'Handmaid's Tale' Creator on Surprising Finale Twist, "Dangerous" Season 3

Showrunner Bruce Miller speaks with THR about what to expect from the Hulu drama's future.
George Kraychyk/Hulu

[This story contains full spoilers for the season two finale of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, "The Word."]

Near the end of The Handmaid's Tale's season two finale, in one of her final acts before escaping from the Waterford household, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) plasters one of the classic sayings from Margaret Atwood's novel all over her bedroom wall: "nolite te bastardes carborundorum," which translates from Latin into "don't let the bastards grind you down."

When the Hulu drama returns for its third season (likely in 2019), expect a different phrase to be scrawled out on the wall of the writers room: "Blessed be the fight." Showrunner and creator Bruce Miller uses that catchy phrase, riffing on one of the show's most commonly associated sayings, to describe what lies ahead now that Offred has chosen to stay behind in Gilead, intent on resisting the fascist regime, and determined to rescue her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake).

In Wednesday's season finale, "The Word," Offred manages to sneak her newborn baby Holly (now known as Nicole) out of Gilead, thanks to several individuals, including Bradley Whitford's Commander Lawrence, a baffling character with a surprising streak of rebellion. Whitford only appeared in the final two episodes of the season, but according to Miller, the West Wing veteran will have much more story ahead of him in season three. Likewise, expect more from Ann Dowd's Aunt Lydia, despite her near-death experience in the season two finale at the hands of Emily (Alexis Bledel).

How did the finale's closing moments, in which Offred entrusted Emily with her child while deciding to stay behind in Gilead, come together? What can viewers expect from Offred's next moves, now that she's lingering in Gilead on her own terms? What's next for Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) following her painful realizations about her place in the world? The answers to those questions and more lie ahead in our sprawling interview with Miller, who joins The Hollywood Reporter for a closer look at the season two finale and a forecast of the season ahead.

With the finale now released, what can you say was your main thematic takeaway of season two?

I think the theme overall is motherhood. So much of Gilead is built on motherhood, and the role of motherhood is both kind of revered and everybody's jealous of it. And it's a role that puts you into bondage. For June, I think she was trying to fathom how to be the best mother she could in this circumstance. Part of that was trying to make Serena into a good mother. Even if there's a one in a million chance she's going to not raise the child, chances are, Serena's going to be raising the child, and you have to prepare for that contingency.

For June, a lot of the season is about reclaiming her name, finding out who you are and finding out that you're your mother's daughter and being able to send your child off into the world with a name that means something. But so much of it is about names and how important names are, and how identities are perverted in Gilead.

The finale builds toward Offred's escape, and in the end, she decides to stay. What went into that decision for June as a character, and what went into that decision for you as storytellers?

The first thing that we tried to do is really put ourselves in the position of June as a character, and not try to think about what do we want to happen as storytellers, or what would be easy production-wise. You kind of have to put that out of your head and say, OK, what would June do? We talked about what she's been through this season, in terms of all of these things. As she says, the impossible has become very possible. She never thought she'd see her daughter again. She saw her daughter again. She never thought she'd see Moira (Samira Wiley) again. She saw Moira again. She never thought her husband [Luke, played by O.T. Fagbenle] would be alive, but he's alive, and she got to communicate with him. And so, I think that standing there you really wanted to get into her head about what has she learned in terms of what effects she can have on the world, about how strong and powerful she is.

There's also something kind of ringing in her head from the time she encountered her daughter and her daughter said, "Why didn't you try to find me? Why didn't you try harder?" There's the knife-twisting of your 7- or 8-year-old daughter telling you, "Why didn't you try to harder to find me and rescue me and be with me?" I think that's her choice in that final moment: "I'm going to try harder. I'm not gonna do what odds are might be the safest thing. I'm gonna absolutely put myself out there and try my hardest to save both of my daughters."

If motherhood was the overarching theme of season two, then, does it remain in place as the central theme for season three, now that she's actively trying to save Hannah?

Absolutely, as a theme of the whole show, as a whole series. I think that there was a lot about reclaiming your name in the first season. But we continued that in the second season. The whole show, all of Gilead is based around motherhood. That idea of motherhood and female roles, and sovereignty over their bodies, it's going to be a theme all the way through. But continuing forward, [Offred] has quite a look on her face at the end of season two, and she's ready to fight. I don't know that I'd get between June and Hannah at that point. I would be afraid.

I think that she's ready to fight. She's ready to rise up, and ready to take some chances and use all the skills she's learned over the last three years that she's developed in Gilead: the survival skills, the manipulation skills, just the strategic skills that she's learned. She's going to bring them all to bear on hurting Gilead and also helping her daughter, helping Hannah.

The final scene of the finale connects nicely with the final scene of the season premiere. In that episode, Offred shed her handmaids robe and reclaimed her name as June. In this episode, she lifts the hood up and is fully a handmaid visually, but somehow seems even more like her purest self. For you and the writers, is this the death of Offred and the full acceptance of June in this moment?

I don't think so, but you're absolutely right in that it was the mirror we tried to establish. At the beginning [of the season], June was stripped down to the point where her insides were coming out. She was bleeding all over herself. She had taken off her tracker, she was stripping everything of Gilead out. It's almost like she wanted to burn those clothes. She wanted to be rid of it. It was horrible to have on her skin. At the end of the season, she's become tough enough to wear a disguise. At the beginning of the season, it was a uniform that defined her. Now I think it's a uniform she's hiding in. All of the sudden, she's a very dangerous person in disguise, inside your community. You're absolutely right in that was the goal in terms of matching up the two images. In some ways, she has owned and redefined being a handmaid. Instead of saying, "I'm going to leave all that behind, and that makes me weak," instead she's like, "Nope, red is the color of battle."

What does the scope of season three look like now that we have this choice from her to stay behind in Gilead? Is it as easy going back to the Waterford house? Should we expect her to operate a bit more in the shadows in season three? Is "grind the bastards down" going to be written on the wall in the writers room moving forward?

Yeah, hopefully we'll spray paint it all over Gilead. (Laughs.) We are just beginning our discussions about season three. But definitely it's breaking loose a little bit. We wanted to put her in a position where she has more control. She's going to maneuver herself into a position where she's less brutalized and has more control and more freedom to possibly find her daughter, or to strike out against Gilead. Our scale in season three is really the scale of resistance, and the scale of uprising. She's finding new areas of weakness inside Gilead.

Also, we of course have this huge palette of Toronto, and the world there that is, now that the Commanders have gone and visited Canada, is much [clearer]. Gilead kicked the hornet's nest in getting Little America riled up. Certainly after they visited, Moira and Luke both feel like there's something they can do. They're much more effective. So we've got the world of Toronto, we've got the world of Gilead, but the world of Gilead is completely turned upside-down, because June is not being shuffled around inside the maze anymore. She's in control of her own movements, or trying to stay in control of her own agenda. It's a choice. She's there by choice. So now all of a sudden, she's not a prisoner; she's an undercover agent.

Talking about the scope of the world expanding, the first season you mentioned the Colonies, which we saw in season two. This season, we also heard about other areas of the world. We know that Anchorage is a place where America still lives on, and in Hawaii as well. Can we expect to go and see more of America, as America still exists within the world of The Handmaid's Tale, in season three?

Yes. I mean, that's our plan: America and the world. Some of the most interesting stuff that we've seen is how the world is reacting to Gilead, from Mexico, and then we hear on the radio how India is reacting. So, more of the wider world. The stuff about America, it's just so interesting and curious, about how a country of 50 states shrinks to two, and still maintains its power and identity. I think that's really interesting. Especially now, with people trying to kind of put their finger on what are the things about America that we can all agree on. I think, when you're fighting for your survival of your country, those are exactly the same discussions they were having in the diminished United States.

In Gilead, we went to the Colonies, and in the book there's a bunch of different kinds of Colonies. There's a huge swath of anything outside of the Boston area that we haven't seen, including Washington, D.C., which is the seat of power in Gilead. In season two, we had designs of exploring some of that, and you run out of real estate. It's just so sad. It's such a fascinating world. So, structures of power, and the visible structures of power… what does D.C. look like now? How much of it harkens back to its American past, and how much of it is very firmly in the Gilead present?

Should we expect there to be any kind of significant leap forward in time between seasons two and three?

Honestly, I haven't decided yet. In some ways I am loathe to skip over anything that important that we experience with June. Like last season, jumps of time don't have to happen between seasons. We jumped all of 14 seconds between season one and season two. Then in episode three, we jumped months ahead. You just have to jump time when it feels logical, and not just because the separation of the seasons is a really good time, because people kind of get their mind back into it.

Also, for the rest of the life of the show, the jump between season one and season two, and two and three, won't be anything. It'll be just, next episode, next episode [due to the way in which viewers can binge television]. The only time where that's a big jump of time is for the next 10 months. Other than that, it isn't. So, you also have to keep in mind, that the life of the [show] you're making is going to exist in a very different consuming environment for the audience.

Serena's finale scenes are incredibly brutal, in so many different ways. She finally takes a stand for women's rights — the right to read, to certainly to study the Bible in Gilead — and she loses a finger for it. Then she makes the choice to let Offred take her baby out of Gilead. How significantly is Serena changed by the end of the season?

She's transformed. I mean, in a lot of ways she is transformed into the mother she always hoped she'd be. She puts her child first, even before her own very strong feelings. She puts herself on the line to defend her daughter's right to learn how to read, even though she knows what the punishment is. She goes beyond what makes the people around her comfortable. The other wives, they're on board with something that follows the rules. But once Serena takes that leap into reading on her own … she knows what she's doing. So Serena is completely transformed from the season. I think she surprises herself, by deciding to let her [daughter] go. But after Eden, a good pious girl, who tried to follow the rules, ends up dead at the bottom of a swimming pool … I mean, what kind of future do you think your child might have?

The events of season two have made Serena question absolutely everything. The only thing she has left in the Gilead experiment is motherhood. At the beginning, she felt that she was going to have other things. She was going to be part of the power structure. She was going to help change the moral course of America. But, she was closed out of all of those doors. The only thing they left her with was becoming a mother. Now, she sees what kind of mother she would be, which is very, very impressive, but also not very aligned with the way things are going to work in Gilead. She has learned a ton of lessons about how Gilead actually works, and how cruel it is, and how surprisingly cruel it can be, even from her own husband who she thought she knew and loved, as much as they love each other these days. She's learned a ton about herself.

If motherhood was the last thing that she was hanging on to here in Gilead, is Serena now looking for the exit? Is her next move to try and figure a way to get herself out of there?

That would be interesting to watch, wouldn't it?

Bradley Whitford's character, Commander Lawrence, shows up in the final two episodes of season two. In a twist, he helps arrange Emily and June's escapes from Gilead. Can you talk a little bit about what you were hoping to set up with his character? What you were hoping to introduce thematically? And now that he's a figure on this show that June certainly locks eyes with, is he somebody that we can expect to see more of moving into season three?

To answer the end first, we can certainly expect to see more of him in season three. Bradley came on for the last two episodes, and we always had plans of building that character out. Having a different kind of Commander than Fred [Joseph Fiennes] ... I mean, Fred has a lot of power and he has weaknesses and strengths, but Commander Lawrence has such a different set of rules. He's a much more venerable figure in Gilead. He was one of the founders of Gilead, like Fred was, but more of an intellectual founder of Gilead. He designed the economy of Gilead. So, what happens when an academic who's doing think pieces on the computer screen and simulations, and someone says, "Hey, that's a good idea. Let's put it in practice." What happens then?

He's a character that was modeled after some of the academics in Germany [during World War II], who had come up with a lot of the plans and did calculations, and came up with the theories that ended up informing both the war and the Holocaust and the kind of Nazi racial policy. But, a lot of those people were shocked by what would happen if you brought these things to life to the Nth degree. It was not what they intended. It was twisted. So, how responsible do you feel for the atomic bomb, and the damage it causes, when you were a guy who helped do the calculations? For Lawrence, he feels like an architect of a system that in a lot of ways broke his wife, and [that] makes him feel sick to his stomach.

He's also an odd guy, hard to get a read on. He certainly has his own quirks, and there's a certain level of the world as entertainment for him. He seems to be looking at it from the outside looking in. I think that he's going through a lot of decisions on his own. I don't know that he was keen on getting Emily (Alexis Bledel) out. She forced the issue by stabbing Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). If he had kind intentions, maybe he thought that Emily would be able to rest here for a while, and then maybe go off to another posting. But he was surprised by what she did, and he had to act. So, it shows you he has a lot of power that he can wield when he wants to.

Mostly, I like the idea of someone who comes at it from a completely different point of view. His central mindset is problem-solving, not power. He looks at the world and says, "Oh, OK it's messed up in this way. How can we figure out a system to solve this?" But he's not in a power business. Academia is not a power business. There's only a certain amount of power you can wield, but he's all of a sudden gone from academia to real life, and seeing your research go from academic to reality is a real blow to the chest for him. We're seeing how someone tries to deal with that. He's certainly not an angel, and we don't know very much about him. He didn't particularly cover himself with glory, making Emily feel more comfortable. He wrung her out, and whether he did that by mistake or by the fact that he didn't really notice that, he couldn't really put together that she was that nervous, or that he was just playing a game. There's that aspect to his personality too: He seems a little gone, with a glint in his eye. So that makes him very tough to predict, what he's going to do. He can be helpful, or not so helpful. That's the kind of character we like, someone who is interesting and consistent, but in the end, unpredictable in some really basic and important ways.

You mentioned Aunt Lydia a moment ago. Is she dead? Is Ann Dowd off the show?

No, she's not dead. She's not off the show. When I sent her the script, I sent her an email along with it where the subject line was, "No, Aunt Lydia's not dead." (Laughs.)

Normally, actors get the ominous phone call request before these things happen …

Yes. Absolutely, yeah. (Laughs.) I don't want to use the expression, "too tough to die," but you know, I think both Aunt Lydia and Ann Dowd fall into that category as way, way, way too tough. One knife is not going to hurt that kind of personality.

On a broader level looking at The Handmaid's Tale, you do not need me to tell you that your show has this eerily prescient quality …

Sorry about that. (Laughs.)

You have these stories that you're writing out months in advance, and then they land with this horrifying impact at the time of their airing. Two seasons under your belt, have you measured any sense from the audience this year of feeling exhausted by misery, given our modern moment? Is it something that you're keeping in mind as you approach season three, given where you've left off with June? It sounds like you're arcing into a direction of having your main character charge headfirst into this situation in a different way.

Well, I'm very mindful, personally, of putting her through too much misery. I have this great affection for her, I've been living with this character for 30 years. I mean, I was a huge fan of the book, and then I got the chance to write the show. And Lizzie brings her to life so vividly that she feels like a real person. My sympathies for her are stronger than my sympathies for the audience. I think of it as a very personal relationship. You look at the show and you feel for the people, and that's what I use as a judge.

With the audience, it's wonderful to be able to hear from them on social media, and hear how they received things. Some things that you thought were going to be really rough end up being things they were able to breeze past, and some things hit them very, very hard. So I'm always judging that. But mostly, I'm fairly queasy for this stuff. We never want to show anything that we don't have to show. If it's something where if you don't experience it with June, no matter how bad it is, or experience it with whichever character, if you won't understand what happened and how it felt and how it changed that person unless you experience it with them, we show it. Otherwise, we don't. We're so not interested in making this horrible place more horrible. What we're trying to do is show kind of the triumph of June, and she needs something to triumph over.

But I'm very mindful, and I think season three, there's a level of triumph and [a notion of] "blessed be the fight," that is part of that. Certainly, we're going to hit ups and downs, just like we did this season, but that there's kind of a level of rebellious spirit in June that will make her more hard-charging, and the victories will be a little bit more visceral.

Which world will get more pleasant and/or hopeful first: America, or Gilead in season three?

Well, all my hopes go on America. (Laughs.) I would very much like my show to become irrelevant and unnoticed and a quiet little crazy corner of television that no one really knows, and can't imagine anything like that happening. Believe me, I would very much like to lose all my accolades of prescience and go back to the world of fiction, where you and I both belong.

In terms of looking at the longer arc of The Handmaid's Tale, I know that you've thought about where the show will ultimately land. After two seasons under your belt creatively, are you having any further clarification on that, whether it's how many seasons it might take you to get there, or just where you want this story to go and where you want it to rest?

Yes, philosophically. Numbers, I don't know. We always have so much stuff that we find fascinating — but fascinating is not always entertaining. There's stuff we find interesting for every season, and it becomes the stuff that we don't end up getting to. On the one hand, you're like, "Oh my God, I would just like to go on forever and keep digging deeper," because it's fascinating, and with these actors, you feel like you have no end of angles to explore and emotional areas to explore. But with that in mind, the last thing I want to do ... I don't like TV shows that dribble off or overstay their welcome. When we get to the end of Handmaid's Tale, I want it to be a beautiful piece of fiction, like the book, that you put a little bow around and you can put it on your shelf next to the book, and that it feels like a story well told from beginning to end. Going beyond that time? I'm not interested. I'd like it to be something as close to finished and feel like a complete piece of work as possible.

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