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'Handmaid's Tale' Still Refuses to Pull Punches

Season one of The Handmaid’s Tale closed with the same ending as the Margaret Atwood book on which it was based. It employed the exact words that end the novel, in fact: “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”

The completion of the source material made some fans wonder if there would be a season two of the acclaimed Hulu series, which took home a remarkable haul in the latest awards season, including both an Emmy and Golden Globe for best drama, and one of each for star Elisabeth Moss. Moss plays June, the handmaid of the title who finds herself a slave, for all intents and purposes, in Gilead, a fascist theocracy set up after a near-future overthrow of the U.S. government. Because birth rates are dwindling, the patriarchy of Gilead has forced June and other women with viable ovaries to become handmaids—bearing children for the male leaders of the regime.

It’s June who speaks those words in voiceover at the end of season one (though her name has been changed to Offred by Gilead to show that she is a vessel of the commander of her household—“Of Fred”). And it was the very ambiguity of June’s fate at the end of Atwood’s book that made Handmaid’s Tale showrunner Bruce Miller feel that a second season of the show—the first episode of which debuts on Wednesday on the streaming service—was practically a necessity.

“For 30 years, I’ve been wondering what happens next,” Miller tells Playboy of what has long been one of his favorite novels. “Every single person who reads the book is like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what happened?' That’s the whole point of the ending. Also, there’s lots of things in the second season that were from the book that we just didn’t get a chance to cover [in the first season], worlds to expand. I think our goal was really to keep living in Margaret Atwood’s world.”
There’s a line that June says in flashback, "We were too busy staring at our iPhones to see what happened." So a lot of season two is, how did it happen? How did we go from America to Gilead?
So how is it to be going off-book? “It’s terrifying,” says Miller. “But I don’t think it’s any more terrifying than worrying about screwing up the book in the first season.”

After watching the first six episodes of season two, and talking to many of the cast members and producers, what I find most interesting is the way season two expands on some of the series’ major themes. (Warning: Major spoilers for season one, and minor ones for season two.)

One major theme we see expanded this season is that everyone is a prisoner in Gilead. Season one introduced the idea that the male leaders of Gilead have created a society that even they don’t enjoy; we see through the characters of Commander Fred and his wife Serena Joy, to whose household June has been assigned, that the power elite—while obviously enjoying far more freedom than the women they subjugate—are themselves miserable. Even the “ceremony,” during which commanders attempt to impregnate their handmaids, has been bizarrely designed to be sexually unfulfilling for them, and heartbreaking for their wives. 

“He’s the architect of his own unhappiness,” Joseph Fiennes tells Playboy of Commander Fred, his character on the show. “And that’s a lot of how these patriarchal societies function. I certainly think with the ‘ceremony,’ it’s all about procreation—it’s a bastardized scriptural excuse for a rape culture—but he doesn’t get any joy from it.” 

Season two shows more of the Commander in his work environment—and how he often feels emasculated by the other male leaders of Gilead. This is key to understanding his growing coldness in season two toward Serena—who is herself dealing with the realization that she has helped create a society in which she has no power—and his cruel power games with June, says Fiennes. 

“Those stresses I think he brings home, and they make him into even more of an oppressor with women,” he says. “His dealings with men at work produce this monster that takes it out on women. It’s ‘How do I regain control?’” 
Another powerful character on the show in a prison of her own making is Aunt Lydia, who oversees the handmaids in June’s neighborhood. The role has made a breakout star of Ann Dowd, who won an Emmy and was nominated for a Golden Globe for her frightening but nuanced performance. This season sees Lydia return in a jaw-dropping scene, after her failure to quell a handmaid rebellion in season one.

“She’s trapped in a repressed place where no one’s ever going to feel sorry for her,” Dowd tells Playboy of her character. “When I see the handmaids, as the actress playing her, I think, ‘You think you’ve got it bad—and you definitely do—but Lydia has a situation as well.' And at the end of the day, I don’t think someone’s going to say, ‘C’mon, honey, let’s go into therapy.’ I think they’re going to say, ‘C’mon, honey, your noose is right there in that corner. Step up.”

Another recurring theme is that there’s more than one way to resist the Gilead regime. Last season, June discovered the existence of a resistance group called Mayday, though so far it has complicated her life more than helped her. In season two, we discover whether she was actually rescued by the group, but Moss says her character’s other kind of “escape” is just as important. 

“There is resistance in the outside world in Mayday, but there’s also resistance within her,” Moss told reporters of June. Mostly, we hear that in her voiceovers, which are cleverly constructed throughout the show so that the camera shows us her face in close-up inside the restrictive “wings” handmaids are forced to wear. The message is that while clothing like this in a repressive society is meant to limit women’s access to the outside world, it also limits the access the outside world can have to their expressions and innermost feelings. 

“I’ve never been that close to the camera. I’ve never had this visual style before that we use on the show. It’s my favorite thing when it’s just me and camera—visually, it’s great, because I can’t actually see anything else. It feels like it’s a direct connection to the audience,” said Moss. “My favorite thing about the voiceover is that it’s Margaret [Atwood]’s voice. It’s that very specific tone that she hits in the book. We love using it because that’s our way to get that tone into some very dark moments and have that perspective, that sort of dark sense of humor that Margaret has in the book.” 

O.T. Fagbenle, who plays June’s husband Luke (who has escaped to Canada), says the success of those moments has everything to do with Moss. “One of the great things about Lizzie’s performance is that she manages to carve out little moments of hope and joy and humor,” he tells Playboy. “This season, there are great moments of triumph, which I think people are going to like.” 

This season also takes us to the Colonies, an area of Gilead that Atwood introduces in the book without setting any actual scenes there. Devastated by nuclear waste, it’s the place to which women who cause trouble for the power elite are sent. One character shipped there is Emily, the handmaid declared a “gender traitor” for being a lesbian, and doubly doomed in Gilead for being a college professor. Alexis Bledel, who won an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for her portrayal of Emily last season, has a bigger role in season two and found that her character’s resistance had to take on an even more primal and desperate form. 

“What I thought was interesting playing Emily is that she’s such a uniquely strong character that even in the Colonies, while she might not have a lot of hope, she still has this sense of personal dignity that perseveres somehow, because she knows that the circumstances she’s under, the creation of this place, it’s not right,” Bledel says to Playboy. “She has a very strong sense of justice, and she’s still trying to right the wrong she sees around her.” 
Without giving too much away, it’s true that June does go on the run this season. But Warren Littlefield, an executive producer on the series, says the traumatizing effect of Gilead gives it a deeper power over the show’s characters, including not only June but her best friend Moira and husband Luke, who have crossed into Canada, beyond Gilead’s borders. This introduces a major theme that had previously only been hinted at: Gilead is a state of mind. 

“Does she really escape? What does freedom look like?” Littlefield tells Playboy of June. “Moira and Luke are in Little America up in Toronto. But they never fully escape Gilead. Gilead is within you. You can never fully escape that, regardless of the boundaries. That plays out throughout the season.” 
I don’t think someone’s going to say, "C’mon, honey, let’s go into therapy." I think they’re going to say, "C’mon, honey, your noose is right there in that corner."
Samira Wiley, who was also nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Moira, agrees. “Moira needs Luke to survive, and vice versa. And I think their joint love for June keeps their entire energy in Gilead,” Wiley tells Playboy. “The entire season, they’re missing their third. That brings them together, and we see their love and respect for each other really grow this season.”

There is also a major exploration this season of how extreme circumstances breed extreme reactions. Throughout season one, we were introduced to characters and situations that defied expectations, such as a handmaid who was happy to be serving in Gilead because she considered it a better life than the one she had before. We see more of these in season two—for instance, a gay Gilead soldier who persecutes other “gender traitors” for the regime. Wives, we learn, can also be sent to the Colonies, so what happens when they are forced to live with their former prisoners? 

And what about an alliance between June and Serena—which is the last thing we would have expected after season one. What are their motivations, and can their bond, forged despite what has previously seemed like bitter hatred, possibly last? It’s part of some intriguing subplots for the character of Serena, played by Yvonne Strahovsky.

“Serena Joy, you could paint with a brush and say she’s the Wicked Witch of the West, right?” says Littlefield. “You could say she’s horrible, and she’s one of the architects of Gilead, and how could she do that to women? But Serena’s profound desire to be a mother, in the face of not biologically being able to, makes her in many ways warm, appealing—and very scary, also. I think Yvonne has a really strong and interesting season. “ 

For Miller, none of these unexpected characterizations are “twists”; he sees them as an attempt to add important, specific details to the world The Handmaid’s Tale is creating. “The surprising part isn’t important to me,” says Miller. “The revealing part is.” 

Many of the characters in the show have good reason not to reveal their true allegiances or feelings about Gilead, but what The Handmaid’s Tale asserts over and over is that the truth will always come out. We’ve already seen some of these ambiguities resolved; for instance, while the Commander initially seemed like he might be some kind of ally to June, his true motivations were eventually revealed in season one. 

Similarly, Nick, the Commander’s driver who is having an affair with June, has been hard to pin down. But Max Minghella, who plays Nick, says his character’s actions this season show that despite his shadiness, his heart is in the right place. “Ultimately, I think it’s—for the moment anyway—an unbreakable connection that survives in these dire circumstances,” he tells Playboy of Nick’s relationship with June. “There is a real love there, I believe.” 

Fan speculation has also swirled around Rita—the domestic servant or “Martha,” played by Amanda Brugel. Brugel says that while she has enjoyed playing the uncertainty, all will become clear. “By the end of season two, you are most certainly going to find out what side she stands on, and it’s shocking,” she tells Playboy. “But I love the idea that it’s not as simple as her being one way, and her isolation really makes her mysterious.” 

This season continually reminds us that the “near-future” setting in the book has become the present in the show. This might seem obvious to most fans, but don’t forget that it wasn’t until a reference to Tinder and the phrase “hater” were used in the fifth episode of season one that the audience knew for sure that the show is set in the present day—though the use of contemporary pop songs, beginning with the sublime moment in episode two where Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” suddenly starts to play over the action, pointed to that conclusion. If you were initially confused, don’t feel bad—so was the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. 

“One of the battles we had with Emmy nominations was over Ann Crabtree, our costume designer,” says Littlefield. “The Emmys said, ‘You’re in the period category,’ and we said, ‘It’s not a period show! I mean, we understand a little of your confusion with the handmaids’ outfits, but look at it—we’re not a period show.’ So this year they corrected it.” 

In the second season, there are more references to the current cultural and political climate that place the action solidly in the present. “We were reminded that we want to continue to say that in small ways,” says Littlefield. “There’s a line that June says in flashback, ‘We were too busy staring at our iPhones to see what happened.’ So a lot of season two is, how did it happen? How did we go from America to Gilead?” 
The second season of The Handmaid's Tale launches Wednesday, April 25, on Hulu.

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