‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Boss Talks Surprise Return, Devastating Twist

Bruce Miller breaks down that "homicidal" character and finding sympathy in Gilead.
George Kraychyk/Hulu

[Warning: This story contain's spoilers from the fifth episode of The Handmaid's Tale, "Faithful."]

If viewers thought things in Gilead — with its female-centric caste system, institutionalized rape, genital mutilation and baby-stealing — were messed up, Wednesday’s latest installment of the Hulu series, "Faithful," showed another perspective … or a glimmer of one in any case.

There were two main threads to follow in the present-day storyline: that of Offred (Elisabeth Moss) growing closer to Nick (Max Minghella) as Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) arranged for them to copulate in a secret attempt to get Offred pregnant, and that of Emily (Alexis Bledel) returning to Gilead following her horrendous surgery.

In the first, Offred risked everything in order to comply with Serena’s demands and go behind The Commander’s (Joseph Fiennes) back, but then she later returned to Nick in secret of her own free will. Meanwhile, flashbacks juxtaposed how June first met a then-married Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), along with what drove the couple to an affair and eventual marriage.

In the second, viewers got a glimpse of sympathy from Emily's new mistress as she offered to skip the ceremony because she wasn't feeling well. "You can't be sick every month," said a dejected Ofsteven (Emily's new name), playing fetch with a dog.

Later that dejection turned to rebellion when, by the end of the episode, Ofsteven decided to go joyriding in the market, killing a guard before getting caught and being dragged off — presumably for good.

To break down the ceremonial storylines, Offred's surprising choice and whether this truly is the end of Emily, THR caught up with showrunner Bruce Miller.

There have been a lot of ceremonies so far, how do you approach them in the narrative?

At the beginning, we were trying to establish that it happens all the time, make it part of Offred's life, show the different kind of reactions she has. We don't see any ceremonies in the second half of the season with Offred. If you're going to show something different or interesting like we do with The Commander trying to touch her or being unable to get an erection, those scenes are worth doing. But if it's just going to be another ceremony, then you're being horrible for the sake of being horrible.

Since they happen once a month, how does that affect your timeline in the writers' room?

We have a very big timeline piece of paper where we basically have been charting a fictional woman's menstrual cycle for a while … and is kind of hilarious. We try very hard to follow it. Even if there's a ceremony we're missing, we try to always be mindful that it's happened. As an audience member, you assume things we've seen are regular occurrences. She's going shopping every day even though we don't see it. The ceremony is just another part — a terrible part — but another part of her life.

How long does she have at a posting before she's booted — is time running out?

I'm trying to showcase that time is ticking by, no matter if it's getting close or not. Time's marching on for her and every month that goes by that she isn't pregnant is another month behind her. What's in front of her isn't wonderful; she's already been at one posting, this is her second one. In the book, they have three postings before you're sent to the colonies; we haven't established that in the world of our show yet. Time ticking away is just another layer of tension and stakes for Offred. It's something that's always in the front of her mind. Every day that goes by, you're a day closer to losing even this tiny bit of life that you have.

Are there plans to showcase her first posting?

I'm fascinated to explore what her first posting would have been like. You get little tantalizing stuff in the book. She says the woman drank in her room all day. Given the situation, it got a little confusing. It's hard enough to flashback at all, but when you're flashing back to people in very specific costumes and then you're flashing back and they're still wearing those specific costumes, it starts to get confusing. If we can do it in a way that's clear and also in a way that tells us an interesting story, then we certainly would do it. A lot of those things that are just alluded to in the book are some of the mysteries I'm most fascinated by.

When Serena arranges Nick and Offred's copulation, are there any concerns of The Commander questioning a biracial baby were Offred to get pregnant with Nick's child?

My sense is that a baby between Nick and Offred wouldn't look that different than a baby between The Commander and Offred if The Commander wanted to believe it was his baby. If it was a biracial baby, like everything else they would ignore it. They would pretend. They're very good at that. They're very good at thinking they have a bunch of content handmaids who are volunteers. That the world is just and right and what they've done is for the overall good. This would be just another example, just like the way they take babies from handmaids and say they're their babies.

Why confirm that Nick is an official eye rather than leaving it ambiguous?

I didn't want Offred to sleep with him until he was honest with her, and that was a question she had. It makes them intimate, that he was willing to tell her this thing that was dangerous for her and him. It was the real first step for them having a relationship. I didn't think she would sleep with him without asking. It wouldn't be an actual moment of intimacy without that big thing being discussed at least a little.

Why unveil Emily/Ofsteven's return so soon?

That story finished the way so many stories on television would have finished, and I liked having her circle around and come back because it was an interesting reflection on Offred. To have her return and to see how that friendship is impossible to maintain, and also to see the fury she gets on behalf of Ofsteven. All of those things felt like reasons to bring her back.

They also did this horrible thing to her to keep her fertile, so it felt like they would put her back into the job. Where else would she go? That was the whole point of doing this horrendous thing to her, so she would still be useful as a handmaid. If we had her return off-camera, it wouldn't have the same impact as it did having her back in the mix and seeing what something like that did to her. Even the sympathy from her new Commander's wife was born out of that. Which was kind of surprising, when you realize there is a level of humanity there, that everybody has a different way of dealing it out, but it certainly exists.

In the previous episode, Serena and The Commander were discussing an Aunt that had escaped to Canada. Is this all to show that it isn't just handmaids who are against this world?

Exactly. Even if you're on board with it, there are cruelties that you can't get on board with. You have a lot of flexibility when you're a wife with a handmaid, and some people handle it quite differently than others. They have almost complete autonomy. They can't kill the handmaids, but other than that they've got a lot of autonomy. We were very thoughtful about who escaped, and there's a scene later in the season when they talk about a group of Marthas planning some sort of an attack. The idea is that in every caste there are people who are rebelling, uncomfortable with the situation, willing to put down their lives to make it better.

Is that the point of having a conversely pious handmaid in the new Ofglen; that even though Emily was treated well she could never settle into that role?

It wasn't a conscious decision, what we tried to do with Ofglen Two is make her backstory so that this was a step up from what her life was before. The things that were causing her the greatest anxiety and pain had been taken away. There were more things being introduced that were awful, but she was willing to trade that for some security and a longer life. She had been trading sex for money and security anyway and so here she's kind of doing a version of what she was doing before, even though it's not nearly the same thing. I wanted it to seem like these are human beings in these houses. Everybody reacts in a different way, and I felt the wife of Steven, if she knew — and I think she did — what happened to Emily, she would have had sympathy as a human being.

Is Ofsteven suicidal when she jumps into that car?

I wouldn't say suicidal, I'd say homicidal. Take your shot, take out your anger for real, don't let them grind you down. Offred said she looked invincible, which is so great because it's like she's not suicidal, she's invincible. It's a little bit different. She's not trying to die. She may end up going out in a blaze of glory, but it's the blaze of glory she's thinking about.

You've said that execution is a clear punishment for those who have killed; is this Emily going out in a blaze of glory or do you like to think of it as ambiguous?

It's intentionally ambiguous. One of the great things about the book is the absolute scarcity of information that Offred can get; even when she can talk to someone, she doesn't know what she can believe. I like that we see Emily the last time that Offred sees Emily, and we don't know what happened to her. But it is intentional. I didn't want to see her get executed right in front of us, and on any show when there are people still out there, they can come back at any time. Depending on what Emily's journey is, it might be fun to see her again.

New episodes of The Handmaid's Tale are released Wednesdays on Hulu. Thoughts? Sound off in the comments below. Bookmark THR.com/HandmaidsTale for full coverage.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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