'The Handmaid's Tale': Rape, Mutilation and That Shocking Death Explained

Showrunner Bruce Miller breaks down the graphic twists from the first three episodes of the Hulu drama.
George Kraychyk/Hulu

[This story contains spoilers from the first three episodes of Hulu's The Handmaid’s Tale, "Offred," "Birth Day" and "Late."]

Rape, body mutilation, hangings and various other forms of abuse. The first three episodes of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale bowed Wednesday and they were filled with several horrific components and dismal scenes from Margaret Atwood’s award-winning, speculative-fiction novel.

The three episodes, which were directed by executive producer Reed Morano, set up the fictional world of Gilead while introducing viewers to the horrors that Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss) suffered both in the past and in the present day.

The story kicked off in the past, as June attempted to flee Massachusetts with her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) and husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) before the incoming regime caught her and separated the family (supposedly killing Luke along the way). Subsequent episodes used flashbacks to fill in the blanks of how the family got to that point, as laws disallowing women to work or have money came into effect and peaceful protests turned deadly.

In the present day, Offred came to the Waterford household under Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and The Commander’s (Joseph Fiennes) watchful eyes, where she participated in procreation ceremonies (effectively state-sanctioned rape), got to know shopping partner/resistance member Ofglen/Emily (Alexis Bledel), learned her former best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) died and participated in a heart-breaking birth scene with Ofwarren/Janine (Madeline Brewer).

By the end of the third episode, Hulu's straight-to-series drama revealed one of its biggest changes from Atwood's beloved book as new scenes featured Ofglen, her capture and her lover’s horrific death.

To dig into the show’s heavy themes, departures from Atwood’s novel and learn about crafting these new scenes, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with showrunner Bruce Miller. Below, Miller opens up about the “Bury Your Gays” trope, filming the infamous ceremony and how real-world events are influencing The Handmaid’s Tale.

What kind of comment on rape culture are you making with this show? The "ceremonies" are effectively state-sanctioned rape.

When the book was published it was very relevant at that time — and that was 35 years ago. There hasn’t been a time when it wasn’t super relevant. But there are two sides to the coin. The first side would say there’s nothing in the book that Margaret made up. Everything that the culture does to women in the book is something that happens somewhere in the world. Institutionalized rape. Child brides. We’ve kept that going. We had great help from people in the UN about women’s issues around the world. There’s no need for us to manufacture cruelty or misogyny or inhumane treatment of people — there are plenty of examples around the world to go from. We’re trying to stay realistic but also it keeps it from being just cruel for the sake of being cruel. It’s easy to make up cruel things. We’re not trying to do that.

How did you approach the "ceremony scenes"? 

It’s described quite well in the book. We talked about the biblical underpinnings for how someone would take this particular part of the Bible and twist it up to make it this particular physical action which was so…strange and ritualized and bizarre. It was one of the first things Reed Morano and I spoke about. You don’t want to sensationalize it, you want to make it feel real. If it doesn’t feel real, it’s not scary. You have to feel like you understand not just how Offred feels in that room [with the Commander and Serena Joy] but how everyone else feels in that room. And that’s difficult because mostly you hate the other people in the room; how do you make it so that you can hate them but still understand them?

The actors had all read the script, they had all read the book and they all had ideas about how it was going to work. There was lots of discussion, especially about how each person in the room was feeling. Eye contact, touching, about how much of their clothes should come off. All of those practicalities tied back into the idea that has to feel real. The way Serena pulls her skirt up from under Offred’s head and puts her foot over her face, or the way The Commander has to clean himself up before he zips up his pants. All of that makes it so much creepier. There was an incredible amount of attention paid to the scene because it’s very iconic in the book. We thought about the people who designed that situation and about what they were trying to do. They were trying to get Offred pregnant, they were trying to do it in a way that reflects a bible verse. So we said, “Let’s read the Bible verse and let’s find out about getting pregnant. Put those things together and let’s see what we can get out of that.”

How do the ceremony scenes change after you’ve shown one? 

We don’t do it often. It’s as much a part of our show as it is of Offred’s life. She does a lot more shopping than she does “ceremony-ing,” thank God. But every time we go back, we find something interesting and different to do in those scenes. We do see other people going through the ceremony throughout the season. I love the fact that our show is so rooted in Offred’s point of view because it makes you feel as scared as she would feel; you don’t know anything that’s going on outside the walls of the house. She doesn’t know what the weather is going to be like tomorrow and she has no way to find out. She’s so restricted. But because of that in the book you don’t ever know what anybody else’s ceremony would be like. So we expand out the point of view a little in places in order to flesh out and expand the world.

How did Ofglen’s storyline develop into what it did? They're both muzzled and cuffed in a van and then Ofglen watches as her lover is hanged to death for simply being gay.

We had lots of discussions about what happened to Ofglen. She’s in the story and she just disappears. In the book, Offred never knows if anything is true but she hears from the new Ofglen that the old one killed herself. I was interested to see what it would be like for a woman in the criminal justice system. I researched what happened when a society went from being a thriving, modern country to a theocracy overnight and what happened to women and the criminal justice system. Everywhere around the world, including the Taliban system in Afghanistan, and it’s different to read about it than to see it. It’s so strange to us to see it happen to an American or what we consider an American. Look at all the rights we have. One of the ways to recognize that is to strip them all away.

What kinds of conversations did you have about the hanging scene and doing that as a rolling shot?

In terms of the punishment and the trial, it seemed to logically flow out of the world. I had seen images from Iran, of people hanging from cranes with various descriptions of how that had happened. Reed and I spoke with Alexis and it was difficult to do that shot of the hanging. Pretty much all of it is one shot, from the time she leaves the courtroom to the time they hang her lover outside the window. It was written to be one shot and Reed is an amazing filmmaker and really embraced it. Alexis doesn’t speak that whole episode; she doesn’t have a single line. That made it more effective, especially in that scene where they couldn’t talk to each other. It was all a big collaboration.

Immediately after the hanging, Ofglen has her clitoris surgically removed as punishment for being gay. Why was it important to feature this scene?

In order to make these stories work, you put yourself in the headspace of who you think the villain is and make them a hero. If I was the government of Gilead and I didn’t want to get rid of this woman who is fertile, how would I “help” her? What happened to Ofglen/Emily, happens all around the world every day. It happens often for exactly the same reasons it happened to Emily, which was to reduce her sexual desire so she isn’t driven by that. It just doesn’t often happen to American girls who look like Alexis. It’s not graphic at all — we don’t show anything. It’s all implied, we don’t even really say anything. I was trying to take something that Margaret did — she didn’t make up anything in the book, everything happened somewhere — we wanted to take that and continue that very strong decision moving forward. It was a hard decision and a big discussion. We all had trepidation about doing it because it’s incredibly harsh and brutal. But all the reasons you’re afraid of doing it are why you should do it.

Are you looking to reframe the Bury Your Gays trope with this series, especially as you're coming from a show like The 100?

I’m a straight man, and when you’re not part of a group you don’t necessarily see how that group is treated on television. I read about that trope; I left The 100 before that happened but I saw that and I was surprised. Looking back, it makes complete sense. On this show, “kill your anything” is probably up for grabs. My decision about making characters straight or gay really is much more dependent on the way that people in my life are. I don’t try to think that much beyond that. I wasn’t thinking of the sexual orientation of people as the first thing you find out about them; their identity is their identity in full. It’s like June being in an interracial relationship; that doesn’t even cross your mind. That’s just who they are. I tried to create characters and then have them be in a position to have logical fates for those characters. Gilead and The Handmaid’s Tale operates outside those rules because in that world, homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. So the "kill your gays" policy is institutional in the series. You’re operating on a different lane than that conversation. But now that it’s been in the discussion, I think about it more and I certainly think about the “gay best friend” and all these people who populate the TV world. I try not to fall into the trap of television reality by examining histories and relationships. Like how did Moira (Samira Wiley) and June meet? Let’s not glue them together, let’s make it actually seem like they would be friends.

Why was Ofglen named Emily? Is there significance to Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) — one of the "moral compasses" in this world — using her name in that final scene?

She wasn’t Ofglen anymore. We had a bit of a naming problem. Try writing a story where everybody’s name changes every time they get assigned to a new house, it’s insane! We were addressing that problem with Aunt Lydia. In terms of naming her Emily, for me it was after Emily Bronte. I liked the name and I’ve always liked how fiery Emily Bronte was. But mostly we name characters by looking through our high school yearbooks. Putting more into names is often a fool’s errand for writers in television.

Mutilation in general isn’t necessarily something Atwood wrote about in the book but it’s pretty prominent so far in the series between handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer) and Emily. Why?

It’s prominent because to do it in a way that we didn’t focus on it would be a cop-out. It’s horrifying. We don’t actually show it in a graphic way and it isn’t discussed, especially going forward. But the reason it’s as prominent as it is in the show is because it’s a huge, horrible thing that happens. Everybody recognizes it as that. You see how much it affects the characters moving forward. It’s in the show because it’s big. I was trying to think logically about it the way Gilead would. If you have someone who you feel is governed by unnatural desires and you don’t want to kill them even though they’ve broken your law, what do you do to curb their unnatural desires? It happens all over the world every day. Pretty much for that reason; people don’t want their daughters to be sexualized or to have sexual desire. It happens for other reasons as well and I’m certainly no expert but we talked to the UN about it and the startling part about what we did is twofold: first of all it’s on television, second of all it’s Alexis Bledel. Not to be flippant but it’s a white girl, and that doesn’t happen often in the world. We were trying to bring it home.

New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are released each Wednesday on Hulu. What did you think of the first three episodes? Share your thoughts in the comments below and bookmark THR.com/HandmaidsTale for full coverage.

Twitter: @amber_dowling