[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 1 Episode 3, “Late.” Mature content follows.]
It’s rare to see a famous author rendered nearly speechless. But at Tuesday night’s premiere of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Oh my god!” was all Margaret Atwood could initially say to IndieWire about her reaction to the end of Episode 3.
We weren’t totally shocked by her response, because those final moments might be the most shocking TV moment of 2017 so far… and it’s going to be hard to top. In Atwood’s words, “What happens to Ofglen is pretty ferocious.”
“I thought it was devastating … utterly devastating,” co-star Alexis Bledel said. “It felt like we were filming a scene out of a horror film.”
One of the major promises made with “The Handmaid’s Tale” is that the dystopian adaptation, chronicling a world where a fertility crisis and the rise of religious extremism has stripped women of their basic rights in the new nation of Gilead, would expand the narrative beyond the point of view of protagonist Offred (Elisabeth Moss). And we see that in “Late,” the episode that reveals Ofglen’s (Bledel) fate as a woman living in this society found guilty of the crime of “gender traitor” — otherwise known as being gay.
At first, our hearts break for Ofglen (real name Emily) as she and her lover are convicted for the crime of loving each other. But while her lover is executed, Emily is spared due to her status as a fertile woman, which makes her still valuable to Gilead. However, in the final moments of the episode, we learn her sentence: female genital mutilation.
“We talked to the U.N. about female genital mutilation,” he said. “We did a lot of research. And it seemed like, not always, but even the cultural reasons behind it where it was practiced were about tempering desire. So it seemed to make a lot of sense, just from a very practical point of view — which is really the way you have to look at it, because once you start getting into manufactured cruelties in a world like this, the show turns into pornography.
“And so we didn’t want to manufacture things,” he added. “These are things that happen to people around the world. It just doesn’t often happen to white girls.”
That said, Miller was very sensitive to making sure that while the scene had an impact, it wasn’t gratuitous. “You don’t see anything at all, and it isn’t even mentioned exactly what has happened,” he said. “But you see the impact — the emotional impact — on her.”
The vibe might have been abetted by the circumstances under which they filmed the scene: “We shot in the middle of the night in an empty hospital, and the way the set was dressed, it looked a little bit futuristic almost,” Bledel said. “It felt a little bit separate from the rest of Ofglen’s experience. And as the scene plays out, she realizes … maybe not 100 percent; I don’t think she’s afforded 100 percent certainty by the end of the scene, but she certainly has an indication of what has come to pass.”
Bledel was quick to name-check director Reed Morano for the impact of that moment. “She just has a really intuitive creative process when it comes to working with actors that I just really enjoyed. It felt like we were on the same page the whole time, and I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced that before.”
Bledel also offered up a lot of credit to co-star Ann Dowd as a scene partner. “She’s able to bring such a range of emotions to each exchange. She’s just a master of her craft. She’s very dexterous in the scene. She can send something your way that you’re not expecting and surprises you, and that keeps the scene very alive with possibility and tension.”
Dowd was equally effusive about Bledel’s work, noting that when they shot this pivotal scene, “We were going to be the first scene of the day. And then we found out we were going to be last up, and by ‘last up’ I mean 3 a.m. And I looked at her and I said, ‘Is this happening?’ and she said, ‘It happens.’ She has a little baby so her sleeping hours were all over the place, and I thought to myself, ‘Shut your mouth.'”
It’s a staggering scene, and one that Miller hopes has an impact beyond the narrative of the show. “Thinking about the actual ins and outs of something like that, how it would happen, it really brings to life the experiences of the women around the world to which this has happened in a very concrete way,” he said. “You understand how you intellectually see something as just horrible but kind of unfathomable because it adds up to a much more unreasonable terror.”
“That was my feeling, because you’re raising awareness while you’re not making something up. You’re saying this is how it would be in the real world. This is how it would really be in America.”
The first three episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” are streaming now on Hulu. Future episodes premiere on Wednesdays.