12:00pm PT by Amber Dowling
'The Handmaid's Tale' Showrunner and Writer Talk Recreating That Famous Scene
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the eighth episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “Jezebels.”]
Following the stand-alone seventh episode of The Handmaid's Tale, in which viewers learned exactly what happened to Luke (O-T Fagbenle) following his separation from June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss), the eighth installment of the Hulu drama returned to Gilead and the ongoing power struggle between Offred and The Commander (Joseph Fiennes).
Taking one of the most memorable scenes from Margaret Atwood’s novel on which the show is based, “Jezebels” featured The Commander prettying Offred up and sneaking her out of the house and into the sordid gentleman’s club Jezebels, where she ran into her best friend from a former life, Moira (Samira Wiley).
Meanwhile, things between Nick (Max Minghella) and Offred grew more complicated as he watched The Commander toy with Offred and break several of Gilead’s rules. The story flashed back in time to showcase how Nick became involved in the formation of this world in the first place.
To break down some of the key scenes and learn what went into crafting the episode as well as what this turn of events means for The Commander and Offred going forward, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with showrunner Bruce Miller and the episode's writer Kira Snyder.
Was there any pressure in creating Jezebels given its importance in the book, and what kind of tone were you hoping to achieve?
Bruce Miller: There was as much pressure as we felt for the rest of the book. We all felt a responsibility to put it onscreen in a way that delivers for the audience.
Kyra Snyder: We were interested in exploring the duality of what the power structure of Gilead would create for themselves in the visible spaces and then what the women would experience privately in the private spaces. The dorm and the ladies room where Offred meets with Moira are those private women’s spaces. They’re a little sadder, a little tattier. We looked at representing things like refugee camps and places where women are sexually trafficked. But the men don’t see that. For them it’s prettier, glossier. It’s a fantasy that they’re building for themselves.
Miller: That’s the key; it is a fantasy men are building for themselves so they didn’t stumble on this. It’s all very carefully put together to look like that fantasy.
The Commander remarks that there’s “quite a collection” there — what does that mean to him?
Miller: It’s from the book, which makes it easier to write. But the women who come to Jezebels come from a lot of different places. They’re either people who choose to go there as opposed to the colonies, which seems like choosing a death sentence or a slow death sentence. It’s also a place for people who are incorrigible in some way or too difficult to be in society but are attractive and someone that the commanders think they would like to have, or feel like they have the right to have access to. There is a bit of choice and there’s probably some assigning, but I wouldn’t assume it’s mostly people choosing it. It’s like picking jail or the army.
Were there any other real-life inspirations that went into crafting these scenes, or Moira’s reactions to being there as an essential sex slave?
Miller: It was very much modeled on Moira from the book. I always interpreted that June remembered Moira to be a much tougher, more inspiring Moira, whether she remembered her imprecisely or that was just the moment she chose to remember. She was using Moira as someone to inspire her and so those memories were very inspiring. But Moira was a real person with strengths and weaknesses, and that’s the Moira viewers meet.
Snyder: Because this section in particular is so important in the book and it is such a wonderfully dramatic section in the book, we went back to it over and over again. Moira as you see her in this episode is very much Moira from the book. The conversations they have are the same conversations they have on the page and so the Moira that we see that is putting on a façade, she’s performing the old Moira for June, but June is able to see that something has changed in her friend and she fears irrevocably. The two of them reconnecting, I think they kind of see each other’s hopes at the end.
At this point, are Moira and June switching places in terms of their willingness to resist?
Miller: Yeah, the whole point is that for a long time we’ve established June as someone who finds inspiration in Moira and we’re just flipping that.
Snyder: It’s also that the last time the two of them saw each other was parting at the train station, so they both have these memories of people they were several years ago. When you reconnect with someone you haven’t seen in a while, you’ve both been through a lot and it’s hard sometimes to reconcile the person you see in front of you with the person you remember. So their baselines have shifted a bit, but they probably have a bit more in common on both sides than they did those few years ago when they first parted outside of the Red Center.
How does The Commander view Offred at this point — is she almost like a doll to him that he can dress up and show off?
Miller: He does see her as a thing and he sees all the women in the story as a thing. Things that talk in different ways and say different things, but it’s certainly a dehumanized culture, just in terms of the way they treat women. But my sense is he’s in some ways trying to show her off and in some ways trying to show off to her. And he’s always kind of creating the illusion they have a real relationship, not a forced one.
Snyder: It’s that fantasy element. He wants to show her off, wants to show off for her, as if she’s a girlfriend or a mistress, but it is completely constructed. Everything about that evening is very carefully stage-managed. We think the commander has a keen sense of what he’s doing, when he’s doing it, when he chooses to tell her things. He could have been upfront with her at the beginning about what was going to happen, but he liked to play out the putting together of the doll. And also playing out those control games. But it’s all in service of this completely hollow fantasy of this is a relationship, it’s not forced. Which is of course a lie.
What’s the difference in constructing a rape scene like that versus The Ceremony?
Miller: I certainly thought it came across like a more intimate rape scene, and in some ways because they’re alone — because there isn’t that third person there — it seems so weird. Suddenly when you’re alone just the two of them, it’s like, “Oh, my God, I wish there was a third person here because it seems even creepier and spookier.”
Snyder: It isn’t a consensual thing; it’s completely coerced, but in a different way than before.
How much of the story of what happened to the first Waterford handmaid have you fleshed out at this point?
Miller: Well, we’ve been fleshing it out little bits by little bits. What we tried to do is flesh it out entirely and show viewers a little bit that makes sense so that they’re trying to crystallize the important moments of that story and deal them out as they come up. We tried very hard to flesh out as much as we could of that story so the piece we’d be showing made sense in an imagined context. But her death was certainly The Commander’s fault; he just can’t stop himself. Or he doesn’t want to stop himself from making these emotional connections in addition to the physical ones, so he’s raping them twice: emotionally and physically.
Are there cult comparisons to be made with the Sons of Jacob recruitment tactics showcased in the Nick backstory?
Miller: We had some input from the people at the [United Nations], and they were saying how it’s a perfect example of radicalization rather than recruitment. How people these days, especially young people who are pulled into certain religious groups, are radicalized, so that’s what the scene really ends up being. Maybe it’s just because radicalization is much more of a problem these days than cult participation. They’re pretty close to each other. But in order to understand why someone would sign onto something like this, you have to see the good.
Snyder: Gilead in the early days needed a lot of foot soldiers, so what was the message? How did they get those people? Not everyone is a commander, so what was the message that was attractive to those folks?
How much debate went into Offred’s choice of words, “You are not alone,” that she carved into the closet wall at the end?
Snyder: It was born out of the story and out of the book. Not being alone is the theme to the episode, so it’s for her to remind herself, like the “Nolite” carving, it’s both a reminder to herself and also a bit of a blessing or vindication for someone who may be coming after her. But it really came out of her reminding herself that she is not alone in this world, and you can see the look on her face in that last shot of the episode that a fire’s been lit. Those words really helped her get to that place.
New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale premiere Wednesdays on Hulu. Bookmark THR.com/HandmaidsTale for full coverage. Thoughts? Sound off in the comments below.