[This story contains major spoilers from the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s fourth season.]
Bringing The Handmaid’s Tale back in the COVID-19 era was no easy feat. Describing the impact that the pandemic had on season four (which returned on Hulu with the first three of 10 episodes) as “quite huge,” Bruce Miller tells The Hollywood Reporter that significant changes had to be made during the show’s six-month production shutdown. But, pandemic or not, the showrunner of the Elisabeth Moss starrer says that big things were always going to happen in the story of June Osbourne for season four. “We had to make enormous changes to the scripts to be able to tell the same story with an entirely different basket of resources,” he says.
Behind the scenes, returning to set meant filming with fewer extras and a smaller crew, and quarantining the massive ensemble in Canada, where The Handmaid’s Tale shoots. “People did the impossible,” he notes. “They came back and literally sat in a hotel room for two weeks, worked for an hour and then would go fly away.” Miller was also virtually running the set. He was physically present for only one day of Moss’ directorial debut for the third episode, “The Crossing.” (Moss directed three episodes this season.) “It was her first time directing. She starts shooting it, then we take a break for four months,” he says of the shutdown delay, “and then she goes back with a completely different budget, schedule, lots of changes to the script and continues shooting. From the time she started shooting, except for that one day, I didn’t see her face-to-face.”
But for viewers who have binged through “The Crossing,” that behind-the-scenes journey pales in comparison to what Moss’ starring character, June, is facing in her post-Gilead world. The fourth season of the dystopian drama settles in with June — who survived the cliffhanger season three finale that aired in 2019 — and her fellow Handmaids, now fugitives on the run after orchestrating the escape of dozens of Gilead children to Canada. The first three episodes are a rollercoaster, as June enjoys a brief taste of freedom as a newfound rebel leader, while seeking shelter in the home of Mrs. Keyes (played by newcomer Mckenna Grace), before being recaptured and brutally tortured for refusing to give up the location of her still at-large Handmaids.
Pleas from Nick (Max Minghella) and Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) fall on deaf ears, as June suffers through physical and psychological abuse, including waterboarding, while Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) looks on in the Moss-directed episode. It’s only a reunion with her long-estranged daughter, Hannah — who not only doesn’t recognize her own mother, but is terrified of her — that prompts June to give up the location of her Handmaids, which leads to all of the women being returned to Gilead. But when an opportunity presents itself during their transfer to the dreaded Colonies, the six Handmaids make a run for it. In a shocking ending to “The Crossing,” however, two of the Handmaids are shot dead and two others — Alma (Nina Kiri) and Briana (Bahia Watson) — are fatally hit by a train. Only June and Janine (Madeline Brewer) cross the tracks safely and continue to run for their lives.
In the chat below, Miller explains how the tragic fates will play into the larger journey ahead for June — which he says will be a “cathartic experience” for viewers — and discusses the brief bombshell that was dropped: Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) is pregnant. “The reason why this is a season where lots of stuff happens is because June makes active decisions,” he warns. “She makes them happen, but there’s a huge cost.”
You said this season that you set out to deliver payoffs for viewers: “It was time for shit to happen.” How much of that was always the plan and how much was impacted by the pandemic?
I definitely made the decisions about “paying things off” before the pandemic began. But, as with most seasons, it’s much more about following June’s story than planning what the audience experience is going to be like. The way the show works for me is very logically: What would happen next? And then trying to dramatize that, as opposed to trying to put June into dramatic positions. And my sense was that this [season four] story led this way. I hope that I deliver a really cathartic experience to the audience, and I’m aiming to. But, storywise, you just follow June and then you try to make a cathartic version out of that. June led us here.
How would you describe the changes you made during the Hollywood-wide production shutdown?
Some of them were quite huge. All of them were prompted by COVID; none of them were prompted by a psychological revisiting of scripts based on new ideas. We stuck as much as we could to the original plan. Most of our changes were for safety reasons; smaller groups of extras, smaller crew. All of that stuff. And also, the hours that we shot.
At the time of the shutdown, there were conversations among showrunners about how to approach COVID-era storytelling: Will shows lean light or dark? Will they write the pandemic in, or will they ignore it? What were your conversations like about the darkness in season four?
We think about that every season and, certainly, this season. I have a really low threshold to ookiness and torture and that kind of stuff onscreen; I try not to push it beyond the place where I wouldn’t watch it. But I am surprised by the audience, and by myself, with the viewing choices I’ve made during the pandemic. Some were very, very frivolous and no stakes; and some were seemingly very high stakes and fraught. I think it’s the perennial answer, which is that a well-made, interesting, involving tale is attractive. You can lose yourself in it and that’s the part that I’m hoping we deliver to people. I know it’s weird, but Handmaid’s Tale is escapism. It’s not escapism somewhere nice, but it is still escapism.
Ahead of the season, you spoke about how the show will speak to post-Trump-era angst. In watching the episodes, it also speaks to pandemic angst: wondering when normalcy will return, worrying about loved ones. How did that theme get more infused into your storytelling when making the show amid a global pandemic?
It certainly is written and acted more in the show. So much of our show is about the performances rather than the text. We write a story and we’re lucky enough to have Lizzy [Moss] and the cast not just breathe life into it, but also depth. The things that are influencing the show influence the actors, so that they perform a completely different episode when it gets there based on the same material. I did a ton of writing and rewriting during the pandemic and I wrote differently. My day was very different. The amount of time I could devote to certain scenes was different because I wasn’t on the set all day long. I looked at storytelling differently and that has to show up in the material. And, all of us did. The staff worked very hard writing over the break and I think it did appear in everybody’s work in different ways. I was more comfortable with long scenes of people talking, because my life was full of long scenes with me talking to people. I wasn’t as focused on keeping the pace snappy, because I was a little more languid in my life. That mood pushes its way into your writing.
How much were you on set compared to virtually on set?
I was physically on set for one day. Every other thing was virtual. I was on set for Lizzy’s first day directing, for episode three. The story of the season, especially Lizzy’s directing journey, is just amazing. It was her first time directing, ever. She starts shooting it, we take a break for four months, she goes back with a completely different budget, schedule, lots of changes to the script and continues shooting. In that entire time, from the time she started shooting except for that one day, I didn’t see her face to face. Forget that it’s Elisabeth Moss — we have a first-time director on the show and the writer-showrunner on the show, me, never meets that person. We never sit face to face to talk. We prepped, and then re-prepped a show, shot in in COVID, and then we did post and it goes on television and we still haven’t seen each other!
Not to mention, Elisabeth Moss is a first-time director who is helming her own torture scenes!
She loves that stuff! That’s acting fun! The funniest things that happened were when she was directing, especially on camera when she says, “Cut.” After being tortured, she turns to the camera and just says, “Cut,” like normal. All actors work very differently. When she’s working, she’s working. But when she’s not working, she’s very much herself and that switch goes on and off quickly. Yvonne [Strahovski] is very much the same way. They don’t walk around in character. So the outtakes that you get before and after the shot are hilarious because the contrast is so great. Mood-wise, our set is very happy and relaxed, I hope, and nurturing and not stressful. And then they have to be so fraught, getting waterboarded.
This first batch of episodes do end quite fraught … with several Handmaids meeting tragic fates.
All of those people are lovely and terrific actors, and hopefully will continue with flashbacks to be part of the family. Nobody is gone in Handmaid’s.
Those deaths come on the heels of two Marthas also meeting their end, Beth (Kristen Gutoskie) and Sienna (Sugenja Sri). Do you see them, too, being revisited in flashbacks?
I would definitely envision that if possible. They are still great members of the family and playing those roles is hard. You have to do a lot with your face because you aren’t allowed to say very much. You say, “Yes, sir,” when all you mean is, “Fuck you.” Those roles are very difficult and they really did a lot of work last year to make that story work. As sad and terrible as that was, I was glad to bring them back so centrally into June’s story because she had such a close connection with them. Because they’re so strong. Look at them — they don’t beg, they don’t break down. They are just tough as fucking nails. It’s so impressive.
Why were all of these deaths necessary in moving forward June’s story?
I look at it from the flip side. I’m thinking about what would happen. They’re in a terrible place; a place where nobody gets out. Nobody gets out. It’s hard to get out and this is what hard looks like. Hard is hard; it’s terrible. I wanted to make it realistic in terms of, what would the cost be to June? In the beginning of the season, she talks about how she wants to be a rebel and a hero. Those are nice words. But she is dealing with real human beings, making real decisions, and you have to drive that home for her. Shit happens to people because she makes these decisions. The reason why this is a season where lots of stuff happens is because she makes active decisions. She makes them happen, but there’s a huge cost.
The final scene flashes back to the original group of Handmaids, with June saying their names in voiceover (Sara, Elliie, Brianna, Elma, Janine, Moira, June). Now, only three are left. Can you talk about that tribute?
I read the book The Handmaid’s Tale a lot, still. I reread it and there are things that stay with me that I always want to use; images that are so beautiful or things we’ve touched on and want to revisit. So, this was not a hard scene to come up with. Elisabeth Moss and I worked more closely on this script because I knew she was going to direct. I wanted Lizzy to be able to shoot this scene as part of her episode and not use Reed Morano’s version of it [from season one]. This was a very, very difficult shot for us to get during COVID. It was expensive and a big commitment of us to do, but it was worth it. We had to go back to this location where the Red Center [established to house and train the Handmaids] is, which is a very particular place. All of the very practical things about COVID prompt questions like, where can we shoot? How can we get all of those people? Do we use dummies in some of the beds? All of those actors were perfectly happy to be there, but they can’t because of COVID. It was a very easy creative decision, and it was a bear. And I had a first-time director and she did a remarkable job in that beautiful scene. It’s not just a flashback for June, it’s a flashback for us as viewers.
The fourth season of a series can be an opportunity to narrow down the cast. It sounds like you were more so following June’s story, but is it appealing to be able to focus more on your main characters?
It is nice. But it’s always heartbreaking not to be able to focus on other peoples’ stories. That is my difficulty. I have such respect for all of those actors. I love them and like watching them work. But, the show is called The Handmaid’s Tale and we do focus on June. This season, because of travel and COVID, it affected our ability to be able to bring people in to do little bits. We had planned longer, more complicated stories that we actually just couldn’t do. For Moira (Samira Wiley) and for Emily (Alexis Bledel), for example, it just came down to a function of math. In terms of whittling down the ensemble, I totally see where you are coming from. I look at other shows in their third seasons, to see what happened. I’ve seen a lot of shows that don’t do well with season four. But Hulu, MGM and now Disney have been so thoughtful and generous in terms of the cast, because it’s an expensive cast and sometimes I don’t use people very much during the season. But having this ensemble of very, very good actors is one of the strongest things about the show. So, whether or not we focus here or there for a little, as long as they’re in June’s orbit and within her sight, that is going to be the show. I don’t intend to shrink it down. Sometimes it’s very practical that people go off and get other jobs and projects. My cast has been so generous and flexible and, this year especially, they have been flying around the world, quarantining and leaving families behind. In terms of their devotion to the show, to me and to each other, I’m so grateful.
You also dropped a bombshell in these first episodes. What can you say about the revelation that Serena Waterford is pregnant, after years of Serena and Fred (Joseph Fiennes) not being able to conceive? I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Fred is the father.
Well, Gilead works. They cleaned up; they did everything they could do to make fertility rise. They don’t have sterility; men are not sterile. I assume Fred had low motility and poor odds; I’d think it would be a poor chance. But my sense was that either they got lucky, or it’s just what Serena says — that the clean water, the clean living, all the organic food and all of that Gilead living actually helped a little bit. Or, maybe, the prayers worked. Who is to say that didn’t work? Somewhere along the line, they got lucky.
How will pregnancy impact Serena?
Every time she gets something she wants, it totally throws her off course. She has a baby to think about; a future to think about. It changes things. She’s not thinking about herself so much anymore.
You have previously said that June was never going to leave Hannah behind. How will the devastating reunion between mother and daughter change June?
That scene is the worst thing I can imagine as a parent. Your child looking at you and being scared of you and not recognizing you as their parent. June feels like she completely failed as a mother. And when I say things like, “June will never leave Gilead. June will never do this,” I’m talking about what June thinks. I don’t see the future! I follow June.
Interview edited for length and clarity. The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are now streaming on Hulu. New episodes release weekly on Wednesdays.