‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Postmortem: Bruce Miller on Offred’s Future

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the “Night” episode of The Handmaid’s Tale .

And so, at last, The Handmaid’s Tale ends as it began: with our heroine Offred (Elisabeth Moss) in the back of a vehicle, bound for what she hopes is freedom. In the premiere, Offred — still then known as June — was in the backseat of her husband Luke’s car, comforting their daughter Hannah as they sped towards the Canadian border, with Gileadean soldiers in hot pursuit. Now, in the Season 1 finale, “Night,” she’s escorted out of the Waterford home and into the back of a waiting van piloted by the republic’s secret service agency, the Eyes. Her “rescue,” if that’s what this turns out to be, has been orchestrated by Nick (Max Minghella), the man with whom she’s been carrying on a secret affair, and could potentially be the father of the child growing in her womb. As she boards the van and the doors close behind her, Offred speaks the same lines as her counterpart in the novel: “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else, the light.”

That’s where this particular Handmaid’s story ends in Margaret Atwood’s original telling of her tale, leaving Offred in a state of suspended animation. (An epilogue, set hundreds of years later, does suggest that she made it as far as Maine, after which her trail ends.) But Moss’s journey as Offred is far from over; a second season will show us what happens after those van doors open again, and whether she’s bound for the darkness… or the light. Handmaid’s Tale showrunner Bruce Miller will be taking Offred’s story past where Atwood imagined, and it’s a task he doesn’t accept lightly. In this expansive post-finale interview with Yahoo TV, Miller discusses Offred’s next steps, what the future holds for Serena Joy and Fred (Yvonne Strahovski and Joseph Fiennes), and the one character you can definitely expect to meet in Season 2.

Moss and Max Minghella in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (Photo: Courtesy of Hulu)

Up until the episode’s final moments, I wasn’t sure if you were going to replicate the book’s last scene.
That’s the same way I first read the book. I had no idea how it was going to end two pages before it ended! [Laughs.]

On the page, those final moments play out in a rush. You’re following Offred as she’s leaving the house, and there’s a pronounced feeling of momentum that sweeps you along with her. In this episode, director Kari Skogland replicates that by employing a Steadicam tracking shot that almost plays out in a single take.
There was a lot of attention towards capturing the feeling of the end of the book, and the relentlessness of it. Like a lot of people who have read the book, I’d gone back and forth between being very frustrated with the ending and feeling like it’s great that the minute Offred’s point of view of the Waterford house ends, so does ours. It’s the perfect ending to the first season of a TV series because everyone has the reaction of: “What happens next?” Margaret gave us this beautifully constructed story with an ending that’s both infuriating and incredibly compelling. That’s what you want in the first season of a TV show.

How was that sequence choreographed?
It’s two shots that look like one shot. Half of it is on a soundstage, and the other half is in the actual house we’ve used since the beginning of the season. Offred’s room and that beautifully curving staircase was constructed on a stage. It was a lot easier to shoot that because we built it with the idea that there’d be just enough room for a camera to make that curve. The staircase in the main house is a little steeper, and a little more narrow with more twists and turns. Our camera team is remarkable — we use lots of lenses that are not long lenses, and we get very close to Lizzie so the margin of error is very small. If you slow down when you’re on the stairs, Lizzie runs into you! I think I used the first take; we didn’t do that many.

From the very beginning, I had always thought about filming it as one shot, to give the feeling that once you’re on that train, you don’t want to get off. A cut gives you a little bit of a break, and we didn’t want that break. Also, in some ways, it’s a tour through this house that we don’t know if we’re ever going to go back to. Offred doesn’t know if she’s going to go back because she thinks there’s a good chance she’s dead! So she’s looking around for the last time, and I wanted to look around with her. This show is very much a point of view show; it’s June’s point of view and that feeling that we’re in her head is what makes the show work. We wanted to go back to that at the end of the first season.

I want to spotlight a line that’s crucial to the episode, and to the series as a whole, particularly in regards to how it departs from the book. Early on in the finale, Offred remarks in voiceover: “They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.” In the book, Offred goes from being a victim to a refugee. In the series, as that line suggests, her journey seems to be from victim to insurgent.
Yes, and there’s two parts to that line. The first is not just this idea of an army as a fighting unit, but an army as a unit; the idea of relationships between women, and the power of normal intimacy among humans, who form a support web even when [society] is constructed not to. Human relationships are so important to staying sane in our world. Even though Offred in the book has a different journey, her relationship journeys are quite similar. She’s always trying to make connections, even if it’s delicately.

So that idea of them being an army is as much about them as a unified group who trust each other in some tiny little way. They’ve gotten to the point where they have a little bit of a connection. It strikes me that one of the ironic blindnesses in Gilead is that [the founders] though, “I’m going to take this woman, put her in my house and completely control her, and everything will be fine.” The have a tiger in their house! They’ve got someone they’re beating and raping and they expect her to be compliant. It’s sexism on such a blind scale, you hope they’re going to get bitten in the ass for doing that. These women are strong and smart; these are women of today. They’re not going to sit around and let you take away their liberties.

To that point, does it reflect how society and feminism has changed since when the book was written? The Offred we meet in the novel never seems to arrive in a place where she’s willing to fight back.
In slight ways, it’s how women’s roles in society have changed. I’m no social historian — my connections with the women in my own life are how I judge these things, and how they might have changed. Our Offred is a slightly different character than the one in the book, and just by virtue of the things we want to show, she’s more in the center of the rebellion whereas in the book she’s on the outskirts. In a series, you want to have her at the center of the pieces of the story you’re going to tell. So it’s the difference between her being a different character, and also in terms of the attitudes of the women I know that I’m trying to extrapolate for this situation to make it feel more like current human beings.

Yvonne Strahovski and Joseph Fiennes in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (Photo: Courtesy of Hulu)

Offred demonstrates her power in the finale when she chooses to save Janine during the Salvaging sequence. But this is also an episode where Serena Joy reclaims her authority in her household, physically attacking Offred and putting Fred in his place by calling him weak. How does that presage where her role goes in Season 2?
Yvonne’s performance has just been spectacular. The fact that you’re interested in Serena Joy, and that you feel sorry for her at times, is a testament to how complex her performance is. Moving ahead, I think it’ll be about her commitment to Gilead and its laws and rules — even the ones she doesn’t believe in — and how those butt up against her natural instinct towards dominance and intellectual contribution. She’s been reduced to knitting, gardening, and procreation, but you’re talking about a machine with a lot of excess capacity that’s got to go somewhere.

She’d also like to believe that she fought hard for Gilead, and it’s worth it. All those things tie together into such an interesting package of someone living in a prison of their own making. You can see lots of different futures for her. She could have a volcanic eruption like she has in this episode, and that’s enough to relieve the pressure for awhile. Or it could be the beginning of her deciding that a rebellion wouldn’t be such a bad thing. There are certainly people in Gilead who think it’s time to clean up Gilead; totalitarian states are always subject to purges.

In perhaps her cruelest power move, Serena Joy allows Offred to see Hannah in the flesh, but only through the window of a locked car. In the novel, she only shows Offred a picture of her daughter. It does make you wonder if Offred’s choice to get in the van endangers her child since Serena Joy knows where she is and can see her at any time.
In the book, showing Offred the picture is also a power play. It was Serena Joy saying, “I have access to this information and you don’t.” There’s also a little bit of a perceived threat. So I was trying to bring that flavor here. The other thing is that I don’t think it’s a purely evil act from Serena Joy’s point of view. She’s bringing Offred there to say, “Your daughter is fine, you don’t have to worry about her. I’ll protect her because you’re doing something important for me.” I believe she’s doing something manipulative and horrible, but I don’t think she thinks that. Serena Joy has a twisted view of motherhood in general, and what the relationship between a mother and child should be. Here’s another example of that tone deafness. In terms of what it does to Offred, I think it focuses her mind a little bit. She starts to think, “How do I be a good role model for my daughter?” Getting taken away in the end is not something she does; what she does is not kill Janine. That’s her way of saying, “My daughter is alive and she’s being taken care of, and I’m trying to make the world a little better for her.” She’s not going to be in a world where her mom stoned a woman to death.

Names are such an important part of the show’s emotional fabric — the names given by the state versus the names the women cling to in their hearts. Given that, is there any significance to the names “Hannah” or “Charlotte,” Janine’s daughter? Neither child is named in the novel, so I was curious why you chose those specific names.
Hannah has a Biblical connection I liked, but there wasn’t much thinking about it. Charlotte is named for Charlotte Brontë. I thought that was an interesting choice for Janine, who you wouldn’t necessarily think of as a Charlotte Brontë fan.

Back in the series premiere, you revealed that Offred’s real name is June, confirming a long-held fan theory about the book that Atwood has accepted if not necessarily endorsed. Did you realize the significance of that choice when you made it?
I did because I was of the same mind. I had been thinking of her as June for years! It didn’t even occur to me that it isn’t [explicitly] in the book. After I wrote the script, people read it and were like, “Oh, you’re taking a stand on this!” [Laughs.] I said, “Yes I am, but I didn’t think of that ahead of time.” It’s also just very practical; you can only get through so many flashbacks where you’re not saying her name before it starts to sound stilted. Margaret didn’t balk at it or even mention it to me, but I know she’s not a subscriber to that theory.

You also chose to make Gilead a multicultural society to reflect the modern world. But I did find myself wondering all season long whether previous racial prejudices still exist in this environment. Is that something you hope to explore?
We definitely want to explore race moving forward. In the first season, we had a lot to deal with, but I’ve been very interested in the conversations that have been taking place on social media about race in Gilead. They’ve been so thoughtful, thought-provoking, and respectful. We brought those conversations into the writers’ room to start discussing. I don’t think Gilead is a racism-free zone. They have the same blindnesses that we do, and the same good and bad assumptions we make. At the same time, I do think it’s hard to know what the society before Gilead might look like if fertility rates fell that quickly. I don’t think racial issues would go away, but they might fall down in terms of peoples’ priorities. I think it’s fascinating to consider the idea that the rules of Gilead are supposed to come from the Bible, and how does that affect someone who has a prejudice that doesn’t align with the rules? There’s certainly plenty of room for hypocrisy in a place like Gilead.

Offred’s mother has a substantial role in the book, but was only mentioned in passing in the series. I imagine that’s a thread that’s going to be picked up in Season 2.
We’ve discussed it from the very beginning. She’s a fascinating character in the book, and ties so much into a certain kind of personality and activism at the time the book was written. You could do a whole show about June and her mother before Gilead. Remember: At the end of this season, Offred is pregnant and she also gets to see her child. It’s safe to say that themes of motherhood are going to be strong in Season 2. And Offred has a mother, so it seems like stories with that person would make a lot of sense.

I can picture the casting wishlists that are being drawn up right now.
One of the wonderful things about having a show that has been getting this much attention is that the casting list could become a reality!

For what it’s worth, I’m putting in a vote for Judy Davis.
I’ll write it down. [Laughs.]

Strahovski and Fiennes (Photo: Courtesy of Hulu)

Having ended the first season where the book ends, are you considering broadening the show’s canvas beyond Offred’s perspective in Season 2?
The general answer is no. June’s point of view is the center of our show and we couldn’t be any luckier than to have Lizzie in that role. It’s that character’s story. We are going to delve into stories that expand the world of Gilead, but those stories are still important and impactful to June. In the first season, we had scenes that Offred was not witness to, but almost all of them had some sort of influence on her world and her chances of survival. We got one of the classic characters in literature, and we want to dig deeper into her. What’s fun for someone like who is a fan of the book is asking, “What else can we find out about Offred that we didn’t know before?”

Is there a chance we’ll be privy to other voiceovers beyond Offred’s?
Right now, we don’t have any plans to feature voiceover from anyone else. The book is a voiceover; it’s Offred having recorded her memories and experiences of what happened to her in Gilead. We’ve maintained that conceit for the show, and I think it’s a very strong conceit; this show is either a dramatization or her actual recording of what was said. From a storytelling point of view, there’s also something delicious about the idea of a collection of audio tapes buried under the floor. [In the book, an epilogue reveals that Offred’s recordings are excavated decades after the fall of Gilead.]

Last question: Leaving aside what you have planned for Season 2, when you read The Handmaid’s Tale for the very first time, what did you think happened to Offred after the van doors opened?
I read the book in 1985 when it came out, and I think I might have thrown it across the room! I was so angry and frustrated. I had no idea what happened to her, and that’s the trouble. Offred is written so beautifully, she does not prefigure her own future even though with the tapes she recorded, she would have known some of those answers. She’s good at laying it out in a way where she doesn’t know what’s going to happen. Did I hope she got away? Absolutely. I wanted that van to be an express bus to Canada. But knowing how hard it is to get out of Gilead, and how precious a pregnant Handmaid is, I didn’t think it was going to be a quick or easy journey. One of the great things about having the chance to make the TV show, especially in conjunction with Margaret, is that you can have those discussions about what she was thinking. For everyone who has ever read the book, the first question you want to ask Margaret Atwood is: “What happened next?” And I got to! [Laughs.]

The first season of The Handmaid’s Tale is currently streaming on Hulu.

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