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Despite airing its most recent episode in August 2019, the Emmy-winning adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic is still barreling forward behind the scenes: not only is a fourth season currently in production, a fifth season was officially announced during Disney Investor Day 2020. What the future of the Elisabeth Moss-starring drama looks like beyond that point remains enigmatic — though series creator Bruce Miller, who is attached to the sequel series The Testaments, is thinking about that question now more than ever.
“I know where I am in the story, and I do feel like we’re kind of reaching kind of a pivot point, but whether that’s the end or not, I don’t know,” Miller tells The Hollywood Reporter in an exclusive first interview about the season five renewal. “It just feels like it’s a good time to reassess what you were thinking, just because the story world has opened up because the real world has changed so much.”
Indeed, while viewers shouldn’t expect a COVID-19 storyline in season four (though Miller is quick to point out that a plague is part of the series’ backstory; count it as another way in which Handmaid’s eerily intersects with our modern moment), the global pandemic has had a significant impact on production. Shooting on season four was underway early in 2020 before productions were halted due to the coronavirus. Production has since resumed, with miles still to go.
“We’re still shooting, kind of in the middle of the season,” says Miller. “We planned out the whole season, started filming, and then had to stop … everything from locations, to number of people in scenes, to traveling actors, all that stuff had a huge impact on our story, just because it has to, and honestly, we’re in a situation where we have to make do with what we can get our hands on. In the end, it was surmountable, and I think we’re making an excellent show, and I’m really proud of what we’re doing, but it was hard, and it continues to be hard.”
Miller emphasizes his pride about the fourth season, from both the narrative and production challenge standpoints. Ahead, he illuminates what’s in store for season four, what the future of Handmaid’s looks like beyond that point, Moss’ turn as a director on three episodes this season (she helms 403, 408 and 409) and more.
Throughout its run, The Handmaid’s Tale has been in conversation with our political moment. How is that felt in season four?
I feel like the biggest thing I think is a lot of season four is about freedom, and also about snapping back and how quickly things will go back to normal in a lot of different ways. And I think that’s what the country is going through. I think the country feels like things are so up in the air, they’re waiting for them to “go back to normal.” And part of the lesson of the show is they never do. Whatever trauma you’ve gone through in that episode, you settle into a post-trauma world. It doesn’t go away. You don’t go back to normal, and June’s been coming to terms with that for a long time. At the beginning, she just wanted her life back exactly the way it was. Now so much has changed. So I think that’s the American story right now, is people are wondering what’s going to go back to “normal” and what’s going to be new, and how is it going to be new? And I think that is what I’m looking at. In addition to just kind of the big story of the season is kind of June being free for season four. What does she do when she has a little bit of agency?
How drastically different is the June story this year than in years past, speaking of having more agency?
It couldn’t be more different. The biggest thing I would tell you is, don’t try to guess at all, because it really is one of those seasons. June is going into a very interesting world, she’s on the run, she’s got women with her who she feels responsible for. She’s also bleeding to death, basically, at the end of season [three]. June has a taste of freedom now, and we’re going to follow her. So I think it’s entirely different than other seasons, just because it doesn’t take place at the beginning with June, or anybody else under the thumb of Gilead. They’re all out and about, and it starts out with June having done this big thing that almost got her killed. What do you do after that? Do you do another big thing? This one almost got you killed.
Meanwhile, two characters used to having so much freedom, Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), are suddenly without it, at least last we saw them under arrest in Canada. What does that look like this year?
It’s been spectacular to explore with those actors, with Joseph and with Yvonne, and that marriage, a marriage where they made so many compromises to a bigger idea, and now they’re kind of left with the consequences of that, and the wreckage of all the lies they’ve told each other. I think there’s a certain deliciousness in watching that. For myself, I think they deserve it, but it is very interesting that they are totally reaping what they sowed.
For people who feel like members of the government who have broken the law and are getting away scot-free, I think this satisfies that fantasy as well, because it’s not about revenge, and it isn’t even about prosecution. It’s about finding out what happened, finding out the truth, getting people to admit that certain things occurred. What happens after that is another question, and they deal a lot with that. After every big thing that happens in the world, that’s a big tragedy, or genocide, or some sort of horrible thing, and this is just another one. Margaret’s given us a way to look at it and look at the aftermath through the eyes of two people, two really interesting people who are at the top of the food chain. It’s a small version of what happens in the world all the time, what the world is dealing with all the time: “We acted horribly; what do we do next?”
Season three ended with a huge international incident, with June liberating the children of Gilead. How does that impact season four?
The pot is boiling. You can imagine this probably would start a war. It’s 86 children, but at a time where the birth rate is so much smaller, it might as well be 86,000 children being being taken from a country. And I think that has been very juicy, the international elements of the show. In some ways you forget, or I forget, because the show is so personal and so much about June, that it’s a show about refugees, and it’s a show about international relations. Everybody who’s in Canada on our show is a refugee. That’s what they’re living, the refugee life. And refugees have been very much in the news in the last five, 10 years, and that’s the journey you’re seeing: what happens after you cross the border? For Emily (Alexis Bledel), Moira (Samira Wiley) and now for Rita (Amanda Brugel), these people are living with the question of how much Gilead did they bring with them to Canada. That’s what Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) said: “Gilead is within you.” Which means you carry it around.
What can you say about new characters we’ll meet in season four?
McKenna Grace plays a young “wife,” in the Gilead tradition. She’s so spectacular in the show. I’ve just been watching the first few episodes because I’m finally doing some editing, and she’s just wonderful. Watching her and Lizzie together, it’s great. June comes in contact with a lot of different people in the season, a lot more than usual, I would say. We have a few [other] people coming in: Zawe Ashton is going to play Moira’s girlfriend and an aid worker in Toronto. Reed Birney plays someone [from the world of] Gilead, who’s unexpectedly not Reed Birney-ish, but it’s been great to be able to build, and over episodes to build characters. Because June is moving through a new world, at least at the beginning she’s out and about. And who do you interact with, and who do you trust? So the guest players have been so important this season, and they’ve been for the first few episodes, so good. And honestly, they’ve had to travel extra distances, they had to stay in hotel rooms for two weeks. It’s not been easy, and they’re absolutely putting their A-plus work in, even though I know how difficult it has been for them to get there.
Elisabeth Moss is slated to direct three episodes this season …
She’s done extraordinary work, and it was a pleasure and a perfect match. This season’s been strange in so many ways, but it’s been great to be able to give Lizzie that chance, and also to have it happen in such a family atmosphere. I mean, I know the show seems like all the characters despise each other, but all the actors like each other. (Laughs.) For Lizzie to be able to work with that type of group, and her episodes are fantastic. This is not going to be the last time she directs.
Season five has been announced. Is this the final season? Are we entering Handmaid’s endgame territory?
I have to say I would have had very different ideas before the pandemic. I mean, we talked about it, and Lizzie and I have talked about it, and the writing staff and I have talked about it extensively about where we’re going precisely, but I do feel like after this year, it’s a good time to reassess. So I know where I am in the story, and I do feel like we’re kind of reaching kind of a pivot point, but whether that’s the end or not, I don’t know. It just feels like it’s a good time to reassess what you were thinking, just because the story world has opened up because the real world has changed so much.
What’s the status of The Testaments, based on Margaret Atwood’s newest novel in the Handmaid’s universe? Full-steam ahead?
We were more full-steam before COVID, and before the production difficulties of this year, but absolutely. It’s a fascinating project, and it informs what we’re doing now. I mean, you’re kind of already laying the groundwork for The Testaments [on The Handmaid’s Tale], because now I know a little bit about more in the future than I knew before. So absolutely in both, the very practical ways of seeing how it’s influencing our world on television, and in the other ways of thinking big picture, exactly how it’s going to come to life with that thrilling prospect. Both of those things are definitely both in play.
Really I do feel like we’ve had a hard time making the show in order to make the show that the audience expects, but also that we can be proud of that really does tell the stories and involve the people. I’ve had to turn my focus; the degree of difficulty went up a lot. And I think all of us really want this season to be spectacular. People have been waiting a long time. They’re bored, they’re home. They should have something good to watch.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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