Created for television by Bruce Miller, the highly acclaimed and Emmy Award-winning Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale has returned for a second season, shaped by Offred’s (Elisabeth Moss, in a truly remarkable performance) pregnancy and her ongoing fight to break free from the dystopian horrors of Gilead. While Offred, who was born as June, is haunted by memories from her past, as she tries to figure out what’s next, the audience will get to learn more about life outside of Gilead and what it takes to survive in this terrifying world.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, showrunner Bruce Miller talked about making Season 2 with a level of expectation that didn’t exist for Season 1, what he’s most enjoyed about his collaborative relationship with Elisabeth Moss (who is also a producer on the series), the vibe on set, how things have evolved since the first season, the terrifying opening of Season 2, the show’s balance of beauty and horror, what he’s most excited about people getting to see with this second season, and whether he thinks of the character as June or as Offred.
Collider: You got the chance to shoot the first season of this show in your own little bubble, before putting it out there and hearing everyone’s reaction.
BRUCE MILLER: Before the bubble got burst.
Did you have to tune all of that out, as you approached Season 2?
MILLER: Absolutely! I think the biggest hurdle to Season 2 was Season 1. In success, you feel like, “Oh, my gosh, we’re gonna mess it up.” There’s all this pressure and you think, “How do I write a show that wins an Emmy again?” It’s all these things, and you have to try to forget about them. It took awhile to put all that aside, but once you get started in the writers’ room, luckily you have muscle memory for those parts of the process. But it was very difficult, and I think it was difficult for the crew. One of the things that was interesting was that, when we brought in day players this season, they were nervous, and they weren’t nervous, last season. You have to settle people down and say, “It’s gonna be fine. We’re friendly.” When you say, “Good morning, this is Lizzie Moss,” everybody gets a little star struck.
Do you find casting those guest roles easier now because people know what the show is and they want to be on it?
MILLER: It’s no easier, but we have many more great choices. It’s harder, but it’s wonderful that people want to be on the show. It’s such a compliment to Lizzie and our whole cast and crew, and also to Margaret Atwood’s world and how supportive she’s been. Listen, it’s spectacular to get to work with the people you really respect and people you really think are perfect for the role. Before, it was like, “Let’s get a Marisa Tomei type. Wouldn’t that be great?” It’s been great to be able to work really closely with so many of your heroes and people you’ve liked and respected for such a long time. It’s embarrassing that it’s so fun.
What have you most enjoyed about the collaboration you have with Elisabeth Moss?
MILLER: It’s so important to me. It’s the center of the show, really. First of all, I’ve enjoyed getting to know her, as a human being. She’s one of the most interesting, lovely people in the universe, and the more I’ve gotten to know her, the more fun it’s become, not only on a completely personal level, but also seeing how someone goes about thinking and putting it all together to get that kind of performance, on the other end. It’s like a master class in approaching an artistic job. She really is amazing at it. And also, I’ve learned so much from her about how to be good on a consistent basis, and how to preserve your energy the way she does. She puts so much energy into being warm, pleasant and open, on a day to day basis. It’s a lot of work. She works incredibly long hours. It’s very difficult, emotionally draining work, and she is, without hesitation, a pleasure, all the time. I wish everybody I worked with was as wonderful as she is. It’s been a pleasure.
This is not easy material, at all. There are lighter moments, but they’re just moments. What kind of vibe does that create, on set?
MILLER: Our cast is very, across the board, professional, but also respectful, fun and intelligent, with no jerky people. It’s fun. It’s strange because the material is so heavy that people feel a lot more free to be themselves, in some very surprising and hilarious ways. Also, because the material is so heavy, the trust between them is quite high.
When you look back at Season 1, when did you feel that the show was really at its best and what did you want to build on?
MILLER: The biggest challenge, at the beginning, was to create both a visual and storytelling style that really fit the show. It wasn’t like I was trying to create something that was wholly new, but I wanted something that worked for this. This is a weird show. It takes place in a weird world. It has flashbacks, it has multiple storylines, and it has incredibly reduced point of view. It has all these weirdo things. The thing that I really like is how the characters, and especially Offred, were able to be both strong and believable and relatable. And the other thing that I wanted to build on was the empathy you feel for the other characters, even if they’ve made their own bed and it’s no fun to lie in it. For Serena, Lydia, the Commander and Nick, you feel a little bit like they made choices and compromises and now they’re just as stuck as Offred. It was a surprise, how all of those things would resonate. It’s certainly something you intend, when you write the characters, but you don’t know if it will happen. The work of these actors, especially the ones who are playing people who seem like bad guys, has been this remarkable balancing act between doing horrible things and thinking they’re doing them for the greater good.
Ann Dowd has made Lydia such a truly frightening character.
MILLER: And she’s the most warm, lovely woman.
It’s so interesting to watch that character because you can see that she really does struggle with thinking and believing that she’s doing the right thing.
MILLER: You try to reduce it to something you can relate to. What she’s doing is an unpleasant task that she’s duty bound to do, and she isn’t masochistic or sadistic. She isn’t a supporter of this particular way of running things, but she’s going to make sure these girls survive. If that means taking out your eye when you’re mouthy at the Red Center, so that the Commander doesn’t kill you, that’s what she’s gonna do. She’s doing the best that she can for these girls, who are her girls. The way Ann Dowd has brought that to life just makes me a much more rigorous writer because you have to make sure, in every moment that she’s doing horrible things, that they’re in service of the absolutely best angels of her nature.
The opening sequence in the first episode back is pretty horrific. Did you think a lot about how you wanted to bring everyone back into this world?
MILLER: That was actually one of the last puzzle pieces, as I was figuring it out and writing it. You think about the stories and the characters, and what would really happen and how they would punish these women. Once you get your head around that, you write it. The big problem with pilots, or first episodes, or last episodes is that they may work as an introduction to the series, but they’re a crappy episode. So, I really wanted a good story for the first one. What you want to do is go, “Okay, what are we telling a story about? We’re telling a story about identity. We’re telling a story about her name and about freedom, and what freedom means.” When you’re telling those things, it makes it easier to write an episode that works as an individual story and an individual chapter. I do feel like, when you’re doing a serialized show, the danger is that the episodes don’t have a story core to them because they’re just pipe connecting episodes.