'The Handmaid's Tale' Boss Breaks Down Major Flashback Episode

Bruce Miller fills in the gaps as Gilead's narrator questions her own sanity.
George Kraychyk/Hulu

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the fourth episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundum."]

Serena Joy’s haunting words at the end of the third episode were true: Things could get much worse for Offred.

The fourth episode of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale picked up nearly two weeks following the last installment, with Offred (Elisabeth Moss) still confined to her room as a result of Serena's (Yvonne Strahovski) anger that her handmaid hadn't been pregnant after all. As Offred struggled to maintain her grip on reality, she finally found the infamous saying from Margaret Atwood's book, "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundum," etched into the bottom panel of her closet. (The saying, which roughly translates into "Don't let the bastards get you down," has become something of a mantra over the years with feminist movements.)

In a transitional move, the series also flashed back to Moira (Samira Wiley) at the Red Center etching "Aunt Lydia Sux" into the bathroom stall, explaining the importance of leaving traces of hope behind to June as they pondered what their upcoming "postings" would be like.

It didn't take long for the women to find out, as another flashback scene showcased the handmaids learning how to take their official positions for the ceremony, an unfathomable practice to Moira and June, who subsequently plotted their escape from the center. Unfortunately, while Moira made the train to Boston, June was caught and the two were separated, and June returned to the training camp only to learn a tough lesson about anger thanks to Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) and Aunt Elizabeth's (Edie Inksetter) whip-happy ways.

Meanwhile in the present-day storyline, Offred also learned to deal with anger by playing whatever cards she could, including pretending to faint in order to get out of her room and see the doctor (Kristian Brunn) and using her developing relationship with The Commander (Joseph Fiennes) to eventually stop her confinement for good.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with showrunner Bruce Miller to get his take on Moira's big escape, the scene's departure from the book in the wake of the show's season two pickup, and to break down the ever-evolving rules of Gilead.

Were you aware of the doctors in Detroit being charged with genital mutilation the same week your show featured a similar scene?

Yes, it's horrifying. Every time something like this happens, I feel slightly responsible because it's happened in a lot of other ways since we've been doing the show. But that was a particularly cruel and hard one to swallow. It's something you wish was more of an exaggeration.

Offred spends a large amount of time confined to her room this episode; what influenced that structure and storyline?

There was all this stuff in the book that I really loved about Offred exploring her world in the room and it seemed to me like this gave that a little bit of weight. It's her only entertainment, the only territory she had to keep her sane; it gave that part of the book a little more context. I love watching Offred work her way through the system and find levers of power to pull and succeed. In a weird way, you're looking for a win in the episode. Nick isn't coming to her aid. She goes to Serena Joy directly, clearly she isn't going to help her. And then she goes to The Commander, and she figures out which buttons to push to have him help her get out of her room. So at the end she has a victory. You feel this great rush, like look at this achievement she's done, but where she is is exactly the f— where she was at the start of the season. What we considered hell at the beginning of the season is suddenly a place of victory and salvation for her to get back to. It's interesting and really puts us in Offred's head.

What does this say about Serena and how Offred approaches her moving forward?

We were following Serena Joy’s anger; what would Serena Joy do to Offred to punish her after she feels like she was betrayed and humiliated? Serena Joy has a very complicated, emotional life. Whatever blame she has, she's putting on Offred. From the Serena Joy aspect, it's saying two things: that she gets angry, and she has a lot of trouble letting go of that anger even if she wants to let go of it. It's been two weeks and Offred is still in her room, and she can't let it go. Offred is filing that aspect of Serena’s personality away knowing it can help or hurt, but she’s learned something about her commander's wife: she is someone who, once she’s mad, she’s mad. And she’s going to have a lot of trouble either through pride or whatever of letting that go.

Was there ever any discussion around whether to blame Aunt Lydia for a miscarriage following the physical altercation at the house?

We did talk about it. We never thought that it would have caused a miscarriage, but after seeing it play out, we thought about it. It plays a lot more vicious than we actually wrote it. But it seemed to me that whatever the aunts use to control the handmaids is probably something that would never or could never affect their fertility, so I imagine she's pretty comfortable that just shocking her is not going to do that. But yes — after we saw that scene it was just one of those things where we were like, "Oh my gosh, that does look a lot more harsh than we thought it might." So we thought about it but we didn't pursue it; we were pretty far down the road after that. I don'’t think she ever was pregnant. She certainly didn't feel pregnant. My sense is she might have had an inkling at least; she had been pregnant before, she knows what it feels like.

In the novel, handmaids go to the doctor's once a month. Why not make that part of the routine and use it as a stand-alone instead, and could that doctor return?

I figure she does go to the doctor every month just like in the book. We were trying to use it for a little more story and to have her be clever about trying to get herself out of the house for a break. In the book, it was incredibly impactful, but it did live off on its own. Kristian was terrific and had such a great face. It was a difficult part because he was behind the glass the whole time. Gilead's a small world so we can see anybody else again that we need to. He had a really interesting role as someone who was an expert in an area where they really needed an expert, and maybe they would let it slide that maybe he wasn’t completely, 100 percent faithful.

This episode showcased Moira's big escape. Why did you choose to have Offred go with her given that she stays put in the book?

The Offred we drew on the show — even though she's a little tentative about the idea of escaping — is an updating of the character from the book. The Offred we have in this world is someone who would have joined her in the escape; it would have been something they did together. It cemented their friendship, and if that's the last time they see each other, it's a really complicated moment for both of them. On the one hand, you really want to see and feel the emotions of the escape and see Offred having tried it so you understand why she isn't trying it again all the time. And the other part of it is because we want to be there with Moira. The way that it underlines how important their friendship is and how close they were to getting away together. There's all sorts of things in there that underline the closeness of their relationship and keep that character of Moira alive as Offred's kind of spirit animal and guide and inspiration moving forward.

They were both shocked at the outside world; how long had they been in the Red Center at that point?

They'd probably been there for at least a month, maybe a little bit longer. We'll get more sense of the timeline of what things were like in Boston when June escaped and how long she was on the road before she got caught. It's not overnight, but certainly the big changes all kind of came in a flood. Cutting off women's money, passing laws that they couldn't work. Once those things happened, Gilead showed its face pretty clearly. They started chasing down women at the border and part of that was they had a lot of time to prepare for this. So when they decided to pull the trigger, kind of going public with what was going on behind the scenes, it happened relatively quickly. It made the world fairly unrecognizable fairly quickly.

What are the rules of punishment in Gilead? Would Offred's whipping have been worse had they hurt Aunt Elizabeth?

There are specific legal rules that they follow. They hang someone for being a gender traitor and those kinds of things, but in this kind of case it is up to the aunts to maintain discipline. If she had hurt Aunt Elizabeth or killed Aunt Elizabeth, then she wouldn't be punished by the aunts, she would be off with the Eyes and going through trial and being executed. Or going through what they call a trial, which really isn't a trial. This is a little bit more dealer’s choice. That is one of the reasons why Aunt Lydia turning it over to Aunt Elizabeth is a cruelty, because Aunt Elizabeth has skin in the game and has a personal agenda, so I’m sure she hit a lot harder because of that.

Did you question whether someone who fled would actually be placed in a household so high up as the Commander's? Would he and Serena expect the "best of the best?"

My sense is that there's a regional governing committee kind of for New England, probably, and it has a head, a governor and then a bunch of underlings. The Commander is one of the higher level, kind of counsel people. But he also is one of the original sons of Jacob and he was involved in those early decisions. So his experience does bring him a lot of respect. But when they get out of the Red Center — and I'll bet Offred was probably kept there longer because of that — they're considered ready to go. Once they get out of there, they need to be broken.

Will these flashbacks ever change perspective to show the world of Gilead developing through someone like The Commander's or Serena Joy's eyes?

We do get into that a bit. We have an episode coming up with that. Hopefully at this point, the curiosity is there as we begin to get a little more of the Commander and the politics revealed in a way that isn't dry. This is very much an Offred story, but we do get some backstory of Serena and the Commander and what they were like before. We want every character to be fleshed out as curiosity guides us. If you start to be curious about Serena Joy, we start fleshing out that character. A lot of it is still told from Offred's point of view, but it's one of the great things of doing a TV show as opposed to a novel. Here we have the possibility of circling back and finding out more about everyone. You can keep expanding the world based on people who are in Offred's world, not only based on Offred's observations.

New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are released Wednesdays on Hulu, and a second season has been officially confirmed. Thoughts? Sound off in the comments below. Bookmark THR.com/HandmaidsTale for full coverage.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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