8:30am PT by Amber Dowling
'The Handmaid's Tale' Boss on Opening Up the World of Gilead
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the sixth episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, "A Woman’s Place."]
Gilead just became a much smaller place … at least in the context of the larger world. The sixth episode of The Handmaid's Tale, "A Woman’s Place," took a huge departure from Margaret Atwood's story to explore what some of the rest of the world looked like in the aftermath of Gilead's rise.
To showcase those differences, Mexican trade delegates including a female ambassador (Zabryna Guevara) and her assistant (Christian Barillas) came to the Waterford household, where they interviewed The Commander (Joseph Fiennes), Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and Offred (Elisabeth Moss). At stake? A new trade deal that could involve bringing handmaids to Mexico to help them with their skyrocketing infertility issues.
Meanwhile in the flashback scenes, viewers learned about Serena Joy's participation in the creation of this world, and what her relationship with her husband looked like before her ideals blew up in her face. (Read THR's interview with Strahovski about the episode here.)
To break down the episode and discuss the real-life inspirations behind the storyline twist, THR caught up with showrunner Bruce Miller. Here he discusses the trade issues, the ongoing treatment of these handmaids, and the episode's huge cliffhanger twist.
Was it important to make the Mexican trade delegate female?
It wasn't a focus of the show, it just seemed to make the episode more interesting if she was female. It kind of gave you a sense that the rest of the world was still more like our world, that Gilead had changed and the rest of the world hadn't changed entirely. It gave a sense of a world we could relate to outside the borders of Gilead.
At the end of the episode, it becomes clear the delegate knows these women aren't volunteering to be handmaids. Why does she ignore that?
Fear. Real, existential fear of your country vanishing off the face of the earth. It certainly is very hard for her … I mean I wouldn't try to join in with the handmaid system, especially knowing what it is, but when you're in charge of a big country and that big country is having lots of trouble, you start to get desperate. Certainly we weren't trying to defend anything, but we wanted to show what that desperation leads you to.
Why put on the show of pretending to interview Offred and Serena?
We did a lot of research and talked to the [United Nations] about how countries that become pariah nations are slowly pulled back and re-enter the community of nations in the world through trade and diplomacy. There is kind of a regal, public show that goes on that you have to send someone to kind of clear the nation and to explore and say, are they following the human rights laws? Are they following the laws that we have in our country against trading with other pariah nations that don't support and respect human rights? And all those things. So this show is as much for Mexico to feel comfortable and legal with their decision so that the ambassador can say, “Yes, yes they're doing all the things we need them to do in order to open up trade,” even if it's just a bit of a Kabuki dance. It needs to be crossed off the list.
What is the advantage of trading handmaids as opposed to implementing their own system?
First, the idea that the system — as cruel as it is in Gilead and as often is the case with cruel and very extreme systems — it's working to a certain extent. It's getting, at least on the outside, results. Rising birth rates. They're enslaving people, but they're getting results. In Mexico, they haven't found enough fertile women, or their biological fertility is going out so quickly, they don't feel they can implement this. When your system is like Gilead, it seems like Mexico has a much more democratic system with much more freedom, so it's hard to implement it. It's actually easier in this terrible way to import people who are already in that system. It's a combination of not enough fertile women to do it and not having the wherewithal of having the horrible confidence in your system, the political will in your country to build it.
What kinds of real-life examples did you pull from when integrating this storyline?
We definitely did a lot of research into human trafficking for lots of different reasons. Human trafficking for labor, people from southeast Asian moving all over the world for labor and often ending up being enslaved. And also human sex trafficking and all the kinds of ways people are traded around as if they were commodities. Unfortunately, there are plenty of terrible examples of this happening in the world.
What was Serena hoping for this world to look like when she first set out to create it?
Like a lot of people when they get involved in the bigger movement, everybody has a different vision of it when they're building it, and those discussions are all academic until you start actually making decisions on the ground. Once people have that power to make real decisions sometimes their worst natures come out. What she was expecting was much more, and this was the way I always saw it from the book. She had a strong partnership with her husband, and it was based in faith. It was understanding of the roles of men and women, but it was a very strong partnership and intellectual and equal in a lot of ways at home, even if she was in her mind formerly following the biblical rules of a husband and wife's relationship. I think that's what she thought it was going to be like, their partnership — built on respect and a kind of cooperation together as a couple.
What does the term "domestic feminism" mean?
It goes back to the history of feminism that I studied and grew up in in the '80s, with the idea of people taking the ideas of feminism and women's roles and starting to glue it into whatever vision they wanted of the world. Kind of hijacking the word and the ideals behind feminism. For me, it just meant trying to understand a way that she could both support women's value in society but still support a vision that that value was mostly best used at home, which was an easier argument to make when fertility was falling so quickly that everybody was terrified. It was just something to take the political movement and bend it to what she saw as a more spiritual place for women to exist.
What was the importance of Serena making that welcoming speech at the dinner?
I don't know that she was supposed to give that much of a speech. Firstly, the optics were good for the visitors, having her at least make a welcome to something like this. It is the kind of picture of women’s roles in society that Gilead is trying to place — not a political but a social role. Of course Serena Joy, knowing there's a political problem to be solved, takes advantage of that. It wasn't anyone's intention for her to make such a huge political argument. She saw the opportunity that existed not just for the moment on the floor but with her role as a woman in that society, how important it was for her to make that, how she kind of had a huge opportunity. Also she's very, very good at it. But certainly people look at her a little with a stink eye when she gets up to talk.
How did you come to The Commander's reaction of being turned on by that act of defiance, rather than be angered by it?
It was a complicated moment, and I could see a lot of reactions working in putting myself in Fred's place. But what he feels is the same respect. ... He's just so impressed with her the same way he used to be, it's an old feeling that was kind of a basis of their attraction and a basis of their relationship. So his response is to see a partner that he misses; that was very much their relationship before and it is not their relationship now. He misses that dynamic just like she does.
How does their reconciliation change them and Offred going forward?
That is a huge question and that's the question that we're trying to introduce in [episode] six, which is that every relationship that changes in this house affects Offred. It can affect her safety, it can be life or death. So how does The Commander and his wife kind of finding a moment of connection and intimacy change that role, change that relationship and change her role in the house and how is she going to deal with it are the questions moving forward. That's the great thing about the show: Any butterfly in the house that flaps its wings changes the weather and certainly how Offred has to deal with things. The dynamic has changed in a way that we don't understand and Offred doesn't understand yet, and that can be super dangerous.
Can you break down the order The Commander gives for Offred to kiss him?
It's a scene from the book that's always struck me as complicated on so many levels. Even writing it, we had lots of discussions about what exactly is the intent in every moment, and we went through the scene very carefully in the book. My sense is that he's had a situation where he's failed as far as he can see in terms of his diplomatic job and so he's looking for something that will boost his ego, something that he can control. So that is on the most basic level for me where it's coming from, is that he's looking for something that he can make happen just by his will to make him feel better about himself as a man. He's had a failure and felt impotent in his role as a Gilead official. It's certainly frustrating and it's a hard problem to solve, so he's looking for something that he can control. It's why people come home and kick the dog after they had a bad day at work. It'’s a terrible, terrible thing but that's how he's treating it.
Serena ordered all the damaged handmaids out of the ball and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) defended them: Who is the bigger evil?
I looked at it as what would Lydia do in that situation. I think she loves her girls and she's very proud and highly protective of them. Lydia is doing her duty in the way that she thinks will best serve both the problem that she's been presented (the nation needs babies) but also she's doing it in the way that she thinks brings the best chance of success. She's putting these young women into a terrible situation where it's only going to cause rancor, and she wants to prepare them. She looks at what she does to a certain degree as her vision of kindness and her vision of duty. It might make Serena Joy look bad, but that's certainly not Lydia's intent. Lydia's intent is to show how she genuinely feels about these girls. Serena Joy isn't saying that the girls are bad or good, she's just talking about the way it looks. In this particular case, Lydia is thinking much more about their feelings and how hard they've worked and how hard it is for them to hold their sanity together in this difficult situation. And Serena Joy needs them to look a certain way because we're selling the program. Also, you can't ignore the fact that Aunt Lydia kisses Janine on an eye that she took out.
At the end of the episode, it's revealed Luke (O-T Fagbenle) is alive. What kind of risk is Offred taking in writing anything down for him?
At that point everything is a huge risk, she's taken such a huge risk talking to the ambassador and taking a piece of paper. That's what's so great about this show and world; small actions become huge acts of bravery. In that situation you're measuring it against the huge risk the other person is taking. She's making so many calculations in her head all the time in terms of risk versus reward and, as I like to say, surviving versus living. What will help you survive and what will help you live. I don't know where this would rank in terms of the big chances she takes, that it's really a big chance. On the other hand, it's someone who is also taking a risk and she is doing it in the relative safety of a very few seconds that she has. But it's a risk anybody would take given her character and backstory and what we know of her complete disconnection from her entire family. Just the idea that you can send out a flare to your husband and let him know that you're alive and still care about him was worth any risk.
The Handmaid's Tale episodes are released Wednesdays on Hulu. Bookmark THR.com/HandmaidsTale for full coverage. Thoughts? Sound off in the comments below.