell stories about the same kinds of moments that have the same impact as some of these big terrible actions.” The moments of disrespect. The moments of sexism. The moments of threat that weave in and out of women's lives. Honestly, that's one of the reasons you have writers who are women—women go through the world in a different way than men, and they have to explain it to us, and we have to be able to ask.
What would mark the show's success for you, personally? Affecting opinions? Entertaining people? Creating cultural change?
As a writer, I want it to make you feel something. It's so rare that you watch something that makes you feel something genuine. I think of it as an emotional experience [that's also] entertainment. Once it turns into medicine, not only do I think no one's going to watch, I think I won't be making it.
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