On The Handmaid’s Tale, Elisabeth Moss’s character, Offred, doesn’t have many opportunities to be in the outside world of Gilead, the nation that has replaced the United States. But when she does there’s an eerie serenity that makes the terrors of the show’s theocratic totalitarianism even more frightening, because it can create something so beautiful on the surface.
“Most dystopias are rather dusty and full of robots and rubble and that kind of thing,” producer/writer Bruce Miller tells Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff on the latest episode of his podcast, I Think You’re Interesting. “This is a beautiful dystopia, which is one of the things that makes it novel; the beauty is a storytelling piece.”
Miller, who has produced a wide range of shows including ER, Medium, and Alphas, first discovered the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel The Handmaid’s Tale while in college, and it stuck with him throughout his career.
“You have a lot of time to think about it as you absorb other kinds of media through your life,” says Miller. “I always loved the book and I loved the world; it kind of started me reading a lot of dystopian fiction. You read The Handmaid’s Tale and then you see Rosemary’s Baby and say, ‘Hmm…that’s interesting visually and tonally.’”
When he eventually got the opportunity to be involved with Hulu’s production of the show, he ran with it, bringing years of familiarity with the story and a well-developed sense of how he wanted the world the characters inhabit to look and feel, even beyond what’s shown on screen. This introduced the challenge of depicting the world as it exists both to those it subjugates and those it benefits.
“Unlike Westworld, and unlike a lot of other shows, Gilead the world is not a mystery. Some of it is hidden from June/Offred because her perspective is so limited, but it’s not like they’re keeping it secret,” Miller says. “Revealing things about the world are generally not going to be big surprises or story points for the audience.”
To that end, Miller says that he and the show’s writers work to keep their notion of the world from becoming too rigid or clear in its distinctions between good and evil, allowing its makeup to develop and change as more information is revealed about the show’s characters. This also allows the audience to see the world of The Handmaid’s Tale from a different perspective on occasion, since the show focuses so heavily on Offred’s viewpoint.
“It’s easy to do a black-and-white version in your head of ‘Gilead bad, handmaids and victims good,’ and that’s not the way the show or the world lays out, and so the more you find out about the Commander and Serena Joy and what their relationship is like and how they were instrumental in building this place, that tells you what the place is going to be on a more emotional, granular level,” says Miller.
Naturally, depicting an oppressive, male-dominated system of government has led to plenty of comparisons to the Trump administration, and Miller insists even while depicting this world, he and the writing team are careful not to depict it simply as wish-fulfillment for those in charge.
“People always say, ‘Oh, you’re representing this person’s fantasy,’ and I don’t think Gilead is anybody’s fantasy, including the people in Gilead. I don’t see many people who are jumping up and down happy about the way it turned out,” Miller tells VanDerWerff.
There was trepidation on set about leaning too hard into the Trump allegory, but Miller says that ultimately incorporating some of those elements helped the show to define itself and the world of Gilead as being separate from our own.
“Some things that we were hesitant to do in the first season, things that were not necessarily pulled from today’s headlines but felt very of-the-now, we were a little worried about doing those things because it would feel like a reflection of the world today, not Gilead [as] a fictional world,” says Miller. “Those things were very successful for us, I think they helped build Gilead, and also they helped define Gilead as not this world — in some ways it is metaphorical to our world — but we’re not telling a story about the Trump administration.”
Miller also stresses the importance of depicting the human interactions between people of power, like the Commanders and the Aunts, which shows how the world of Gilead exists in reality beyond just the rules that were written to create it, and makes the terror experienced by characters like Offred even more understandable.
“We could sit down today and look at all the pieces of paper that make up the US government and I don’t think that would describe how it feels to live under the US government,” he says.
Listen to the full I Think You’re Interesting episode for more about the unique advantages of working with Elisabeth Moss as a producer, the challenges of being a male showrunner on a project about women, and how Miller fought The Handmaid’s Tale becoming too serialized.
To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.