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April 23, 2018

Dark Victory

Hailed with eight Emmys for season one, the team behind Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale presses on with its tale of darkness and hope.

Lisa Rosen and Maria Neuman
  • Bruce Miller

    Steven Simko
  • Kari Skogland with Elisabeth Moss as Offred

    George Kraychyk/Hulu

BRUCE MILLER, Creator, executive producer and showrunner

The Handmaid's Tale took fans and critics hostage when it premiered on Hulu last year. Then it took a turn no fans of Margaret Atwood's novel expected: a second season, venturing beyond the book's ending. "People say, 'How can you move the show past the first season?'" Bruce Miller notes. "Well, we did a lot of things in the first season that weren't in the book. We got you used to the idea."

The show is set in Gilead, formerly known as the United States, where theocratic men have taken power completely and women are reduced to the roles of rich wife, maid or worse. Fertile women, such as protagonist June (Elisabeth Moss), are forced to be literal baby makers, dressed in blood-red clothing and given new names based on the first names of their rapists. Thus, June becomes Handmaid Offred (of Fred).

Miller is sitting on a couch in the middle of a writers' room that has been spoiler-proofed for visitors. Index cards on the wall, delineating upcoming plot points, have been turned around. The only cards that face front are bleak jokes about life in Gilead:

Things are bad

Important character dies

Shit is fucked up, man.

That last card is also a caution. "You never want to forget that there are people in the show looking at it like we are, going, 'How did they think of this shit?' The characters comment on that a lot," Miller says. "It's one of the reasons we choose the songs we choose."

Each episode ends with a song that's jarring in its incongruity, like the premiere's defiant "You Don't Own Me," a 1963 hit for Lesley Gore. "You want to constantly be touching back to the world that came before, and if Offred has anything to say about it, that world will return."

Atwood's 1985 novel gripped Miller when he read it in college. Over the years, he reread it at least 25 times and tried teasing apart how Atwood put the story together. "But I mostly loved the devotion to this woman's point of view."

Miller started his writing career in features, then moved to shows like ER, Medium and Everwood. But he never stopped thinking about The Handmaid's Tale. He was disappointed by the 1990 movie and felt the novel should be adapted as a series. "When I finished the book, I was so furious. All I wanted to know was what happened next. That's a TV show."

He heard the series was in development at Hulu, and that the streaming service was, understandably, looking for a woman showrunner. "And I was 100 percent on their side, except I wanted the job so badly," he says.

Eventually, he was brought in to make the pitch he'd been working on for years. "I said it's a thriller, and it has to feel like real people in a real world or it isn't scary." And it had to be from Offred's point of view. "You understand why she's scared, because you don't know anything, either."

Miller also wanted Gilead to be beautiful, in contrast with the ugliness inside. And every character had to be fleshed out, including those committing atrocities.

His approach landed him the gig, and season one landed Hulu its first eight Emmy Awards. It is a brutal tale, but not without glimmers of humor, and even something more. "It's a show about hope," he insists. "There are little rebellions, little victories in every episode. [Offred] works really hard to get a 1 percent gain, but she does it. She's a badass."

That goes double for his star. "One of the reasons we were able to write such hard stuff was, we had Lizzie," Miller says, using Moss's nickname. "She seems to have a main circuit cable connecting her heart to her face — even if she wanted to turn it off, she couldn't."

Season two, starting April 25, will explore worlds the book only hinted at, like the colonies and the refugee community in Canada. "Could you imagine a season — or two, or 10 — with her in Toronto agitating to get the other handmaids out?" Miller asks. "I could."

With flashbacks, anything could happen. "She could easily get away," he says. "She could die." Not bloody likely.

KARI SKOGLAND, Director

Sometimes you just know when you're on to something good. For Kari Skogland, stepping onto the Toronto set of The Handmaid's Tale — to direct the season-one finale — was such a time.

"I was aware that it was really great material, but that doesn't always mean that anyone else is going to notice," says the Canadian-born director, whose credits include The Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire, Penny Dreadful and The Borgias.

Notice they did, and season two of The Handmaid's Tale finds Skogland directing four episodes. "When I first talked to Bruce [Miller], he told me you can never be too creative and to push the envelope," she recalls. "There was such a beautiful alchemy on the set. It's full of people who have been in the business a long time, and we've all risen to the occasion."

Skogland wasn't always so enamored with television. She started out in Los Angeles doing features, and even though she won acclaim for Fifty Dead Men Walking, she felt the doors weren't always open to female directors.

"TV used to be a bit more closed to women," she says. "When [executive producer] Neil Jordan asked me to do some episodes of The Borgias, I realized that the premier entertainment world had totally changed — I was working on these gorgeous cinematic pieces with top actors."

She turned to Canada and Europe to "ratchet up" her game. She also formed Mad Rabbit, a Red Arrow Studios company, based in her hometown of Toronto with offices in L.A. She is CEO of the firm, which is dedicated to producing one-hour dramas for the international market.

"We've spent a year building the company," observes Skogland, who is also a writer-producer. "Now I want to foster voices of other people who have stories that deserve to be told — but I also have some of my own passion projects that I'd like to do."

Of course, being one of the few women consistently hired for male-focused action work, her calendar isn't freeing up any time soon. "I did Sons of Liberty [for History], a really high-octane male thing, and I loved it," she says, laughing. "I love the big worlds of these shows, and as opposed to features, you get eight hours to investigate the stories."


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2018




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