How 'The Handmaid's Tale' Will Remain Relevant in a Trump and #MeToo World

Showrunner Bruce Miller talks with THR about how season two of the award-winning Hulu drama will continue to explore parallels with Trump, the Time's Up movement and more: "You can't avoid the influence."
George Kraychyk/Hulu

Its meteoric cultural impact is but one of the many reasons why Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale became an award-winning lightning rod of a television series. And the streaming service, which recently topped 17 million subscribers, hopes that the Elisabeth Moss starrer from showrunner Bruce Miller continues to be as culturally relevant in April as its first season was when it was filmed before Donald Trump was elected president. 

Based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel of the same name, with the adaptation first bowing on Hulu in April 2017, The Handmaid's Tale centers on Offred (Moss), formerly known as June, and formerly in control of her own life. That all changed when religious zealots forcefully seized control over the United State of America and turned it into the dystopian nation of Gilead, a world in which men wield absolute power over women, many of whom now serve as "handmaids," tasked with reproduction in an increasingly sterile society. 

Released in the months following Trump's election, and in the midst of a rising tide of activism against systemic misogyny, The Handmaid's Tale arrived with painfully relevant cultural impact, with the now-iconic uniform of the handmaids worn worldwide at protests, just as one example of the show's widely felt significance. 

"It's a costume that people have taken beyond the show and out into the real world," Miller tells The Hollywood Reporter about how The Handmaid's Tale has transcended television to become part of a global conversation. "It's amazing."

Season two of the Hulu series, premiering with two episodes April 25 (and subsequent installments of the 13-episode season releasing Wednesdays), stands poised to continue the trend of interacting with the modern moment. Speaking with THR, Miller addresses how Trump's election impacted the Handmaid's Tale's writers' room, season two's parallels with the Time's Up and #MeToo movements and the reckoning against sexual assault and harassment throughout Hollywood, and what's in store for Offred as she contends with her pregnancy in the grim universe of Gilead and more.

Season two of The Handmaid's Tale will push the story beyond the book. In that regard, how much of a role is Margaret Atwood playing in the series and shaping the story of Offred moving forward?

Margaret and I started talking about season two in the middle of season one. She plays a huge role. She's the mother of us all. Usually when you adapt a classic book, you're not lucky enough to have the author around. We are very lucky to not just have her around, but very much energetic and involved. She was in the writers' room very early in the season. We've been talking throughout, and she's been reading everything. She's very involved. She's our guiding star, and always has been. We also often will try to bring her into our heads via ouija board. (Laughs.) We're always trying to make sure the "Atwoodness" of the show stays front and center. Even though we're going beyond the story that's covered in the book, in some ways, we're still very much in the world of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

What has been your greatest creative challenge as you plotted out season two?

The biggest challenge was season one, honestly. With season one, we have been so lucky that it's been so successful, well-reviewed and well-regarded by so many people. It's wonderful, and also terrifying. It can put a lot of pressure on you. You don't want to mess up something that's working. The hardest thing about approaching season two was saying, "Let's just do what we did in season one. Let's think about it and try to tell a story that's interesting, entertaining, good television, and go from there." But that was the biggest emotional hurdle. Creatively, the biggest hurdle was trimming down [stories]. There are so many interesting places to go and things to follow in Margaret Atwood's world, that that was our big problem. We kept a list going in season one of places we talked about or mentioned as really wanting to see — like the colonies, or Little America in Toronto. The list was way too long for one season. That was the biggest challenge, creatively. It's as much about what not to do as it is about what you end up including in the season.

Season one was produced and conceived before the 2016 presidential election. How has Trump's election influenced the types of stories you're telling in season two?

First of all, you can't avoid the influence. Our writing staff is a news junky bunch, very politically active and thinking a lot about politics, very engaged in the world. Most of [the writing staff] has children and they think about what the world will mean for them. It's a big influence on the way you think about everything in your life, which definitely bleeds into the story-making process. But America has its own issues that don't necessarily align with the issues at play in Gilead, or even a pre-Gilead America. You have to be careful not to draw too many parallels. Being worried and having lots of anxiety and having a government that's trying to split us into groups and pit one of us against each other, those are things that take place both in Gilead and in here [in our country]. But the harder part is trying not to draw too many direct parallels, and be happy with the parallels that do exist without trying to create other ones out of thin air.

Do you see any parallels between season two of Handmaid's and the sexual harassment and assault reckoning we're seeing in our culture now?

Absolutely. I don't know how much of it is the institutional and open misogyny of the world of Gilead, coupled with the open misogyny that's being revealed to us now — the way men treat women. For me, the biggest feeling you get is, "God, what have I been missing? These terrible things have been happening to people that I love, and I don't even know about them." You feel like an idiot, more than anything else, like a baby who hasn't been noticing these things that are going on everywhere. Inevitably, when you do a show where one of the big aspects is a very, very sharp divide between the role of men and women and the power structure, you can't help but be pushing up against the same thoughts and ideas that are going on behind this movement. It would be asinine not to. Relationships between men and women are fascinating and complicated, and have made great television for years, and great theater for about 5,000 years. You would be dumb not to see the parallels between that world and this world. 

Also on our show, it's a female-driven show that's run by a man. We've certainly had those discussions internally. We're constantly trying to create a safer and more comfortable work place, and this has opened our eyes to how unsafe and uncomfortable it can be for some people. We've redoubled our efforts to make sure we have an environment where people can talk about this stuff, so that if there are problems, we can solve them, so they aren't hidden from view for years and years and people have to suffer. The only way to solve anything is for people to talk about the problems.

How has the global response to The Handmaid's Tale — people wearing the costumes in protests — changed how you and your team feel about the show you're making?

It's been awe-inspiring. It's been an influence in terms of understanding how iconic the show has become visually. The visual connotes a whole political point of view, which is really fascinating. Especially for Ane Crabtree, who created the costumes. It's a costume that people have taken beyond the show and out into the real world. It's amazing. You really feel like you're giving people a chance to express themselves in a complicated way, which is what you're trying to do on television: taking something complicated that you can think about in simpler ways. We've all been in awe of that. We have had some really lovely responses, thanks to Twitter and other things, from other countries. Seeing how the show works in other cultures is fascinating, in how they view America. We're not a country based in religious freedom; we're founded by people who wanted everyone to be one religion. The way that America and its genesis is viewed by other countries has been fascinating, the things they're surprised to see Gilead has maintained and the things they aren't surprised about at all.

Story-wise, season two will focus largely on Offred's pregnancy. You also announced at TCA that she will be on the run this season. How will these two developments in her life alter the nature of the show?

For me, the nature of the show has always been to follow Offred. It's called The Handmaid's Tale, and it's about this woman in this situation. I try not to think about it in ways that are much more complicated than that. That's my structure, the point of view, the heart of how I watch the show: through Offred. But in season two, in the same way season one was hopefully not predictable and kind of surprising, there are so many possible threats and minefields for Offred that you can find drama anywhere. The biggest thing about season two is that no matter what you guess or read about it, you're probably not getting a complete picture. It's more complicated than that. Also, I want it to be entertaining. It's TV. You don't want to know what's going to happen and how it's going to happen early on. That's no fun. For me, part of the whole point was making it unpredictable. You want to make it realistic, but also unpredictable. Early on, you'll find that almost all of the things you think this season will be about, will be wrong or just a little bit off, to the point that what happens next will surprise you in a good way.

The second episode will center on a story in the colonies, featuring Marisa Tomei as a new character. Structurally, will you be doing more stand-alone episodes this season? Installments that focus on certain groups of characters while pausing on other stories?

No. I think we have a really integrated season. We do sometimes focus on one character's story more than others. I'm not the kind of guy who thinks we need to check in on this person or check in on that story — that's not how we do it. But the stories we're telling don't leave Offred behind, or the other characters behind, to follow another story. Offred is still the show. The stand-alone episodes, sometimes can be very entertaining, but it has to be super strong if we're going to leave behind our main narrative for a while. In this case, every day that goes by, Offred gets a little more pregnant — so there's a lot going on there.

Tomei will guest-star this season, playing a commander's wife in episode two. Will she be a recurring character this season? 

She could be a recurring character! 

How did that casting come about, and what kinds of conversations about the world of Handmaid's did you and she have once she joined the series? 

She was interested in the show and wanted to be on the show. There was a character we were thinking about very early on, and we thought she would be wonderful for her. We spoke about her independently. Those things just came together in a great way. Marisa and I had a couple of conversations beforehand. It's hard to do what she's doing: dropping out of the sky on the second season of a show that's so specific in terms of its world. You feel like the new kid on the block. Some of the talks we had were very practical: "It's going to be freezing. You're in the colonies, which are no fun. We don't do hair and makeup, really." But we also talked a lot about the character she's playing, who is the wife of a commander, and how she's integrated her relationship with god and her faith into her life, and the mistakes she's made, and whether god is forgiving her for those mistakes. We had very specific conversations about this character and her relationship with her religion, with Gilead — those kinds of things. It was great, to have a conversation with Marisa about faith and what it means and how it can keep you buoyed in a really difficult situation. It was absolutely fascinating. She's such a smart woman who has had so many different interesting life experiences. It was a pleasure talking with her. I would have had those conversations with her forever if she wanted. 

Do you have a series arc in mind for Handmaid's at this point, now that you're beyond the pages of the book? How many seasons do you imagine it lasting?

I roughed it out to about 10 seasons when I was first working on it. I see a world beyond [the current one]. I would watch an episode about the Nuremberg trials after Gilead falls. There are lots of worlds you think of: "I would love that season — seasons eight, nine or 10, where everything has changed so much." But my arc is still very much the arc of the novel, which is the arc of this one woman's experience in Gilead at this time, and her recollections that paint this picture of what it was like and what the experience of this world was like, which really is still the book. People talk about how we're beyond the book, but we're not really. The book starts, then jumps 200 years with an academic discussion at the end of it, about what's happened in those intervening 200 years. It's maybe handled in an outline, but it's still there in Margaret's novel. We're not going beyond the novel; we're just covering territory she covered quickly, a bit more slowly.

What are your hopes for Handmaid's Tale season two? Sound off in the comments, and keep checking with THR.com/HandmaidsTale for more coverage of the Hulu series.

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