There is a woman-wet, terrified, lost and cradling a hungry, crying infant as she wanders in the middle of the night not quite sure which way leads her to safety- who eventually falls on dry land. She becomes nearly catatonic when border patrol agents cover her in blankets and call for medical aid.
She’s safe. She made it. Her recovery and acclimation process must now begin.
Another woman, fueled by adrenaline and desperation, sits by her sleeping daughter’s bedside and struggles to form as many meaningful words as possible- ones that she hopes will seep into the child’s subconscious-before officials rip her away for what they deem to be criminal activities.
She’s not as fortunate. For now.
Both of these women are characters in the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale and played, respectively, by Emmy winners Alexis Bledel and Elisabeth Moss. They both wear the oxblood red dresses assigned to the few women still able to reproduce in Gilead, the religious dystopia in what used to be America that Canadian author Margaret Atwood dreamed up for her seminal novel. The events depicted in her work are not only rooted in actual crimes that have happened to women throughout history but serve as the basis for this series, which is created by Bruce Miller and begins its third season on June 5.
But, depending on your choice of cable news channel, these two stories could easily be about people struggling in our current political climate. Beyond ICE raids and the migrant crisis, the show has also been referenced in conjunction with the stringent, harmful anti-abortion legislation currently attempting to become law in states like Alabama and Georgia. It was even recently discovered that a popular women’s fertility tracker app is funded by anti-abortion campaigners.
None of these unfortunate examples of life imitating art are lost on Miller.
“I’d really like my show to become irrelevant,” Miller sighs when we speak by phone earlier this week, him from a New York hotel during Hulu’s press junket for the show and me sitting in (of all the appropriate places) my obstetrician’s office in Los Angeles. “It feels awful. Imagine being in our [the writers’] position: We think of the worst thing that could happen and then it starts to happen in the world.”
Perhaps this is why the tone of the show has shifted for the third season. Mind you: this is still a world where women are held as sex slaves by puritanical masters, and rebels are murdered, their bodies strung up in the town square as warnings. But-and maybe this is because we, as viewers, have embraced a sort of peak TV Stockholm Syndrome to carnage- it isn’t as gruesome as Season Two, a season that caused The Cut to dissect what it called “The Relentless Torture of The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Miller argues it wasn’t so much an editorial decision to switch courses as it came out of a necessity to follow Moss’s character June. The narrator of this Tale, June was last seen entrusting her newborn daughter to the care of Bledel’s Emily in the hopes that they would make it safely to Canada. That way she could go back to save the elder child who was taken away from her and, in the process, maybe also dismantle the patriarchy.
“She’s learned [through the past two seasons] that sometimes the possible becomes possible and, what she’s doing this season, is seeing how far she can push that,” Miller says. Things don’t go well in the first episode, but he says “I think that June has the right to think that she might make that long jump shot. I think this season is really about resistance and we follow June into that story.”
This season maybe even could be considered a user’s manual for many a frustrated liberal, as Miller says it’s about “June understanding what it means to rebel, really – not in a book, not in a movie, not in a TV show.”
“If I said to you today, OK, start rebelling against your government … What? Do you go buy Rebelling for Dummies? I don’t know what you do,” he says. “She has the will and this season’s about her finding the way. She gets knocked down a lot. A lot of her victories are incremental. But she is a different woman than she was in the beginning.”
There are also story choices that suggest that Miller and his staff understand fans’ previous discomfort. The first episode, which is directed by series executive producer and frequent helmer Mike Barker, has June stoically accepting that her captors will lash her for fleeing, and then doing penance by mopping the floor while nursing bloody feet. However it does not, purposefully, show the actual whipping.
“I’m very squeamish about that stuff myself,” says Miller, admitting that he’s the type of person who can only watch horror movies in the safety of his own kitchen with low-to-no sound. “What I try to do is say ‘do I need to see this to understand June?’. The only reason we show traumatic experiences is because, without them, you are not with June anymore.”
All of these decisions are not without sacrifices, of course-and not just physical ones. June’s Sophie’s Choice-like decision to send one daughter into the great unknown with Emily, who was most likely unstable and suffering from PTSD, in order to fool-heartedly try to save another with no real game plan in place also caused confusion and ire among avid watchers.
“I know people had strong opinions on that, but they weren’t nearly as strong as the fights we had about it in the writers’ room,” Miller deadpans, adding that “I have three children and I can’t imagine either scenario. I can’t imagine getting on that truck and going [to Canada] and leaving my daughter behind … I’d rather get killed trying. On the other hand, why would I stay? I think June is thinking ‘I actually have enough skills to make it out.’”
Yes, but who can June really trust in a place like this? Bradley Whitford’s Commander Lawrence got her and Emily that truck and acted like the Oskar Schindler of Gilead last season, seemingly feeling remorse for creating the blueprints for this entire oppressive operation and now deciding to become a savior. But is he though? Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy looked to be June’s right-hand inside the country’s elite power structure. But that was before they mutilated her for attempting to rise up against the high-ranking men, so she agreed to let June run off with the one thing she ever wanted: her (well, really June’s) baby.
“I like when characters are trying to convince themselves over the long term that this was a good thing to do; that the positives outweigh the negatives,” Miller says of Serena specifically. “Otherwise, you’ve got a world where half the people in power you don’t understand at all. And, I think, if that’s the show, it’s unwatchable.”
As for Max Minghella’s Nick? He may be the biological father of June’s baby, but we’ve already seen flashbacks from previous seasons that he’s been with these fundamentalists since their early days. At what point will those two have to turn on each other?
Miller says that Nick may have a high ranking and was originally there to spy on her and others, but “he treats her like a woman. He treats her like a person. I don’t know how easy would be to shake him.”
“He’s so valuable to her emotionally in terms of living, and they certainly have a spark together,” Miller says. “She’s in a world where people like Nick-people in her life who do what Nick does for her- amount to zero, except for Nick.”
All of this begs the biggest question: How much longer can June survive on pluck in a world that finds clever women to be problematic?
“This is a story that is being told in retrospect, just like the book,” Miller reminds, explaining that the lower the birth rate goes in this world, the more valuable handmaids become-even outspoken ones. “June survives long enough to make a cassette tape telling us what happened. The reason we’re following her is because she survived and was able to tell her story.”
The third season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale premieres June 5.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Esquire, Elle, Complex, Vulture, Marie Claire, Toronto Star and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son and very photogenic cat.