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Though Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian alternate reality, the story has never felt more relevant. The echoes in Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s best-selling 1985 novel might be disconcerting to viewers in 2017, and that discomfort was always the intent.
With only five episodes released — the series premiered with its first three episodes April 26 and now releases one a week on Wednesdays — Handmaid’s Tale has already become a critical favorite and scored an early second season renewal from the streamer. With so much to unpack from the first few episodes, stars Elisabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel and executive producer Reed Morano looked back at the creation of the series, digested how the show is playing in President Donald Trump’s America and teased what to expect from the sophomore season during The Hollywood Reporter‘s TV Talks panel discussion with senior film reporter Tatiana Siegel on Wednesday night.
“The story has always been timely,” explained Morano, who directed the first three episodes. “Everything in the book has happened or is happening somewhere in the world right now, and that’s how it was when Margaret [Atwood] wrote it.”
The story, told through the eyes of handmaid Offred (Moss) takes place in a modern-day but alternate world where a plague of infertility has birthed a totalitarian society that forces fertile women — the “handmaids” — to procreate for affluent, barren families. “If three years ago everything went south, that would be now in Handmaid’s — so, three years from now,” joked Morano of the current climate.
Through the eyes of Offred, Offglen (Bledel) and their fellow handmaids — the women are renamed when assigned to a family — viewers have seen Handmaid’s Tale tackle topics of institutionalized rape, body mutilation, hangings and various other forms of abuse. But none of the harrowing events are manufactured. Speaking at the 92nd Street Y in New York after a screening of the fifth episode, Morano reiterated to the packed audience what showrunner Bruce Miller had explained to THR after Bledel’s character was sentenced to “rehabilitation” and had her clitoris surgically removed for being gay: This horrific treatment occurs today, as it did 30 years ago when Atwood wrote it, in other parts of the world.
The first five episodes have utilized flashbacks to demonstrate how this fictional world, called Gilead, went into such disarray, gradually replacing women’s rights with a caste system and reversing human rights where being gay — or a “gender traitor” — is illegal, given the ultimate goal of repopulation.
“The whole message that Margaret was sending in the book is that big changes like this don’t happen overnight, they happen very slowly over time, almost so that you don’t know that they’re happening until it’s too late,” explained Morano. “We tend to be a little sheltered in America because of the rights that we do have and what we’ve all been used to. One of the things I liked about doing this story is that I thought maybe it will make people really appreciate what they have.”
Still, when a protest for women’s rights looks all too familiar, before turning deadly, in the fourth episode just as real women in Texas were protesting anti-abortion bills while dressed in the handmaid’s signature red cloak uniform, Handmaid’s Tale is invoking Trump’s America on a weekly basis.
“He just keeps stepping right into it,” joked Moss, also a producer of the series, of the president. “It’s something that we aren’t exactly happy about. It’s unfortunate that we have to have that as part of the conversation. We don’t want this to be happening. We don’t want this to be quite so relevant. But it is. And I think if you tell a story that sheds some light on something that needs to be talked about, then it makes your job all that more enjoyable.”
She continued, “You try to do your best and make something you’re proud of, but you can never anticipate the way an audience, or a country, is going to react to it, and that extra level that it’s gone as far as becoming a part of the conversation is something we couldn’t have anticipated. And probably best that we didn’t.”
Moss knew the moment she received the script that it was a project she would regret passing up, and she humbly revealed that she had a hand in bringing Bledel and Morano along, as she had crossed paths with both women previously, Bledel on AMC’s Mad Men. “I didn’t know if I wanted to do another series quite so soon, it had only been a year and a half since Mad Men finished,” she explained. But when she read the second episode script, she said, her immediate thought was, “Oh, f—.” While Bledel said the rebellious streak is what drew her to the role: “You never know what is going to be written, it’s a surprise every episode.”
Both women, however, relish in the show’s style of close-ups, hyper-realism and focus on getting point-of-view shots, a camera style intended to put the viewer in Offred’s, and Offlgen’s, shoes as seamlessly as possible. Morano revealed her tricks of the trade as to how she created so many “appropriately disturbing” scenes, such as the infamous “ceremony,” a monthly ritual where Offred is effectively raped by her Commander (Joseph Fiennes) while his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) participates. “Just total and utter awkwardness and uncomfortable, unsettling, sickening — all the nice things you want people to feel from watching the show. All those things someone would feel in those situations for real,” Morano described as her intent.
“It’s completely non-consensual,” said Moss of the ceremony, a biblical interpretation that demands Offred lie between Serena Joy’s legs while she and the Commander have sex. “It is absolute, 100 percent a sexual assault. It is a rape. There’s no way that she would not be doing that, and in that position, if she had a choice. It was really important, and Reed had the job of showing the ceremony for the first time of the show — it was very important to us that it was in no way sexual or consensual.” That’s why Moss made the decision that Offred, who often narrates her inner monologue during the ceremony scenes, would have to leave her body: “She would have to not be there in order to not scream.”
As far as the violence of the show, Morano explained that just because Handmaid’s is a show predominantly about women, the creators didn’t want anyone to think the “maybe the show isn’t going to have balls” or that they would gloss over the reality they are trying to convey.
“[The point] was to not put up a wall between the audience and the story and to make it feel as real as possible,” she said. “We’re not trying to glorify violence at all, but also make sure that when the moments are raw and we’re trying to send a message that people receive that message. … It’s really f—ed up. These things happen in other countries and people should see that and not be protected from it. It creates a feeling in you, and it should not make you feel good, but that’s the point.”
During the panel, the cast also revealed how Atwood’s cameo came together. The author, who is a consultant on the series, appeared as an Aunt, the women who train the handmaids, and slapped Moss’ character across the face. “After a few takes she gave me a real wallop!” said Moss, adding that she volunteered to be on the receiving end of Atwood’s hand.
Morano then revealed the one question Atwood had about episode two — something that drew a large laugh from the audience. “She asked, ‘What’s a carpet muncher?'” Morano recalled. “One of the writer’s assistants had to call Margaret and explain it. I wish I could have heard that.”
Atwood has also given her blessing for the show to expand the world she created on the page for the second season — and possibly more in the future. The third episode already saw deviations from the book and Bledel’s character was expanded for the series.
“We don’t want to explore everything in one season,” said Moss. “With season one, there was so much left out to give you more time to fully explore a few things, rather than cover all 50 of them.” Stressing that it’s still early, as the writers are currently working on the second season scripts, Moss added, “The intention is to continue to explore things deeply and to really give time. That’s the great thing you have in a series that has multiple seasons that you can do.”
Moss continued, “There’s a huge gap between the epilogue and the end of the book where there’s a lot of unanswered questions. There’s so much that hasn’t been said in that book, and we’re looking to explore that with Margaret.”
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