The Emmy Award-winning television series “The Handmaid’s Tale” is heading into uncharted territory as it begins its second season Wednesday on Hulu. For more than 30 years, devoted fans of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, set in a dystopian future society, were left with a cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers. What happened to enslaved pregnant handmaid Offred after she was ushered into the back of a van at the end of the book? Was she about to be punished for her insubordination or rescued by resistance group Mayday, thanks to Nick, her secret lover? While the novel’s epilogue revealed that the totalitarian, theocratic Republic of Gilead eventually went belly up, Offred’s fate remained unknown. Until now.
“Every single person who reads the book wants to go beyond the book,” says Bruce Miller, who serves as the series showrunner and executive producer. “The book drives you insane! I wanted to murder someone when it ended, because I wanted to know what happens next. So in this great way, we get to make that stuff up. You get to kind of finally go, OK, so if I turn past page 232, what’s on page 233?”
In a phone interview while on her way to film a scene for the final episode of the new season, series star Elisabeth Moss says that her character will become increasingly defiant following her act of rebellion at the end of season one — when she led a revolt by the handmaids in refusing to stone Janine to death. “Offred is slowly but surely disappearing throughout this season, and it’s June that emerges,” says the actress, who also serves as an executive producer of the series. “But she’s not the June from the flashbacks. It’s the June you hear in the voice-over narration. So there’s a new June that’s born. A harder June, a tougher June, a stronger June, a smarter June. But also somebody who has really been through some of the worst things a human can go through.”
While season two will move past the events of the book, Miller says Atwood’s novel still informs the continuing story. The second episode will introduce viewers to the Colonies, the brutal labor camps where Ofglen/Emily (Alexis Bledel) has been sent. There, infertile women, resisters, and other undesirables (including a character played by Marisa Tomei) are enslaved and forced to clean up radioactive and toxic waste. Viewers will also glimpse, in flashbacks, Emily’s life as a biology professor, with a wife (Clea DuVall) and son, before the rise of Gilead.
Traumatized former handmaid Moira (Samira Wiley), who escaped to Canada at the end of the first season, will be adjusting to life as a refugee in the “Little America” section of Toronto, after reuniting with June’s husband, Luke (O.T. Fagbenle). “Moira is trying to recover from those echoes of Gilead and what she went through there,” Miller says. “Moira has left Gilead, but Gilead hasn’t left Moira.”
Viewers will also meet June’s mom, Holly, a hardcore feminist activist who’s much-discussed in the novel, played by Cherry Jones in pre-Gilead flashbacks. “Holly was a big part of the book for me,” Moss says, “and it’s a big part of June’s journey.”
June’s pregnancy was revealed toward the end of the first season, and motherhood continues to be one of the show’s major themes. “She’s pregnant, so there’s this ticking time bomb growing inside her,” Moss says. “The ramifications of having a child in that world are huge. If she has the baby, it’s going to get taken away from her. So how do you do the best thing for your child? Is it the expected thing? Or is it the unexpected thing? What kind of sacrifices do you actually have to make to give your child the best life?”
She’s also torn between the fates of her two children, after discovering last season that her daughter, Hannah, is living nearby with a family of the ruling elite. “Does she try to run and go find her husband in Canada? Or does she take a more dangerous path?”
Those questions go hand-in-hand with determining her role in the resistance against the ruling powers of the Gilead regime, but also in the domestic sphere against the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). “She’s a fighter. But what is she going to do? What is her place in the resistance? And it may not be exactly what she would have expected or what the audience would expect. How can she be the one who basically tries to save the world?”
As fans of the novel well know, the story is set in Boston and Cambridge, though those place names are no longer used in Gilead. The series films in and around Toronto, but producers worked this season to give it more of a Massachusetts flavor. A harrowing scene from the first episode unfolds inside a desolate Fenway Park, though the actors didn’t film there (thanks to CGI). In the second and third episodes, a character hides out in the abandoned offices of a fictional Boston Globe, and we learn the terrifying truth about what transpired inside newsrooms as Gilead stamped out the free press.
That narrative dovetails with recent attempts to demonize the media by certain American political figures. “It’s one of our bigger stories this season. What’s the end-point goal of that creeping, violent hatred of the media and calling reporters liars?” Miller wonders. “If we just take people at their word and they say the media is the ‘enemy of the state’ and the ‘enemy of the people’ — well, what do you do to enemies of the state?”
Indeed, by the time the series premiered last spring, its contemporary echoes had turned deafening. As Atwood has said repeatedly, all of the atrocities, laws, and issues depicted in the book are inspired by real-life events that have happened at some point in history. “I have lived with the book for a very long time through lots of different time periods in my life, and it felt relevant through all of them,” Miller says. “So you get the sense that maybe it’s the book, not the time, that makes it so relevant.”
As for the resistance against Gilead and the true nature of Mayday, Miller says viewers shouldn’t necessarily see that group as saviors to the handmaids.
“I think there’s the realization that whatever rebellion and help they’re going to get, they’re going to get from each other. But the way that this society has been set up, with great effort to diminish women’s power, they’ve stupidly given women the opportunity to come together and build lots of very clandestine power. Once again women are underestimated.”Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@