As Emmy nominations were announced yesterday, it came as little surprise that The Handmaid’s Tale was nominated 20 times for its brilliant 13-episode second season. The Hulu hit received nods for Best Drama Series, Casting, Writing, Directing and numerous nominations for Acting.
The show’s fascinating subject matter isn’t always easy to digest, but in the current times in which we live, the show is a must-see for more than just an entertainment fix. Within the current landscape of the #MeToo movement, and a multitude of circumstances in the current political climate that mirror the show far too closely, it is truly one of the most important shows on television and everyone should be watching. Just when you think this or that plot in the show could never happen in this day and age, you’re reminded not only how it has within the confines of the show, but how it could (and is) in the real world, as well.
Based on the 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the near future in the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship located within what was formerly known as the United States of America. An immediate fan favorite and awards darling, the 10-episode first season amassed 13 Emmy nominations and eight wins. The show made history when it scored the Emmy for Best Drama Series, which is the first time a streaming series has ever won this award. The show also won Emmys for Best Lead Actress (Elisabeth Moss), Supporting Actress (Ann Dowd), Writing, Directing, Production Design, Cinematography and Guest Actress (Alexis Bledel). In addition, the show was nominated for three Golden Globes, with two wins: Best Drama Series and, again, Moss for Best Lead Actress for her role as Offred/June Osborne.
How Atwood could’ve envisioned this world, in which women were stripped of everything, including their names, and essentially stripped of their humanity and used as commodities and products to serve the needs of Gilead, as described by show creator Bruce Miller in a phone interview earlier this week, is astonishing. But, foresee she did, and her brilliance in storytelling is now reaching a new audience. When watching season one, thoughts as to how this could ever come to be were prevalent. No one would ever take away people’s children! And yet, here we are, in a time where just that is happening.
Yvonne Strahovski, who brilliantly portrays Serena Waterford, and received her first Emmy nomination yesterday for Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her work on the show, spoke to the correlations between the show and the current political climate. “It’s astounding how accurately the show has aligned itself with reality. People’s reactions to the show are amazing.” She refers to the scene when June gets to see her daughter Hannah and is then forced to say goodbye to her again. “It’s surreal how art is imitating life with what’s going on at the border. It’s powerful. And, people are truly able to watch this show and apply it to what’s happening to real life. When Americans watch the show, it speaks volumes to them.”
“The writing, artistry and political divination on display is pretty astounding, so much so, that in this particular moment in our world, it’s pretty harrowing to watch,” says Stephen Kunken, who plays Warren Putnam. Of the second season’s numerous disturbing parallels to reality, Kunken explains that those involved in the making of the show, including the writers, are trying to make something in The Handmaid’s Tale that goes far beyond entertainment. “It’s obviously not supposed to be a pleasant warm bath, it’s a stark cautionary tale and a motivator.”
Despite the show’s tough subject matter, Kunken adds that The Handmaid’s Tale is also a story of hope. He reflects on a conversation he had last season with Miller. “He explained to me that at the core, the driving mechanism, which overrides the obvious brutality of the show, is about how even in the most hostile environments the human spirit still seeks ways to survive, find light, love and purpose.”
Of the show’s numerous parallels to reality, Kunken talks about filming the first season of the show, as he flew into Canada and saw a multitude of voluntary lawyers attempting to help people enter the country; an image he says mirrors both the show’s plot as people flee Gilead and now, sadly, as people attempt to immigrate into the U.S. “It was very strange.” He points out the differences as to how the children currently being detained in the U.S. are being treated versus those in Gilead. “Ironically, in Gilead, the children are seemingly treated like royalty and doted upon. To see that juxtaposed with current events is just crazy.”
Strahovski’s character is one of the instigators and early fighters for the Gilead that eventually comes to be. When asked to describe Serena, she immediately answers, “She’s a can of worms. I’d say that’s the best way to put it. She’s quite complicated. She’s constantly struggling with this inner battle within herself. She originally thinks what she’s done is right and for the greater good but comes to realize it’s not.”
To fully understand this world, one must try to understand one of its main creators, and that is Serena. “I think she’s very broken and very lost. She’s not thinking clearly,” explains Strahovski. Towards the end of the finale, Serena gives her baby Nichole to June so the two can escape Gilead. Strahovski describes the moment. “Her baby is no longer safe in Gilead. In that last scene with June, she says words to her that are so true, and she cannot fight it anymore, or pretend to fight it. She knows it’s true and it’s a purely instinctual act to give up her baby. It’s not calculated in that moment. People think Serena is so calculated, but she wasn’t in that moment.”
Strahovski is pleased with the way the season ended. “It’s just a beautiful story; this theme of motherhood and what it means to be a good mother. Serena pays the ultimate price and sacrifice. She actually learns the lesson of what it means to be a mother and to do the best thing for her child.” She adds how grateful she is to the show’s amazing team of writers. “They’ve really allowed me to go to the depths of this vulnerable place with this character. It’s been a beautiful journey.”
Speaking of journeys, Serena has had quite the shift this season. Strahovski says the transition happened after the beating Serena suffered when she goes against the laws of Gilead to help baby Angela when she’s in the hospital. “Her husband allows her to get beaten and this is the first moment she shifts. She did something illegal in Gilead and she went behind her husband’s back to do so, but as she says, it was for the good of the child. Her husband has turned against what is best for the child and the essence of Gilead is for the greater good of the children. Serena was willing to do something illegal to help this baby and her husband turns his back on her and this child. This was the start of her transition.”
As for the relationship with her husband, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) Strahovski says, “A lot of that love is lost and it’s hard to get it back. Whatever love is left, is a memory of what used to be. The separation of their ideals now is so blatant.”
Strahovski discusses Serena’s relationship with Offred, describing it as complex. “In a lot of ways, she despises Offred. There are so many reasons for this. She’s forced to watch her husband have sex with this woman, so there’s jealousy and envy there. She can see Offred is a smart woman and she uses that to her advantage. At the same time, Offred talks back a lot.”
But, she adds, “Serena is incredibly lonely; she has no one to really relate to and in a weird way, she has this need to try and communicate with Offred woman to woman. Yet, they’re so pitted against each other in this society. Though they have these moments of coming together, it could never work out. The greatest scene that shows this is when Serena is showing her the nursery and they have this lovely moment and Offred utilizes it to ask Serena to see Hannah. This, to Serena, is a real slap in the face. She’s thinking, ‘Why can’t you just be my friend in this moment the way I need you to be and not try to use me to see Hannah?’ She doesn’t understand that Hannah is Offred’s everything. She thinks she understands what it means to be a mother, but she really doesn’t.”
When asked where she’d like to see Serena go in season three, Strahovski says, “I’ve really enjoyed this journey with Serena. This piece-by-piece breakdown of this character has been fascinating. It’d be really great to continue down that line, to see her realize she is regretful as an architect of Gilead. But, it shouldn’t come easy for her. Nothing in this show ever does, but it’d be interesting to really explore her truly realize the impact of what she’s done. There’d be a lot of guilt and self-loathing for her and that would be interesting to see.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is truly a testament to human resiliency, adds Kunken. “The human condition is both beautiful and painful at the same time.” Of the second season, he says, “It doesn’t fall into typical tropes or a feel-good narrative timetable. As viewers, our internal clocks might be hoping for resolution and a turn for things to the better, but Bruce and the writers know, as in real life, righting the wrongs of Gilead will take time, sacrifice and immense amounts of bravery. The great challenge is forging a path forward that is as brutally consistent as it is narratively surprising and relevant. I’m amazed at how many times the writers seem to be showing us a dystopian world that is both through and in the looking glass. And yet, despite all the brutality, in their scarlet red, the handmaids continually show us that no matter how hard the boot comes down, you cannot stomp out the spark of rebellion and humanity.”