[Editor’s note: Spoilers follow for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 1, Episode 10, “Night.”]
“You know when you start something like this, there are a lot of hurdles,” he told IndieWire. “The hurdle of not screwing it up for all the fans of the book. The hurdle of not screwing it up and having Margret Atwood come after you with a knife.”
But critics, fans and Atwood seem pleased, giving Miller and his team a reception beyond his expectations. “My fear was that people would miss stuff that was in there and feel a little lost, and it’s not been that way,” he said.
Instead, viewers are captivated by the series, which has been renewed for a second season — good news for anyone rendered speechless by the dramatic Season 1 finale. Below, Miller explains why a male leader received the most brutal treatment possible, and what audiences can expect from seasons to come, given the fact that…
Basically, you have Season 1 essentially end where the book ends.
Oh, not essentially — word for word, it ends where the book would have been over.
What was it about ending at that point that was important for you?
I felt like the ending of the book, when I read it, was both a satisfying ending to that chapter of Offred’s story, but really it felt like the end of one chapter and moving into another chapter.
You have to look past the fact that you’re going to the end of the book. We were never that concerned with going beyond the book in Season 1. We followed the story where we followed it, and where it led us. She ends up pregnant, she ends up in the van, we don’t know where she’s going to go. But she also has these victories in the finale. I think that it could not set us up better for a Season 2.
There were lots of things that were in the first season. Some of our most successful things were not from the book, so we weren’t really worried about exhausting the book because really Atwood’s world is so vast and rich, and the characters are so vast and rich that, that really is the creative engine of the show, not the particular incidence from the first season.
One of the things about the ending, though, is the implication that we might not see the Waterfords again. What kind of conversations have you had with Yvonne [Strahovski] and Joseph [Fiennes] about it?
I haven’t really talked to Yvonne and Joe too much about Season 2, just because, in a very classical way when you’re still forming a season, you don’t want to talk too much. You don’t want to lead people down the primrose path and say, “Oh this is where your character is gonna go,” and then they start working and then I say, “Oh I changed my mind. I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that.”
It’s a very practical thing. I’m not trying to hide anything from my co-workers. I’m just trying to make sure that I’m telling them something that’s true because they really put a lot of faith in it. The Waterfords are going to be a big part of next season and I don’t want to tell you how, but certainly in a way connected to Offred.
In terms of speaking about Season 2, is it daunting at all to know that you’ve gone beyond the book, and now you are in unexplored territory?
It isn’t a surprise that it’s a little nerve-racking. On the other hand, because I always was planning for a second season, and a third season and a fourth season, that’s optimistically what you have a plan for. Because I was doing all of that, a lot of those conversations and a lot of those butterflies went away the middle of last season, when I was thinking about what I was going to do in Season 2.
There’s two practical things. First is that the end of the book is universally frustrating. Everybody wants to know what happened next. So in that way, you’re doing a TV show that’s delivering a service to the people who really loved the book. You’re giving them a possible continuation of that story. And the scale of the book, even though the particular central part of it is just Offred, it goes well beyond that. There are tons of hints and pieces [in the Historical Notes] that we’ve been using to construct the story that falls into those years between the end of “The Handmaid’s Tale” in the book and the historical assessment that comes afterwards.
Connected to that: In the finale you have the very striking sequence where the other Commander is punished. In the book’s Historical Notes [a section of Atwood’s book which delve into the aftermath of Gilead’s early years], it’s made clear that there was a lot of corruption in the early years of Gilead. When did you decide to make that very explosive within the first season?
I decided that as soon as Commander Waterford started to break the rules. The absolute corruption of that kind of absolute power is undeniable, and when you add a kind of sexual element in to it, it’s just bound to be a terrible, heartless situation, no matter how you slice it.
So my thinking about it was that, you want to show the repercussions of what’s happening, what the Commanders are doing. From the time that you see that the Commanders in general see themselves as above the law and see Handmaids as their sexual right, then you’re in to a territory where all you want is to see someone get their hand cut off. You don’t want any anesthetic, you just want to see it get done.
But in the finale, Ofwarren’s Commander does get anesthetic, which is a fascinating contrast — the brutality of the moment made possible by the very methodical, modern science.
Yeah, it was a big discussion. Our feeling was that there was a practical concern and there was a world concern. The practical concern was we thought if [Gilead] is going to cut someone’s hand off, they want it done in a clean environment. It isn’t the pain of cutting it off, it is the lifetime of not having it. That is what they’re after.
It’s the same thing with Janine’s eye — they put her out to take the eye out because otherwise if you’re thrashing around, who knows what they could do to her? So I think there is a practical side to it. Also, they punish people with pain all the time. I don’t think that this is a pain punishment, it’s a public humiliation punishment and a lifetime disfigurement and disability punishment. It’s just a different thing.
Of all the things that you’re excited about for Season 2, what’s at the top of your list?
I’m really excited to bring to life some of the places that we didn’t get to see in the book or in the first season. For example, the Colonies. Maybe more back story of what happened to Hannah between the time she was taken from her mom and now. We got a kind of tantalizing glimpse of kind of a strange world that she might be living in, in the finale.
I’m also curious, after the season airs, to hear what people take away from it, what they’re interested in. I have been following a lot of the debates and discussions on social media and I really find that incredibly inquiring and helpful and thoughtful. Just because it picks up things that you didn’t think about. But it also picks up things that you didn’t know were there. There’s puzzle pieces that you didn’t intend to be there and people are like, “Oh.” Everybody is kind of agreed that, that’s something interesting and you’re like, “Oh, well, I should certainly listen to the people who are watching the show.”
Timeline-wise, where are you at in terms of the production of Season 2?
I really started to think about Season 2 halfway through Season 1. We’re in the process of figuring out the season and writing scripts — we’ll be doing that right up until production and beyond when we start in September.
For Season 2, do you feel like it’s going to be possible to go darker than you did with Season 1?
It’s always possible to go darker. I don’t think it’s intended. I think that there are very, very dark pieces of the storyline that we’re following, but just like Season 1, darkness is never the goal.
I think as a writer, as a creator of television, what you’re looking for is to have people walk away discussing and thinking about the interesting thing that you did — light or dark. The light stuff should be just as compelling as the dark stuff.
The full first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is streaming now on Hulu.