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The Handmaid’s Tale executive producer Bruce Miller found himself facing two daunting challenges at the beginning of the acclaimed series’ fourth season. The first was a major sea change in the narrative that involved removing the central character, June, from Gilead — the oppressive dystopia, by now well-established in the series, that had been created by book author Margaret Atwood — and capping it all with a critical moment of vengeance. The second challenge was that despite the fact that filming on the carefully planned season already had commenced, the global pandemic required first a major pause and then an exhaustive overhaul of storylines to accommodate the practical restrictions. “There was a lot of changing the story around because we just didn’t have access to the human beings we had access to before,” Miller tells THR, noting the chaos that COVID-19 quarantining inflicted on travel schedules and actor availability. “We’d planned stories with characters that we had to revise quite extensively — and more than once.”
Working largely remotely from Los Angeles while the cast and crew resumed production in Toronto, Miller focused on finding strategic ways to move the story forward while keeping his team feeling safe in terms of both their health and their freedom to create. “You can’t make a show during a pandemic, so you have to figure out a way to pretend that it’s not a pandemic,” he says. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Miller admits that in a perfect world he would have much preferred to follow the original game plan. But it’s hard to argue with the inventive-by-necessity results: Viewers and critics alike agreed season four provided an electric jolt of new excitement to the established narrative, and Emmy voters rewarded the series with 21 nominations. “I didn’t realize it was going to be quite so satisfying to pivot so quickly from June in Gilead to June out of Gilead — and the fact is, I was always feeling that June would be reeling, and how would the audience relate to her?” Miller reveals as he reflects on the season. Yet his team “made a show that felt the same, looked the same, sounded the same — it was just in a different place. And then all of a sudden you realize, ‘Oh, shit. She’s not in Toronto. She’s still in Gilead. Her body’s just in Toronto.’ ”
The audience was ready to go along for the new ride. What was exciting about seeing the response as the show was put in front of viewers and you got that sense of, “I think this is working”?
The biggest thing is we want the show to be entertaining, and we want the audience to feel things — not necessarily all good things, but we want them to feel things. When this season came out, and the things happened, people were getting so invested. They were having such big reactions because big things were happening. It was thrilling to know that there were so many big things to come. I think that was why my year was so spectacular: watching them watch and knowing what they hadn’t seen yet, and that it was to come, and that it was big and game-changing. And the best thing is that the audience very much attached themselves to the show for a ride this season. There wasn’t a home base. We weren’t carefully examining what life [was like] inside this tiny house. We had a different kind of show. And I liked the fact that the audience doesn’t even seem to have looked back. They’re like, “OK, let’s go!”
You’ve had a vital creative partner in Elisabeth Moss throughout this journey, and she directed three episodes this season. What came out of that new framework, with her taking an even more active hand in production?
I am very lucky to have Lizzie as a creative partner. And in this case [of directing], Lizzie and I have talked about this a little bit since the very beginning, so I think that in some ways what you’re seeing is the fact that she’s been thinking about it for a long time, champing at the bit to get going. But when you’re the star of a show, you don’t have copious free time, so she hasn’t really been sharpening up her pencils, just waiting to go.
Because she’s been so involved, it seems like it was just a missing piece, that she was doing all the jobs around this job, and to do this job was just seemingly fit in. Once she got behind the camera, you could even see in the photographs of her: I was there the first day she directed, and she was very happy and comfortable. She was not looking nervous — beforehand, she was concerned that she would be nervous — and it was great to watch. Even in a normal year, she’s an extraordinary force on the show, but we would not have a show without her this season. … She shut down her life and locked herself in Toronto on a scale that’s more than normal people [would]. I mean, she literally was working all day and then going home and not doing anything else, ever, but working like crazy. We came into the season with a relationship that was, I believe, very respectful, and we trust each other a ton. We’ve had a very good working relationship, but I was surprised that it could get even better and more connected. … This year, it really became something even better.
After four harrowing seasons, a degree of catharsis came at the end, one that viewers had been craving for a long time: June delivers her vengeance upon Fred. What was it like for you to deliver that moment? I imagine it was cathartic, but a celebratory “Ding-dong, the witch is dead” climax is not probably going to apply in the world of Gilead.
Oh, yeah. It didn’t even apply in Oz! We were thinking of it as an abstract thing. We know what’s happening, but it was when we got down to the very end, and I was writing the minutiae of what was going to happen. That, I think, was the surprise for everybody, that there was so much to happen in each look, in each moment. There was so much ground to cover morally for June. … Going through that super carefully made us appreciate how much weight it was going to have, but I didn’t know how the audience was going to react. It’s a very violent scene. It’s a main character doing something morally questionable and certainly illegal. But I certainly felt a rush of catharsis and glee when she killed Fred; in addition to feeling guilty, I felt glee. But that’s what we were hoping the audience would get. And I think to do it, we built very, very carefully. The writing, the editing, the production design — everybody knew it was a very important moment and every department added something.
I’m curious to get your thoughts on the way that this moment in your series has serendipitously dovetailed once again with reality, where many in this nation may have thought, “OK, we’re ready to move past the previous presidential administration.” But that doesn’t mean that all the problems go with the man.
Exactly. Everybody wants things to go back to quote, normal, snap back. And that’s what June was hoping — that everything would go back to normal.
How much of that was in your head as you were putting ideas together, and how much of it is just where the story went and happened to parallel what’s going on in the real world?
I think it’s more unconscious. I pushed the story on the show in directions that are addressing the issues that I’m thinking about, or things that are going on. I don’t do it on purpose, but I also don’t really recognize that it’s there until further down the line. Initially when I’m doing the thing or when I’m writing or making the story decision, I don’t realize I’m telling a story about, “OK, what happens after you get everything you always wanted? What happens then?” Boiling it down, I don’t do it till the very end. I don’t really see how much it’s tying into the world. But it’s a very political staff, a news-junkie staff, and the same thing with Lizzie: very engaged in the world. So all of us talk about those things, talk about how we feel, and I think they seep into the script. … [But] we’re telling June’s story in Gilead. We’re not telling our story here. And you want to make sure that it does have resonance here, but the more her story really follows her in a logical way, the more satisfying it is.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are…
An Emmy behemoth in its first season thanks in no small part to the dystopian drama’s timely parallels to present-day America, the appetite for Hulu’s signature series cooled in subsequent years. Season four, however, brought renewed critical enthusiasm and an incredible comeback with 21 Emmy nominations. It seems easy to discount Handmaid’s as a bridesmaid, but the numbers don’t lie — and there’s clearly a strong contingent for this show. — M.O.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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