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Television Authoritarianism in the Handmaid’s Tale on TV strikes eerie echoes in Donald Trump’s America

The Handmaid's Tale is seen in Canada on Bravo.

Take Five/Bell Media/Take Five/Bell Media

On a Saturday night last month, masked vandals clad in black stormed through a commercial district in southwest Hamilton carrying a banner which read “We Are The Ungovernables,” chucking rocks through storefront windows and terrifying residents. An anonymous blogger declared it to be a protest against gentrification, which had brought, along with artisanal donut and cupcake shops, rising rents that were pushing lower-income people out of their homes.

“‘Better’ never means better for everyone,” somebody else wrote. “It always means worse for some.”

Okay, nobody actually said that about the protest. It’s a line from Margaret Atwood’s landmark 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale.

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But there’s a curious dynamic at play here. Because, while politicians and locals understandably denounced the real-world violence in Hamilton, viewers of the acclaimed TV adaptation of Handmaid are encouraged to cheer for a similarly clear-eyed, rebellious spirit. The show frequently shoots in Hamilton, and in the dying minutes of the first season, the protagonist, Offred (Elisabeth Moss), struts triumphantly down a residential street of expansive homes – located, as it happens, a few blocks from where the vandals roamed – trailed by two dozen of her fellow handmaids who are feeling newly empowered after refusing to do the bidding of their totalitarian overlords in the Republic of Gilead.

The brief scene was one of the few fizzy, uplifting moments in the series and, coming as it did in June, 2017, it played like a vicarious howl in the face of mounting fears of authoritarianism on this side of the screen.

But then, Gilead and our own world have been bleeding into each other ever since Handmaid burst like a roman candle onto the scene last year, borne on wings of gorgeous despair and exquisite timing.

After Hulu, the U.S. streaming service behind the show, sent a couple of dozen actors dressed in Handmaid’s signature blood-red cloaks and white bonnets onto the streets of Austin for a promotional stunt during last year’s South By Southwest festival, pro-choice advocates took the cue and donned their own version of the uniform for a protest at the Texas State Capitol. Propelled by a torrent of newspaper and magazine think pieces drawing parallels between the dystopian, theocratic state of Gilead – in which the few remaining fertile women serve as concubines for the rich and powerful – and a United States of America with a newly inaugurated grabber-in-chief, Handmaid won eight Primetime Emmy Awards, including best drama.

Costumes that will be part of The Handmaid's Tale, Season 2.

Brooke Palmer

The show made Hulu a must-subscribe service in the United States, and reminded Canadians that Bravo, its broadcaster here, could be a home for high-quality programming. As the #MeToo movement erupted last fall, forging and fomenting a new wave of feminism, Handmaid’s relevance seemed only to increase.

Still, it is just a television show. And during a recent visit to the Handmaid production offices in advance of the second season’s launch on April 29, the cast and crew admitted to some trepidation over how its sophomore effort might land.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” nods Bruce Miller, the show’s creator, head writer, and executive producer, during a tour of the show’s sets at Cinespace, the west-end Toronto studio complex where the production is based.

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“You want to take into account how your show affects the world,” he acknowledges. Still, it’s dangerous to pay too much attention to the response. “To try to predict the future is really bad. Like: ‘Oh, we could do (X), but then people are going to react (in a particular way).’ It’s a game that has no end.”

“We’re not trying to tell people where our show fits into their life, or their view of the world. We’re making a TV show, and we’re trying to make it interesting and compelling, and have people dive in deeply.” He chuckles. “It’s the ultimate ‘mansplaining’ to tell your audience how to react to your show.”

Besides, even as Donald Trump’s America hovers in the background, Miller is uncomfortable when the show is too on-the-nose: He explains that, when he initially sketched out the scripts for the first season a few years ago, one character promised another they were going to “make this country great again.”

“We had to cut it, because it turned out to be the slogan for an election we didn’t know was coming.”

A set to be used in Season 2 of the show.

Brooke Palmer

Talk to some of the cast and crew, though, and the subject of Trump often comes up, unprompted. Ane Crabtree, the show’s costume designer, says that, after the election, “I had so much anger as an artist, and as a brown-skinned, multiracial person with a lot of views about things – with an immigrant mother, no less. All the things that Trump is against. So, hell yeah, I threw that back into the clothes. It’s all I had, as a voice.”

But if Trump is a bogeyman, he is also an object of sympathy for actress Ann Dowd, who notes it’s her job to understand and bring humanity to people considered by others to be evil. Dowd, who plays the handmaids’ puritanical guardian/Mother Superior figure, Aunt Lydia, says she continues to wonder about the experiences that shaped her character: “What happened to her in her early adolescence? Did she enjoy sex, get caught, feel such shame and mortification?” Dowd muses over the phone from New York, where she lives when she isn’t shooting.

“You think of Trump: How did he become so aggressive and stupid? Why is he such a narcissist? And then you hear about his childhood. It was terrible, with the father. Horrible!” Dowd exclaims. “Sometimes children can survive bad parenting and sometimes they can’t. And that’s simplifying it, of course.” But in the case of Aunt Lydia, “when you’re trying to find the whole human being, and make sure she’s well represented, you’re trying to find the whole picture there.”

For Miller and his fellow writers, creating a second season of Handmaid is more fraught than on a typical show, because they are now working without a net. Season 1 ended with Offred being escorted from the Cambridge, Mass., home of her parasitic hosts, Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his icy wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), and placed in the back of a van operated by the Eyes, Gilead’s Stasi-like security force. That’s also how the book concludes (although there’s an epilogue, set hundreds of years in the future), leaving Miller with no more original storyline crafted by Atwood.

Still, he notes, “when you adapt a book, you often throw out [most of it], and use just one part. Here, we can keep digging down to find cool stuff in the book.” As an example, he says, “At one point in the book, Offred is trying to describe how she feels about the Commander, and she says, ‘It isn’t really love …’ and every person I know who read the book said, ‘LOVE?! What are you talking about?!’ But that’s in the book for a reason, so I’ve been puzzling over that for 35 years. That puzzling is where you start to bloom into other seasons.”

Miller says he didn’t try to think about how the second season would unfold – he had no idea where that van was taking Offred – until he wrapped the first. So he didn’t lay down any plot points that are designed to bear fruit later on. With the explosion of technology, he says, storytelling has changed too much to be able to do that any more.

“I don’t know if you have kids, but my kids consume more narrative in a day than I consumed in my entire life,” he explains. “They can smell when you’re setting up a story. They can tell, when the camera lingers on the knife-rack, who committed the murder – instantly! I think it was different 5,000 years ago, when we came up with story structure and we were watching one play a year. Now, you’re watching 50 plays a day in front of your computer (or phone), little three-minute things. The structure needs to change a little bit, or it just becomes predictable.”

As he talks, Miller arrives at the set for the Waterfords’ kitchen, and stops to point out the thick vine snaking its way up and across the window in the breakfast nook. In normal times, if a weed like that were to push its way into a house, it would be yanked out at the root. But Gilead, suffering from an uncertain malady that may have environmental causes, has desperately embraced green policies.

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“If the birthrate fell 95 per cent, you’d throw anything at the wall,” Miller suggests. “A totalitarian state that’s concerned with the environment can make anything happen very easily. So, there’s a lot more greenery (in Gilead). There’s much less car noise on the street, because almost all of the cars are electric.” And if you listen closely, you’ll even hear unfamiliar bird songs in the background of outdoor scenes. “These are birds that are gone in Cambridge now, but would come back if you got rid of all the cats and all of the Roundup (weed killer) you spread on plants.”

Some of this texture will become more apparent as the show progresses, diving into a second season that is even darker than the first. Miller says the production consulted with an array of experts to help build out the world of Gilead and the fate of their characters: Speculative economists and others weighed in on how a fragile world economy might operate, as well as “how diplomatic relations might work between a pariah state that has 7,000 nuclear missiles, and a democracy that happens to border them” (he’s talking about us, Canada); non-governmental organizations advised the writers on female genital mutilation, which was inflicted on the so-called “gender traitor” Emily (Alexis Bledel) in Season 1, and its long-term psychological and physical effects.

A scene from The Handmaid's Tale, a television adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel.

In the new season, Miller sought to bring to the screen one aspect of life that was only hinted at last year: The Colonies, the radioactive waste districts where criminals known as Unpeople are banished to scrounge out their days until they die. To do so, producers consulted with United Nations advisers on the experience of working and living in labour camps such as those in the Holocaust, gulags and Chinese prison camps.

Miller’s insistence on getting all of the details right extends even to the illicit Scrabble games that Offred plays with Commander Waterford: A Scrabble expert was on set during shooting of those scenes to ensure the scoring of the games was correct.

That, right there, is probably as good an illustration as any of the difference between a U.S. and Canadian TV show. Handmaid is, after all, by many measures a Canadian show: based on a beloved bestselling novel by a Canadian literary legend, shot in Toronto and southwestern Ontario by a crew that is more than 90 per cent Canadian (with the assistance of federal and provincial tax credits). But the show’s budget – likely in the US$6-million-an-episode ballpark – is far beyond the reach of Canadian broadcasters.

Amanda Brugel, who plays the Waterfords’ cook, Rita, is the only regularly appearing member of the Handmaid cast who is Canadian. She is also a series regular on the CBC sitcoms Kim’s Convenience and Workin’ Moms – both of which have generous budgets by Canadian standards.

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And yet, “ultimately, the difference is money,” she says, sitting in a boardroom one floor above the sound stages. “Just the amount of takes we’re able to do. The amount of time we have in Kim’s – we shoot five to six more pages (of script) a day, which means that we barrel through scenes. Everyone is very, very talented, but it’s like working in fast-forward in Canadian television, because we don’t have the resources. Some of the writers don’t have the luxury of being able to pull in a lot of different resources, or consultants. And that does translate in the work.”

As a result, Brugel admits, “I’m always feeling a push to … go south of the border and work where there is more money and there are more opportunities.”

Strahovski made a similar leap about 10 years ago, moving from her native Australia to Hollywood. During a dinner break, she sits with Fiennes in the chapel of a church which the production uses as a base when Handmaid is shooting in Hamilton, and reflects on the effect that working on the show has had on her.

“I don’t think anyone really thought this was going to have such a massive impact, and that the show was going to become a symbol of resistance,” she says. Growing up in Australia, politics was not a significant part of her life. But now, living in California (and shooting in Ontario for five or six months of the year), “it’s hard not to have politics in your face, especially nowadays.”

The Handmaid’s Tale “really has awakened something in me on a personal level that I find exciting and empowering and so fantastic, to be able to be part of a show that is great pure entertainment, but has also gone beyond that, and has spoken to people on such a deep level. That’s not something you get a lot of the time when you’re doing movies and film and theatre. But this is something you can sit down and have very real conversations with people about. Things that go way beyond what we’re doing and portraying in the show.”

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