Behind The Cliffhanger Finale Of "The Handmaid's Tale," And Where The Show Could Go Next
The acclaimed drama's creator, Bruce Miller, talks about those last moments in the season finale, rethinking the show's approach to race, and gives hints about what's to come in Season 2. (Spoilers, obviously.)
Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale has both hewed closely to Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel and — by the nature of a 10-episode television season, which concluded this week — deepened its characters and supplemented the story. When the show returns for Season 2 next year it will venture into territory beyond the book — an audacious undertaking which creator and executive producer Bruce Miller is ready for. "The fun for someone like me, who's such a fan of the book, is to imagine what happens next," he said in a recent interview with BuzzFeed News.
In the show's fictional world of Gilead — where a theocratic, totalitarian regime has overthrown the US government — healthy birth rates are falling, and miscarriage rates are rising. A premium has therefore been put on fertile women, who live as so-called Handmaids — conscripted surrogates to powerful couples. Starring Elisabeth Moss as a Handmaid who is called Offred, but whose real name is June, the show has excavated small details mentioned in the book and spun them into plotlines that will extend the drama through its second season (and, presumably, beyond).
In the penultimate episode, for instance, Moira (Samira Wiley), June's best friend from college, bolted from Jezebels, the brothel in which she was forced to work after she was caught having escaped from a Handmaids training center. In the finale, Moira makes it to Ontario, Canada, where she is given refugee status. June's husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), presumed dead in the book, is also in Ontario, having survived being shot as he, June, and their daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) tried to get out of Gilead in the first episode of the show. And the complicated cruelty of Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), who subject June to a monthly rape-as-conception ritual called the Ceremony, has been expanded upon — in particular Serena's instrumental role in setting up the structural misogyny in Gilead that has, by its design, disempowered her. In a distinct act of malice in the finale, Serena takes June to see that Hannah is still alive, but living with another family.
But despite one important twist — that she is indeed pregnant — June's final moments in Season 1 play out exactly as Offred's did in Atwood's novel. When a black van — generally a sign of doom in Gilead — comes for her, Nick (Max Minghella), the Waterfords' driver and June's lover, urges her to go with it. As June leaves the house Serena and the Commander are panicked, because their pregnant Handmaid is leaving for an unknown fate, and because their authority has been steamrolled. Stepping into the van, June delivers the final words of Offred's story, as originally written by Atwood, in a voiceover: "Whether this is my end or a new beginning, I have no way of knowing. I have given myself over to the hands of strangers. I have no choice; it can't be helped. And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light."
Miller said that although "it wasn't written in stone," he assumed when he began writing the pilot that Season 1 would end with the novel's cliffhanger ending. He said: "I read the book a long time ago, and it was absolutely burned into my brain, the ending. Because it's so" — he paused, sighing audibly — "in some ways, it was so frustrating; in some ways, it was so satisfying. It was full of hope and dread."
After June gets into the van, she looks into the camera in a moment which echoes the empowered conclusion of the first episode, in which June vows to survive. She is serene; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "American Girl" plays over the credits. (In the pilot episode, June's anthem is Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me.")
"The nice thing is that at the end of the first season, she finds a little bit of calm, even in not knowing," Miller continued. "It's hard for us to do, but in some ways, that's the lesson of the conclusion of the book: I don't have any choice, I'm putting myself in the hands of strangers. Which is what, as an audience member, you have to do with the storytellers you're dealing with."
There is, though, a final chapter in the novel, called "Historical Notes." Set at an academic conference in the year 2195, readers learn that Gilead fell, and that Offred's story was put together based on 30 cassette tapes found in a house in Maine, which she probably visited as she tried to get to Canada. What ultimately happened to her is unknown.
Miller, who is working with the show's other writers toward a likely spring 2018 debut for Season 2, disputed that "Historical Notes" shows June heading straight toward freedom. "The people in the future guess those things happened — they have no idea. They don't even know who Offred was," Miller said. "We certainly have used that stuff as a guidepost and a point of discussion the same way Margaret used it: They're discussing what possibly might have happened next."
But, he said, "I think we're far away from settling Offred in an armchair in Ontario."
The backbone of the show's narrative will continue to be June's determination to live, and to reunite with her family. From her actions in the finale — in which she leads a rebellion of Handmaids asked to stone to death one of their own, the troubled Janine (Madeline Brewer), as punishment for endangering a child — it appears that June will be instrumental in whatever the coming uprisings are. The Season 1 finale begins with a flashback to June's first day at the Red Center where Handmaids are trained, as she reflects on how scared they all were then. Things have changed, though: "We don't look at each other that way anymore," she says in the voiceover. "It's their own fault. They should have never given us uniforms if they didn't want us to be an army."
It's quite the tonal evolution from the show's bleak premiere, in which every interaction is laced with fear. "They're still under a really brutal and mercurial totalitarian thumb," Miller said. "But they also have found their own power and their own voice, even if it's in a small way — ways they can influence the world around them. They're not terrified; they're not paralyzed."
June's new DGAF approach is also apparent when she rips into Serena for the latter's ostentatious torture in revealing June's daughter Hannah to her. After finding out June is pregnant, Serena takes her to a wealthy neighborhood, where she goes into a house. Serena then comes out showing off Hannah, as June impotently beats on the car's locked doors and windows, screaming as loudly as she can. Wordlessly, Serena returns to the car. "She is a beautiful girl, Offred," she says coldly. "And she's happy. And she's well-taken care of. Listen to me: As long as my baby is safe, so is yours." At this, June launches into an enraged, obscene monologue of all the things she's wanted to say, calling Serena "deranged," a "goddamn motherfucking monster," and a "fucking heartless, sadistic, motherfucking evil cunt." As a coup de grâce, June invokes sin and punishment — Serena's core beliefs — when she says, "Serena, you are going to burn in goddamn motherfucking hell, you crazy evil bitch."
Miller said it was a crucial scene for him to write for both characters, especially with June leaving the house and their future interactions up in the air. "This pot of water has been boiling for a long time," he said. "I was so proud of Offred as a character, not only for having the bravery to say it, but for having the capacity to distill this woman down to a really clear definition of what the hell she is, as far as Offred sees. She doesn't just call her names. She lays out: You're going to burn in hell. The religion you believe in is going to punish you because you are a terrible human being.
"But also, more essentially," Miller continued, "that showed a degree of perspective and bravery on the part of June that shows how far she's come in the season." Plus, he said with a laugh, "Wasn't it fun to hear all of that stuff?"
Going forward, the current political climate — which has given the show an eerie resonance — will continue to influence The Handmaid's Tale: particularly the unstable mood of today's world. "I certainly feel like we're in a troubling and complicated and accelerating time period where things happen very quickly," Miller said. "And we're concerned that things are going to get scary and out of control — it's an unsteady time. That ties very well into the way June was feeling as the fist of Gilead was closing quietly on America. There are definitely conversations about that, and definitely we're making straight-line connections to things that are happening now."
In Season 1, one direct connection between our world and Gilead was the radicalization of Nick, an angry, lost young man who ends up enlisted by his employment counselor into the Sons of Jacob, the sect of Christian zealots which eventually takes over Gilead. Without tying Nick's story to a specific ideology, Miller said: "It's a huge issue in the world right now: how those particular conversations happen, how young, mostly men get radicalized. It is a huge issue. Our civilization is pivoting on lots of these little conversations."
Miller also said that the show's approach to race might change after he absorbed the critiques of his decision to change Gilead from the racist-led society of the novel to a multiracial one in which "fertility trumps everything," as he told BuzzFeed News in April. The show, which features actors of color in the lead roles of Moira, Luke, and Nick, was criticized by some on social media and in essays that it had ignored race to a fault. Miller said he has paid close attention to those conversations, which he called "wonderful" and "respectful." "It was a big change from the book, and I knew what I was doing when we decided to do it," he said. "But still, it's so interesting to hear the conversations people are having and the stuff that's coming my way that has given me a lot to think about and a lot to address moving forward.
"In the first season, we didn't hit a natural point where it was a story we wanted to tell. But it's always on our radar, how to address that in small and big ways," he said.
As with everything regarding Season 2, Miller would not be specific — "no comment!" he said when asked whether June might leave Gilead soon and, if so, whether its characters will still be central to the show. "We're going to be in both places next season," he said, meaning Gilead and Canada. About the broad ideas behind the second season, Miller said: "It's really about chickens coming home to roost. There are so many atrocities that the state has committed. How are those going to get out into the world, and how is that going to affect Gilead?"
While the show might be moving on past the book, Miller said the novel's ethos is embedded in its DNA. "The Atwood style of The Handmaid's Tale is there's nothing but things that drive you insane, and questions you want answered."
He continued: "Famously, the last line of the book is, 'Are there any questions?' And the answer for me was always, Fuck yeah, there's a ton of questions!"