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Now in its third season, The Handmaid’s Tale is back in the Emmy race this year with 10 nominations, including for best drama series and nods for Bradley Whitford, Samira Wiley and Alexis Bledel. Season three sees Elisabeth Moss’ June continuing to build a rebellion in Gilead, seeking to save her daughter while starting an operation to transport the totalitarian society’s children to freedom in Canada. Showrunner Bruce Miller — who was forced to pause season four two weeks into filming amid the novel coronavirus shutdown, and who hopes to restart in Toronto soon — talks to The Hollywood Reporter about building a revolution, continuing to reference Margaret Atwood’s words and deciding to keep June in Gilead.
What did you want to accomplish in the third season?
The world is changing so much, there are always new things to address, things that are coming to the fore. I think you want to continue June’s growth. That’s the basis of the show — June growing as a character — so you want to make sure you’re focused on that no matter what’s happening plotwise, that you’re really moving June ahead as a human being — not just as a character or a story, but a human being.
This season really focuses on the revolution. Why did you want to have Marthas leading that?
In some ways, so much of Gilead is about invisibility — the invisibility of women in certain roles — and Marthas are really in a situation where they’re completely invisible. June’s using that invisibility, she’s using all the other women in the world, she sees them for what they are and not what their roles are. The first season she was really recognizing that handmaids are smart, capable people with feelings, that all of them had the potential for rebellion. Now she’s expanding that world into other groups of women, and it takes the whole season to get them to trust her even a little. I love that about it, that she taps in and there’s this whole underground network that doesn’t want to have anything to do with her. It’s like you finally find the rebels and they’re like, “Yeah, thanks so much, don’t call us again.”
Some viewers have been frustrated with June for staying in Gilead. What’s the importance of keeping her there?
I’m frustrated, too, and I think June is frustrated as well — you get in a lot of those situations and all you want to do is push yourself forward in one direction. The thing that I like with June is that it’s much more unfinished business than wanting to stay. She had unfinished business in Gilead and part of that was satisfied by getting all those kids out. When we had the discussion about whether she would leave and leave Hannah behind, it was so interesting because both sides were absolutely flabbergasted anybody could be on the other side. It’s almost a 50-50 proposition, both of them make sense, but I just thought I wouldn’t be able to go because I would imagine myself going through the rest of my life feeling terrible. At least it’s a known quantity in Gilead, that’s what June is dealing with — it’s terrible, but at least she has a chance. At this point, she feels like, “If I get out and I haven’t gotten my daughter out, I don’t know that I would be able to survive 24 hours, I would just feel so guilty and sick.” As it gets further along, and she’s sacrificed more to stay, and more and more and more stuff has happened, it’s harder and harder for her to justify. And I think the audience is feeling the same thing. The opportunity for June to get out of Gilead does not come along that often. It’s literally only come along once [before] in the whole thing, and now it’s come along at the end of season three. It’s a lot of wondering what you would do when the situation presents itself, and then the situation presents itself at very unpredictable times and you don’t have any time to think it through.
Now that you’re two seasons past where the book left off, how much do you still consult Margaret Atwood’s original material?
We do go back to the book a lot. I think season three and season four are just as loyal to the story of the book as any of the other seasons. The book takes place over 200 years — the main bulk of it takes place over a short period of time, but the book talks about Gilead as it changed over a long period of time. It’s a car that Margaret Atwood built and we’re driving, it’s not our car. It all comes from Margaret: She built the car, she built the road, she went out and got the gasoline. Even as we move further and further away from the beginnings of that story, I always feel like we’re just continuing that story, and I hope we feel like we’re moving that story forward in a way that you feel like, “Wow, the book could have gotten there, that would have been interesting.”
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are …
One very big advantage in The Handmaid’s Tale‘s corner is that it’s the only competing drama nominee to have ever won the top prize. It scored the honor in 2017, while the once unstoppable Game of Thrones was briefly out of the running. Working against the Hulu flagship is the fact that it historically received a huge exposure boost by airing just before (and during) the Emmy voting period. Its third season wrapped almost a year ago, and season four has been delayed (like most everything) by the pandemic. Reclaiming the top drama title is certainly possible, but less than likely with Succession and Ozark in the race — especially with star Elisabeth Moss snubbed in the lead actress field. — MICHAEL O’CONNELL
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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