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[This story contains spoilers for season two, episode nine of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “Smart Power.”]
“In space, no one can hear you scream.”
At first blush, the Alien catchphrase doesn’t have a whole lot to do with The Handmaid’s Tale. A closer look at “Smart Power,” the ninth episode of the Emmy-winning series’ second season, suggests otherwise. The Waterford family doesn’t blast off into outer space in the episode, but they visit another world all the same: Canada, a fully free and civilized nation, certainly compared to the dictatorial Gilead.
As Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and Fred (Joseph Fiennes) leave their home behind for a business trip up north, there’s a palpable sense of aliens arriving on Earth — a feeling that’s very much by design, according to the episode’s director, Jeremy Podeswa. Below, the Game of Thrones veteran opens up about creating “Smart Power,” the reasons why Handmaid’s Tale is such a unique experience as a director and more.
What were your expectations as you prepared to direct The Handmaid’s Tale, and what were you surprised by?
My expectations going in were the expectations of a fan who is going in to direct his favorite show on television. I wasn’t involved in the first season, but I watched it, and I was really blown away by the mastery of it. I just thought they did such a beautiful adaptation. It was so beautifully executed, the performances are unbelievable, [Elisabeth Moss] has given, I think, an unparalleled performance in the show, and everybody’s great in it, but it’s a really unique thing within the television landscape. I’ve never really seen anything like it, and it’s, of course, incredibly timely and moving and powerful and all that stuff — but from a directing point of view, it’s incredibly compelling.
The surprise for me going into the show was that watching the show and directing the show were two very different things. And watching the show I could just admire it for its incredible qualities, and then directing the show, I was sort of confronted by what is the DNA of this show? And I realized that my natural instincts on how to shoot something, almost anything else, were almost always not the right instinct for this show. This show has an incredibly particular language. I’m not sure even people watching the show regularly are so aware of it, but it’s very interior, it’s very point of view, it’s very subjective, it’s very poetic, even in its simplest details. Everything about this show is about eliciting an emotion, about kind of centering it through a very particular point of view.
When you’re directing the show, you have to look at every scene and really think through what this scene is really about, because everything’s a layer. What is it about on a really much deeper level than it seems to be on the surface? Who are we really seeing in this scene, through whose eyes are we really experiencing this scene, and what is the most unexpected and poetic way that you can detail all the many layers of what’s transpiring within the scene? And it’s really not an obvious thing. There are many sorts of conventional rules of shooting, which the show doesn’t abide by, and it’s really about finding an artistic way of conveying an emotional quality. So, it’s hard to explain really unless you’re actually on the floor doing it, but I think in my own way, it took me a couple of days to find my way through that, and figure out what is the one way to shoot this show, because you can’t approach this in a generic way at all. There’s not, like, a hundred ways of shooting a scene. It almost feels like there’s only one way to shoot it, and you have to find it. So every scene is a bit of an exploration, but it’s a very fascinating process to go through.
This episode is very much about perspective, as Serena and Fred travel to Canada as representatives of Gilead. Seeing Gilead and civilization collide … it’s almost like first contact with an alien species.
Well, that’s exactly what it was. We really did approach it as if it were aliens in a foreign land, and for Serena it’s two things. It’s the road not taken. It’s the life that she might have had if she had stayed and not become the proponent of Gilead, but it’s also, now, something that’s completely alien and foreign to her, and so it’s very important that we see Toronto through her eyes and experience it as she experiences, because I think everything to her is new, everything is a bit of a shock.
I think when you live in a kind of totalitarian government, one can almost forget what it is to be free, and what those freedoms are, and how they manifest themselves. And when she goes there, when she just arrives, and she’s in a limousine, and she sees people kissing in the street, and sees street vendors, and there’s not military presence, and there’s business women talking to each other casually, and all these things that don’t exist in Gilead. And the way she’s dressed, which is so completely foreign … that freedom is something that she hasn’t really experienced for such a long time, so for me, it was about presenting this almost alien-like view of the world that we take for granted, and that was a very interesting thing to explore.
I think Yvonne did such a fantastic job. So much is done without words. It’s just her reacting and responding to all the things that she sees around her, but we shot all those things in a very subjective way. So we’re in the car with her viewing this world and experiencing only from her point of view. We’re never outside the car and watching things from an objective point of view. It’s always from her point of view. And when we come into the hotel with her, and she sees women reading, which is not allowed in Gilead, and she sees women coming from an exercise with yoga mats, and it’s all from her point of view, that was really important to show: these very mundane things as things that are, at this point, incredibly exotic to her.
The important thing for us was that we should feel the pull of those things. That as much as she is a proponent of Gilead, these things that she’s had to give up are things that are quite compelling. And they have a kind of a draw and an appeal, and we have to believe that she might actually defect, that it could actually happen, and so it was important for us to show these things as having a kind of allure for her.
A big example of that idea is the scene in which Serena meets Mark the American at the bar, with this almost cowboy quality that must be extremely foreign to Serena at this point in her life.
There’s that, and there’s the fact that he flirts with her, which is something that would never happen in Gilead, and she takes real pleasure in those kind of casual male/female dynamic, that interplay, which is another thing that we all take for granted in this culture: that people can be turned on by each other, and there’s a sexiness about things if we choose to be involved in that. And I think for her, that’s a little sparky thing that may be some part of her that she forgot even existed at this point.
It’s surreal to see Serena order a glass of wine at a bar, in the same way it’s surreal to see her and Fred in a position of powerlessness as protestors mob their car on their way to the plane near the end of the episode. Do those fact-of-the-matter moments do a lot of the emotional work for you, simply through what they are representing?
Yeah. I mean, I knew going in and reading a script that those were going to be really rich moments, because they’re so unfamiliar to the audience of the show. I think anytime you have a fish-out-of-water narrative throughlines, it’s very, very compelling. I knew that what was fascinating about this episode is that it’s a world we haven’t really seen, and seeing these people in this world creates a kind of tension that’s really powerful. But for me, the key thing always was to center it around Serena. There is the humiliation of Waterford as well, but it’s really about her, and about the things that are being offered to her, and then eventually, her humiliation as well, because we have to believe in the course of this episode that she might actually defect. Mark offers her a way out, and we know that there are things in Gilead that are constraining for her. The choice is not an easy one.
Even when everything turns on the Waterfords, for me, it was very much about how it turns for Serena, because once she’s made that choice that she’s gonna go back with Fred, now she has to live with the consequences, and these are the consequences. She’s in this very sheltered kind of environment, but when she’s out of that world, out of that protected environment, and she sees how much they’re vilified, and the way others perceive what they’re doing in their society, then it really hits her, because now she’s made for the second time in her life a choice to take on that life, and that’s not without repercussions for her or without doubt. For me, it was very important that all of that was about her living with the consequences of her decision.
In Serena’s final scene, you’re left wondering if she’s going to burn Mark’s matchbook, which follows with your idea about wondering if she’s going to leave or stay. Can you talk about building out that tension?
That was a really interesting moment with Yvonne, because we really talked about it a lot: What she was going to do, and what that moment meant. So it could have been played many different ways. From a writing point of view, she could have kept it, but I think that was important for [showrunner and creator Bruce Miller] that she didn’t keep it, but she’s making a firm decision not to take up this offer, and not even keep the trapdoor possibility in the background. She’s letting that go, and then the question was with Yvonne, once that’s the case, does she lob it into the fireplace regretfully, does she throw it into the fireplace angrily … what is that moment? We see that there’s a huge amount of conflict and tension in her in doing that, but I think the decision was that she has to make an attempt to embrace her current reality and not give herself a way out, or not allow herself to regret in a way that she might otherwise.
The episode features a number of payoffs and unexpected character interactions, such as Luke encountering Waterford for the first time. There’s also the scene with Luke and Nick, as they meet in the bar. Who did you see as the main perspective in that scene?
I think it’s really more Luke’s story in a way. How this impacts him is really, I think, the bigger deal. Nick knows everything. He just has never met Luke before, but he’s aware of his existence, and he withholds information about his relationship with Offred, so he kind of holds all the cards in that situation in a way. But the character that has the most to gain or lose in a way is Luke, and he’s the one who’s kind of the most in the dark, because he doesn’t really know what Nick’s relationship is with Offred, and he’s had no news from her at all except for this, which he seizes on.
I think, for him, trying to piece together what’s actually happening, who is this guy, why is the guy who works with Waterford talking to me, all of that kind of having to figure things out, and who’s more off balance, and who has more to learn and gain and lose is really Luke in this situation. Nick can just come and go and walk away from that, and he knows what he’s doing, he knows what he’s withholding, and he’s not in as precarious of position in a way.
The only thing that’s precarious for Nick is that he’s trying to get a tighter handle on how much of a pull Luke might have for Offred, because he loves her. And to see who his rival is really, that’s a kind of a big thing for him. I don’t know. That’s my case for it, but I think you could make an argument that it goes the other way, too.
In the final scene, Offred receives the news about Luke and that Moira made it to Little America in Toronto. It’s the rare, hopeful Offred scene in The Handmaid’s Tale. How was that experience for you?
It was fantastic, because as soon as I read it, there’s such an interesting symmetry between the first scene and the last scene of the show, which are both up in her attic, and the first scene is really about her looking at the room that she’s in, feeling trapped, and having the sense that really she has no hope. She’s in these four walls, she will never get out of there, and then she’s having this baby, and she doesn’t know what’s gonna happen with the baby, and it doesn’t look very good for her.
At then end, she’s in the same room, but it’s a completely different scenario. Now, suddenly there’s hope. Moira got out. That’s a huge deal. She knows where Luke is. Suddenly there’s this sense of possibility, which she had really never even allowed herself to believe before, and so it was really important that we shot the opening scene in a very composed, very aesthetic, bold composition, very strong, but she’s kinda trapped within the architecture of the space that we have her framing through the window, the interior window. So she’s trapped in a corner of the frame, or she’s out of focus. There are things where you just feel like she’s in this box that she can never get out of, and then we really, very specifically, wanted to shoot the last scene in a completely different way.
The scene is handheld, and we do jump cuts, and when Nick leaves, she paces around the room as if the walls can’t contain her anymore. And that’s the whole idea that if she could, she would plow right through those walls and be out of there. That sense of restlessness and hope and optimism, which she hasn’t had for a long, long time is back, and that’s a really important place to start with her in the next episode — where things go very wrong. But I think her trajectory within this episode is a really powerful one.
Speaking of the next episode, which you directed, what can you say about what’s coming up, and how your experiences differed across these two outings?
Well, it’s a very different episode, because we start with Offred in a place of feeling that she has some agency in her own life, that she might actually be able to change her circumstances somehow. We don’t really know how. She doesn’t really know how, but she’s feeling fairly confident, and also, being pregnant in this world gives her a certain amount of power, because they can’t do anything to her while she’s pregnant. And so, at the top of the episode, she is kinda feeling that power, and it makes her a little bit cheeky, and what ends up happening with her through the course of the episode is that she realizes that this was a completely false illusion that she was living under, and that in the end, things are even much, much worse than she ever thought they were. In her lowest moments, she never thought it could get this bad, but it gets that bad, and without giving it entirely away, it’s a kind of devastating two punches in the gut type of episode for her and for the audience, because it leaves her incredibly bereft at the end, and it’s an incredibly emotional ride for her. So the shows are very, very different in terms of her arc. It comes as quite a shock: a very powerful shock.
What did you think of the latest Handmaid’s Tale episode? Sound off in the comments below and keep checking THR.com/HandmaidsTale for more coverage.
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