'The Handmaid's Tale' Boss Talks That Harrowing Twist and Finale Cliffhangers

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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the ninth episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “The Bridge.”]

It turns out that Janine (Madeline Brewer) wasn’t as damaged as everyone thought. Or maybe she was, and it took the events of the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale to push her over the physical edge.

Following her displacement from the Putnam household, Janine grew tired of waiting for her former Commander to find her and whisk her away, so she took matters into her own hands by kidnapping her baby and threatening to jump off a bridge. In the end, it was Offred (Elisabeth Moss) who got the baby back. However, convinced there was nothing left for her in Gilead, or anywhere, Janine plummeted below, only to miraculously survive.

Meanwhile, Offred escaped in her own way, by attempting to help Mayday recover a package from Jezebels and convincing The Commander (Joseph Fiennes) to take her back. Once there however, he let on that he knew more than he appeared to, pulling Moira (Samira Wiley) into the room for a mini reunion. As The Commander showered, Offred attempted to talk some sense into her former friend, reminding her not to let the bastards grind her down.

The motivational speech appeared to work, because by the episode’s end, the old Moira had resurfaced and she escaped Jezebels with fresh blood on her hands. Meanwhile back at the Waterford household, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) finally entered The Commander’s office, suspicious about his relationship with Offred.

To break down the episode’s departures from Margaret Atwood’s book and to dissect the odd power structure in Gilead, THR caught up with showrunner Bruce Miller.

Are commanders making these kinds of promises to handmaids a common thing in Gilead?

We’re trying to show other examples of how things work in Gilead. At a certain point in the show, you’re wondering whether the Waterford house is an example that translates — is it a common example or is it an anomaly. So we’re trying to show, in the same ways and different ways, there are other houses that are running out there and it’s happening in different ways according to the personalities of the people involved.

There were hints in the book that commanders were having outside relationships with their handmaids. We were following that but also how power corrupts people to feel comfortable exercising the most thoughtless and controlling parts of their personalities. These are men who hold the lives of these women in their hands and even if for a while they believe they’re in it for a noble cause, we’ve shown in the flashbacks that people were fooling around with the handmaids from the very beginning. So in that way you want to show how the commanders have, across the board, complete control. You’re living at the whim of this person, and when you mix in sexuality and marriage and religion and sexual desires and the desire to get pregnant, it gets awfully messy awfully quickly.

Why reveal Janine’s status at the end of the episode rather than leave it as a cliffhanger?

There were a couple of reasons, but the first was that it was more of an Aunt Lydia moment than a Janine moment. Just the idea of, who would be sitting by her bedside but Aunt Lydia? It was more about that connection, but we also wanted to show that she hadn’t been killed in the fall, that she was still around. We didn’t cover that with the way it ended and how everyone else reacted. But more importantly, it was an Aunt Lydia moment to kind of expand her character rather than proof to the audience that Janine was alive or trying to explain something.

How does an event like this impact Aunt Lydia?

It’s up for discussion. The audience could probably come up with a lot of different answers. Some may say it doesn’t impact her at all; she’s a terrible, heartless shrew and a monster. But for me it’s an example of what she feels like she’s been tasked to deal with: keeping these girls sane in an insane situation, toughening them up. Aunt Lydia is doing her duty, she has a mission to do, they have something to accomplish and everybody else should follow the rules. If something goes wrong, Aunt Lydia is not going to accept that it’s her girl, she’s going to look for someone who is at fault. In this case, it’s apparent the commander is as much at fault. They’re all at fault, but in Aunt Lydia’s view the commander is at fault as much as Janine. He lied to her.

Is there a follow-through to Warren’s punishment?

Yes, and that idea is very much taken from Puritan times in Massachusetts where the whole family would bear the burden, or the whole community would bear the burden of the sins of one. So it’s not something we’re used to so much in our society; in Gilead it falls on the person and the people who prevented the sinner from committing that sin or should have prevented them from committing that sin, like their wife. We’re going to follow Warren and Naomi … we only have one more episode this season but also moving ahead into the next season.

This seems like a wake-up call for Serena. Has she been living in denial?

I don’t know if it’s denial; it’s will. She’s ignoring something willfully. She knows what’s going on, but she’s ignoring it like she ignores so much because of the promise of having a child, which is something that in her case takes a lot of outside force and outside help to make happen. She’s not deluding herself, but she’s very good at compartmentalizing and saying, “OK, that’s what Fred is doing, this is what I’m doing and we’re all pulling on different oars, but we’re all trying to get to the same place and get a baby into this house.”

The Commander proved he is wiser than he lets on during the Jezebels scene; how does that impact things between him and Offred?

Offred has a better sense of his danger than we do. She treats him so carefully the entire way through. Every line that comes out of her mouth, every smile, every gesture, she thinks through. Offred’s view of The Commander is that he is totally dangerous — dangerous, unpredictable, vicious, potentially cruel, potentially deadly. That’s hard for us to get our heads around, but it’s not hard for Offred. This isn’t a revelation, but it scares the shit out of her in the moment and it certainly makes her decision in the episode to try to still help out Mayday even braver. It shows that she’s got an honest view of the situation and an honest view of The Commander but that she also is willing even with that honest view and reasonable amount of terror to go forward and act, which makes her even more brave.

Is it purposeful that you’ve given glimpses into everyone’s backstory but The Commander?

Yes and no. In the book, he’s such an elusive character that we decided fairly early on we didn’t want to take that away too quickly we didn’t want to expose him, because Offred’s life is trying to predict how The Commander and Serena Joy feel at certain points. We didn’t want to peel away too much of that. There is a lot of stuff in the season that you get a sense of how he operates as a politician, how he operates in his work. You get a sense of all those things. But he’s really scary because you don’t know much about him; you don’t know what he’s capable of. It was really an attempt to keep one of the main terrifying, thrilling elements in the show terrifying, by keeping us a little bit ignorant of him. He’s fascinating; we’re dying to get into his backstory, but it really felt like it might hurt the viewer experience.

This is Moira’s second escape with roughly the same plan, so does she know where she’s going or what she’s doing?

She has a much better plan than she had before because she’s been through this before. She probably learned a lot escaping from Boston and she got a certain way outside of the city, but I’m sure she learned a hell of a lot along the way about how to hide, how to escape, the best routes, how to approach it. Maybe she’s using the same plan, but it’s been sharpened quite a bit. She didn’t take anybody prisoner in this story. She’s got blood on her hands; she killed a guy to get out of there. She’s more decisive and more committed to doing what she has to do in this case than she was before, which shows what Gilead has done to her.

There are lots of threads heading into the finale. Did getting a second season change how you approached it, or is the last episode always the one you intended to do?

It’s the finale I’ve always had in my head. When you work on a show, you have to approach it as if it’s moving on to the second season. We do have a lot of threads out there when the finale ends, so of course you’re very happy to come back and start weaving those threads together for the second season. But we didn’t change anything. We didn’t make anything more of a cliffhanger than it was. The book is kind of notoriously full of cliffhangers in general. After Offred sees Moira at Jezebels, she never sees her again, she has no idea what happens to her. So just by virtue of the point of view in the book, so many things are unknown to Offred that it is a world of cliffhangers. So we certainly didn’t have to add to that by manufacturing falsely dramatic ones. We have plenty of questions that need to be answered and plenty of people that we were worried about what their fate is going to be.

New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale premiere Wednesdays on Hulu. Bookmark THR.com/HandmaidsTale for full coverage. Thoughts? Sound off in the comments below.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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