The Handmaid’s Tale has consistently felt too relevant ever since launching in the dawn of Donald Trump’s presidency. Now, in discussing the Hulu drama’s upcoming return, the team behind the Emmy-winning series says the themes tackled in season four will continue to relate to what the country is experiencing in the post-Trump era.
“A lot of this season is about waiting for and expecting things to snap back to normal and [asking], ‘Why aren’t they snapping back to normal?'” said series creator and showrunner Bruce Miller when answering a question posed by The Hollywood Reporter‘s Daniel Fienberg during Thursday’s TCA panel. “That feeling of, ‘When is the world going to settle down after things have changed?’ is something we cover in small and large ways.”
He continued, “As much as we were addressing the things that came up during the Trump era, we’re now addressing the things that come up in the post-Trump era. But that’s because the [executive producers and writers] are living in that era. We’re not trying to rip stuff from the headlines and put them on television. We are, in fact, just trying to follow our characters through what is a very historical time in Gilead. And, unfortunately, we’re going through a historical time [in America] as well.”
Most recently, The Handmaid’s Tale was invoked by viewers after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. When asked about the eerie similarity (in Margaret Atwood’s best-selling dystopian novel, the totalitarian nation of Gilead that replaces the United States rose to power after an attack on the White House and U.S. Capitol building), star Elisabeth Moss pointed out that Atwood’s book released in 1985. “She never put anything in that book that hadn’t happened or was currently happening and here we are, however many years later, and we still feel that relevancy,” she said.
“The sea is as choppy as it’s ever been and I think that’s true for the journey and the story we’re telling,” added Warren Littlefield. “We do seem to mirror the very issues of life and safety and human rights that we’re wrestling with every day in the streets of this country. We’re playing them out in our show and I don’t see that changing.”
During the TCA panel, the three executive producers of the MGM TV-produced series spoke to reporters about the fourth season — which returns on Hulu on April 28 with its first three episodes — and stressed that fans will be rewarded by the developments of the 10 episodes to come.
When viewers last saw Moss’ June Osbourne, the resistance leader was fighting for her life after liberating dozens of Gilead children. In order to get their rescue plane to safety in Canada, June created a diversion and took a bullet to the shoulder. The final scene of the finale showed the plane landing safely, while a wounded June was being saved by her fellow red-cloaked resistance fighters.
Miller said that while he never considered killing June (“The show is called The Handmaid’s Tale; it’s about her”), the ramifications of her actions set the series on a new trajectory. “This season we’re delivering. We’re delivering on a lot of things we set up and I think it’s very satisfying,” he said of the payoff ahead for viewers. “It is something that has to do with COVID and the pandemic and life is short and all of that stuff, but this season we weren’t waiting around. We were trying to make progress. It was time for shit to happen.”
Hulu had handed out an early renewal to its flagship series in 2019. The third season had begun to expand the world created in Atwood’s novel and now the series has officially escaped the claustrophobic clutches of Gilead. Amid an all-out war between the resistance fighters and their allies with Gilead, the main characters are seen taking to abandoned city streets and finding refuge in their search for freedom in the first-look teaser that dropped Thursday (below).
Leaving the greater area of Boston for the first time, June and her Handmaids go on the run. “Global sanctions on Gilead are mounting as the latest wave of violence continues. No matter where the war finds you today, just remember: We are still here,” says a voice on the radio in the trailer. The final moment even implies that June might finally make it to Canada’s border, where her husband (O.T. Fagbenle), friends (Samira Wiley and Alexis Bledel) and youngest daughter await.
The personal sacrifice of the season three finale once again left June behind. The cliffhanger mirrored the second-season finale, when June chose to stay in Gilead in order to try to rescue her oldest daughter. “She’s not going to leave without Hannah,” Miller explained to The Hollywood Reporter after season three. Miller, who was speaking before the pandemic would hit, delaying production for six months, had teased that Gilead, which has also absorbed the U.S. military, would be “ready to go to war” over June’s successful mission. Moss had also teased the tonal shift: “I’m not sure how she goes back to Gilead after this. I don’t know how she stays alive. In a way, she sacrificed everything for those kids, including herself. How do you come back from that?”
Indeed, season four sets Handmaid’s Tale on a “nomadic” course. “We planted seeds about this uprising and hotspot in Chicago and that the forces of Gilead can’t keep it under control, and now we go. We leave our world. We have no home base. We are following June’s passion, her drive, her relentless pursuit for change, and that takes us everywhere,” said Littlefield on the panel, adding, “Go figure, in this year of COVID, we attempted our most ambitious production year.”
The fourth season went into production in February 2020 before shutting down in March amid the ongoing pandemic. When the team returned to set, Miller said many realities about producing and making the Canadian production had to be altered, including reducing the number of people in scenes and locking in locations. “The biggest change,” he said Thursday, “was that it was difficult to get our cast into Canada to shoot. So we had to keep people out of episodes because of scheduling.”
But once the bubble was created, after testing and quarantining, Moss — who steps behind the camera for the first time this season to direct — said they were able to film the show as planned. “We were able to thankfully proceed with the performance as we would have wanted to, even if we were restricted in numbers at certain points,” she said. As for her performance, expect a “feeling of rage and anger.” She adds, “So much of what June’s [journey] is about is screaming into the wind, ‘We will not forget.'”
Now, with an early season five renewal under his belt, Miller says he has no plans for slowing down. “I certainly am fascinated by what happens in the The Testaments and that is going to be part of our future — that’s a bigger question,” he said of the sequel to Atwood’s novel that is being adapted at Hulu. “Every time I come upon a season, I don’t know what we’re going to do. And every time we get to the end, I’m thrilled and feel like we could go on forever and ever. I’m so excited by how crazy the [season four] story is. As long as Lizzy [Moss] will do this with me, I’ll keep going.”
Along with Moss, Handmaid’s Tale stars Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski, Wiley, Bledel, Ann Dowd, Max Minghella, Madeline Brewer, Fagbenle, Amanda Brugel, Bradley Whitford and Sam Jaeger. The fourth season is executive produced by Miller, Littlefield, Moss, Daniel Wilson, Fran Sears, Eric Tuchman, John Weber, Frank Siracusa, Sheila Hockin, Kira Snyder and Yahlin Chang. The series is produced by MGM Television and internationally distributed by MGM.