[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers from Episodes 1 and 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2.]
In the first two episodes of Season 2, we don’t see one of the locations where “The Handmaid’s Tale” spent much of its time in Season 1: the Waterford house, essentially the prison of Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss), a woman trapped by a brutal regime. “We don’t live at the Waterford house. Our world is so much larger than that, particularly in Season 2,” executive producer Warren Littlefield said.
Instead, the journey of Offred/June goes entirely new places, from ballparks to airports to the Colonies and beyond, which presented no shortage of filmmaking challenges for the show. In addition, the production team was dealing with the physical brutalities of life in Gilead — from simulated torture to self-mutilation. The behind-the-scenes difficulties, both emotional, practical, and legal, were momentous, though as Littlefield and Moss explained to IndieWire, returning for a second season after the unprecedented success of its first season did bring with it some perks.
“She’s Trying to Be Strong”
One of the Season 2 premiere’s most haunting scenes features Offred, now revealed to be pregnant, eating a bowl of soup while the handmaids who rebelled with her at the end of Season 1 are systematically burned for their transgressions. It’s incredibly hard to watch, though Moss said that making that moment wasn’t as tough as you might think.
“It’s so funny because when you’re filming a scene, it’s often quite different than when you watch it,” she said. “When we were filming that scene, there was a certain amount of practicality: There’s a lot of background artists, there’s the burning, the sort of mechanics of that, and I heard the screams of Nina [Kiri], our actress who plays Alma.”
But on set, Moss said that in her experience, “you’re experiencing what the character is experiencing, which is, in a way, I think she wants to shut down those feelings. I think she is trying to not hear. She is trying to not be in that room. You know? How else could you get through that situation than try not to be there. It’s the same thing with the Ceremonies that we did in Season 1.”
So her approach was that “June, in that moment, is trying to be strong. She’s trying to be strong, she’s trying not to hear it, she knows there’s nothing she can do, and she’s going to get through it. She doesn’t give two shits anymore about anything, and she cares about these women, but she also knows that she can’t do anything. She knows she can’t stop them, and there’s a toughness to that. There’s an acceptance of reality to that that is definitely a big part of June in Season 2.”
However, that’s on set, which is a very different thing from what you see on screen. “When I watched the first cut of it, I was devastated,” Moss said. “I was just so incredible affected by that scene, in a way that I was almost surprised by.”
“We Take It One Step Further”
Another iconic, gut-wrenching moment comes courtesy of June’s own hand, as she marks her freedom at the end of Episode 1 by removing the ear tag marking her as property of Gilead — with a pair of scissors. It’s a moment that was teased for months following the release of a few first-look photos, including the above shot: “The number one question about that photo has been, is it your blood or is it someone else’s?” Moss said with a laugh. “Which I think is so fun.”
Moss walked IndieWire through the process of filming the scene, first on the practical level: “It was very complicated. Quite a lot of makeup tests and a lot of figuring out what that was going to be.”
The solution they found was to create a prosthetic ear, requiring an ear cast (though Moss noted that she went ahead and had both ears done, “because why not? Why not get both?”). And then “that prosthetic ear was placed over my ear, so I was able to cut into the prosthetic ear. And then there was a tube of blood that went up behind my back and shoots out blood, which never really goes the way that you plan it to go, but, you know, bless our incredible makeup team, and our prosthetic makeup team.”
Moss loved the moment because “it’s so representative of our show. A lot of other shows would end with the cutting of the hair and the burning of the dress. We take it one step further, and I just love that moment, for the audience, when she turns around, and you’re like, oh, no. Please, God, no. Then, not only that, she doesn’t just cut it off with one fell swoop and then it comes out. She gets in there, it doesn’t come out, and she’s got to go back in.”
“That, to me, is so epic, and so our show,” she added. “And it was pretty fun to be covered in blood. I’ve got some pretty funny behind the scenes photos.”
Moss’s pro tip for removing fake blood, by the way, tracks with other actors for whom this is a job hazard: Shaving cream. “Like Gillette, the white, foamy stuff.”
One nice thing that happens after you win the Emmy for Best Drama: You hear a lot more people say yes instead of no, when you’re working on your second season. “We can’t handle the amount of calls where representatives say to us, I handle this actor, actress, and they’re obsessed with your show, and we just can’t handle all the names,” Littlefield said.
And that came in quite handy for a few elements of the first two episodes. The premiere’s jaw-dropping opener, for example, wouldn’t have been possible without the cooperation of the Boston Red Sox, as it’s no ordinary field where Offred and her fellow handmaids are dragged to the gallows — it’s the legendary Fenway Park.
“We couldn’t depict Fenway without them agreeing to it,” Littlefield told IndieWire, “so I went to [Boston Red Sox chairman] Tom Werner, and I said, ‘Hey, here’s what we want to do.'”
Major League Baseball is a pretty conservative organization in general, and Werner’s reaction to Littlefield’s request was “How is this is good for baseball? How is this is good for the Red Sox?”
Littlefield told him that by staging the scene at Fenway, viewers would “appreciate that a sacred part of America is gone.” And the board of directors met to decide the issue just coincidentally the day after last September’s Emmys ceremony, when “The Handmaid’s Tale” took home eight trophies.
To create the scene, “we shot for a night at Fenway with our visual effects team,” Littlefield said. “We shot plates, and then we shot the actual scene at a ballfield in Hamilton, not too far from Toronto.”
It wasn’t the only time Littlefield needed to make a similar call. In Episode 2, we see June relax with an old episode of NBC’s “Friends”; Littlefield had to get every actor who appeared in the clip to sign off on it being used on screen. As the former president of NBC, this wasn’t too tough for him to arrange, but the show’s success made things even easier.
The owner of the Boston Globe also agreed to let the show use the paper’s logo on screen, while the scenes in which June hides inside the now-shuttered Globe offices were shot over the course of five nights in an active Canadian newspaper office.
And Littlefield was able to arrange for Episode 2 to end with what was an idea dreamed up by the episode’s editor. “He was in the shower or something, and he went, you know, we open in Fenway, and maybe it would just be different, and interesting, if we captured the greatest moment in the history of that team, if we captured that audio.”
Thus, the episode ends with commentator Joe Buck calling the last moments of Game 4 of the 2004 World Series, when the Red Sox broke 86 years of superstition for an epic win. The “Handmaid” team offered to make a donation to Buck’s favorite charity for the rights, and Buck agreed.
“People want, in just any small way, to be a part of it,” Littlefield said.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2 is streaming now on Hulu.