Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a great show that happens to have premiered, unfortunately, during a period of political upheaval—and, very fortunately, when its audience needs it most. Based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, it follows a woman named June, played by Emmy winner Elisabeth Moss, who is forced into sexual servitude and given the name “Offred” by the puritanical government that seized control of what used to be the United States. While the first season followed June’s attempts to navigate the new social order, the second finds her both pregnant and facing a different sort of danger.
Moss joined fellow executive producers Warren Littlefied and Bruce Miller (who also created the series) to discuss Season Two during the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif., on Sunday. Here are some of the biggest takeaways. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.
Season One ends with June learning she’s pregnant and also orchestrating an all-Handmaids walk out. What happens in Season Two?
“June is on the run, and you haven’t seen that before—and that narrative is where we begin the season,” Littlefield says.
Season One mostly stuck to the plot of Margaret Atwood’s book. But that doesn’t mean the writer’s presence is gone from the show.
“I don’t think anything we do is post-Atwood; I think we’re all living in an incredibly Atwood world,” Miller says. “In the first season, we diverged quietly from the book in ways that people didn’t notice… She’s very much the mother of that series.”
The first season of Handmaid’s only discusses the Colonies, where “criminals” and other people deemed undesirable by the governing regime are worked to death. This season will actually show them.
“Margaret Atwood, of course, describes the Colonies, and it’s a pretty forbidding world,” Littlefield says. “In the narrative, she never goes there. In episode two, we go to the Colonies, and it’s an expansion of our world.”
Not only will the second episode feature the Colonies, it will also feature a familiar face as a guest star.
“In episode two we have a Colonies story, and we’re very happy to have Marisa Tomei guest star,” Miller says. “It was a complete pleasure and it was very cold [during filming].”
Not surprisingly, given June’s pregnancy, Season Two of Handmaid’s will explore themes of motherhood.
“So much of this season is about motherhood,” Moss says. “Bruce and I always talk about this child growing inside her as a ticking time bomb. The complications of that are really wonderful to explore. It’s wonderful to have a baby, but she’s having it potentially in this world that she may not want to bring it into. If she does have the baby, then the baby gets taken away from her and she may not be its mother… It’s a very big part of the season, and it gets bigger and bigger as the show goes on.”
Themes of resistance, which were prominent in the first season, will also continue.
“Offred (or June’s) level of awareness has gone up,” Miller says. “It’s hard to see it when it’s right around you. Her eyes have been opened up a little bit in Season One, and so have ours. [But] the resistance is a huge force operating in Gilead. One of the great things about this show is there are so many forces hitting up against each other.”
Moss offers a reminder that “there’s more than one way to resist as well, which is something that June finds. There is resistance in the outside world, but there is resistance within her.”
Despite the amount of news stories that describe the parallels between the series and real life, Miller says they’ve never scrapped a storyline because it too closely mirrors actual events.
According to Miller, some things in Season One—like the fact that they wrote the line “make America great again” before the presidential primaries began—did parallel real life. For Season Two, he knows that “we have a few more months to go before the premiere,” and things could change. But, he says, the series’ dystopian world is “separated enough out from the [real] world that we’re never going to do something that feels exactly like it’s happening right out there in the world.”
Miller was mum about the possible return of Alexis Bledel, who received an Emmy for her guest role in Season One.
“One of the fun things about TV is that you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Miller says. “I know that there’s a lot of information out there about shows that are coming out. People can seek out spoilers if they want them. I’m just not going to be the one to give them to them.”
The series’ awards recognition helped give it a bigger budget for the second season.
“We did get a bigger budget,” Littlefield says. “Part of it is [being used for] the expansion of our world in creating the Colonies and, by using the narrative timelines, we’re able to see how Gilead came about. And, so, to follow our characters as well as the creation of the show, it was a bigger world.”
Miller says the series’ flashbacks are meant to drive the story.
“I approach it from a story point of view, in other words, ‘What story do I want to tell about the past? What story do I want to tell about how June feels about having children in general?’” Miller says. “And then you just twist it up so that you’re showing that, in a pre-Gilead world, there were signs and signals that we’re going to pick up on.”
The Handmaid’s producers are cautious about how they show dangers in their world that also happen in real life.
Miller says that, “especially in a show like ours, it’s easy to come up with perverse cruelties toward women, and then it turns into pornography.”
“I think you have to keep tethered to the [real] world because it is a loser [on] almost every front to imagine evils,” he adds. “Everything we do in the show… we’ve got great support from the UN (and others) who tell us something happened in the world that’s just like that.”
Moss likes the show’s famous close-up shots of her face.
“I’ve never had this visual style of the show,” she says. “Visually, it’s great, because I can’t see anything else. I can only see that, and it feels like a direct connection to the audience.”
Moss says the show’s use of dark-humored voiceover is a way to use “Margaret’s voice.”
“We love using it because it’s that way to get that tone into very dark moments that have that perspective,” she says. “It’s become June’s voice and there’s moments when it’s dark.”
Miller explains that this is also because “June is funny,” and it’s a way for her to fight to hold onto her identity as she’s pushed into Offred’s world.
“There’s a lot of horror and dread in these situations, but there’s also a lot of absurdity,” he says. “I always feel like June is this close to turning to the camera and saying ‘Really? Honestly? What the actual fuck?’”
Unfortunately, director Reed Morano will not be back this season. But other great helmers will return.
“This year, we would have loved for Reed to come back,” Miller says. “She’s so busy and successful. Goddammit.”
Littlefield says that half of this year’s directors are women, and that’s something that’s “really important” to the Handmaid’s team. Among them are Kari Skogland, who directed last year’s finale and is doing four episodes in Season Two, and Dana Reed, who was praised by Moss’ Top of the Lake director, Jane Campion. Season One director Mike Barber is also returning.
Moss listens to music on set to prepare for emotional scenes.
It’s usually orchestral, and she likes Max Victor.
Miller says that the show’s success hasn’t impacted his plans for upcoming seasons.
“I think we’re moving at the pace we want to through story,” he says, explaining that when he started the show, he jotted down ideas for different seasons and “I came up with about 10 seasons, and that’s what you have to do when you’re taking on a project like this because you want to plan for that success.”
”Do you not know how good you are?” was an actual question asked of Moss.
She demurred and said, “I don’t sit around thinking about how I’m amazing. I don’t think that would be very helpful.”
The Handmaid’s Tale Season Two premieres April 25 on Hulu.