So what happens when you pick up where the book left off?
“This is a more common experience for me in television writing, approaching something without source material,” showrunner Bruce Miller said. “It was a little bit more comfortable than adapting one of the world’s greatest pieces of literature, which, you know, has a smidge of pressure attached to it.”
On Wednesday, the Hulu series kicked off its sophomore season with two heart-pumping episodes. New episodes will then post weekly, until a July 11 finale.
Below are highlights from a conversation with Miller about fan-favorite characters, how the show responded to critics of its handling of race, and how best to watch an emotionally charged series. (Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
The way we approached it was very much to try to make it still feel like the world Margaret Atwood created. A lot of times, you adapt a classic work and the author is unfortunately long gone, and Margaret’s very much with us, so we got to pick her brain for what her thinking behind the story was. But also the biggest thing, honestly, was she was so encouraging with coming up with new stuff. When the book ends, you’re furious. So you get this great benefit of saying, “Oh, I get to come up with what happens next.” Margaret was just as excited — even though she made the decision to infuriate everybody. She made us feel very free in terms of what we could do.
In the first season she got all the cuts, all the scripts, all the outlines. I talked to her about a million details, big and small. She came to the writers’ room, and then at the beginning of Season 2, she came to the writers’ room and also has every script and every outline.
Given the rich, very dynamic world Margaret set up, there really is no shortage of possible stories. There’s international elements, there’s political elements, beyond just the personal. There’s all these flashbacks of how Gilead came to be.
Also, when you start to get into the practical arc of a place like Gilead, if eventually it does fall, I would love to see that. And I don’t know about you, but I’d love to see the Nuremberg trials with the Commander [Joseph Fiennes] and Serena Joy [Yvonne Strahovski].
It caused a lot of discussions that were kind of embarrassing, and honest and difficult. When you’re in a position like I am, you feel ashamed that things are happening all around you that you never were aware of, which just makes you feel like a dope and a bad boss and a bad friend. The first thing you do is turn to your friends and colleagues at work and say, “Is this how things work here? Is this how things were back in your career?”
Our show’s a little bit of an outlier because there was such a huge push from [us], and me personally, to hire women at every single level. The show has such a female-centered voice in the main character. Through the first season you really recognize the difference between a female director’s eye and a male director’s eye, because we had all female directors.
We do so much about the small things that happened in the past that lead to unpredictable big things that happen in the future. And so this movement, and how metastasized sexual assault and any kind of sexual discomfort in the workplace is, how widespread it was . . . when you hear people’s stories that are tough to tell about things that happened to them in the past, all of that honesty just helps us a ton. And for us, we’re saying, “Okay, let’s take it four or five steps down the road, and how might that turn into one of the forces that created Gilead.”
It’s a combination of just having a bunch of news and political junkies on the writing staff and in the cast, and it’s a very political time. People are talking politics all the time — that isn’t true at every point in history — about what it means to be a democracy, and the way we would need to be led and what is moral leadership. And that’s kind of the world the show swims in. We certainly don’t have to reach for relevance. Margaret did that for us, and unfortunately, the tide of history did that for us.
In [the book], it was an all-white society. And we didn’t want [the show] to not look like the society that people have around them today, because anything that can make it not your world, it can make it feel not as scary.
It is important for us to represent people of color both visually in the world and narratively and follow these people’s stories and how much of a force race and racism was in their journey to where they got. We still want to tell those stories.
That said, we were criticized and we took it to heart. And honestly — it gets such a bad rap, all the conversations people have on Twitter and stuff — this was spectacularly cordial and thoughtful and so enthusiastic, so we learned a ton.
We’re dealing with politics and fertility, and good God, there’s women’s sovereignty over their own bodies, and I think we’re just going to continue to focus on that struggle. But race is a huge factor in that. This season, we made kind of a big effort to explore those things a little more deeply.
Even though we wanted to tell Aunt Lydia’s backstory this year, we didn’t end up getting to it. You just have so much story to tell.
Some shows, I feel like they do backstory just to do backstory, but for us, it’s so much part of the present story. This year, we see a little bit of Emily’s backstory, with Alexis Bledel. We see a good bit of Moira’s [Samira Wiley] backstory.
But also I’m incredibly curious about what the heck leads someone like Lydia to be the amalgam of cruelty and charity that she has become.
Listen, I’m with you. I find it a really challenging show to make and watch over and over again, because a lot of it is stories of a terrible place. A character like Offred [Elisabeth Moss], what makes her triumph so miraculous is the fact that [her circumstance] is so horrendous and awful. It’s so gut-wrenching. So in one way, her heroism is measured against the terribleness of the locale that she’s been posted in.
But I would say my advice to people is, one at a time. We very, very much did not write a show to be binged. Not that you can’t, but people who say that they binged it — I think you need a lot of scotch in a baby bottle and a blanket for a while.
We’re certainly not trying to make it impossible to watch. You don’t want it to turn into torture porn. We followed the same rule that Margaret followed, which was what happens to our characters, especially the women, isn’t something that hasn’t happened to women or isn’t happening to women right now.
I always see it in terms of, what do I have to show to tell the story, and don’t show anything more if it’s something terrible.
We don’t use [the terrible] as entertainment. The entertainment part of it is the character triumphing.