While writing the pilot of Handmaid’s Tale, Bruce Miller spent three days debating whether his instinct to put Luke behind the wheel during the family’s attempted escape to Canada was sexist or not. “It was a big, long discussion with myself and my wife and writers — I didn’t have my writing staff yet — but the writers I knew,” the showrunner of spring’s most lauded TV show told Inverse. Watching out for blind spots was a high priority for Miller, who was as surprised as everyone else when a man was tapped to adapt one of the 20th century’s most famous feminist tales. A huge fan of Margaret Atwood, author of Handmaid’s Tale, Miller knew he couldn’t fuck up.
“It was just a question of being honest and saying, ‘I’m one penis over the limit for this job,’” said Miller. Miller knew he needed to build a writers’ room and crew that wouldn’t be afraid to question his instincts and add nuances that he’d miss. “[The writers’ room was all about] not being shy about posing the questions: How does it feel to get your period? Would Ofglen know immediately what happened to her once she saw her bandages? How does it feel to lose a child? It helped me both confirm and reject ideas. And to be honest, every show, every job I’ve ever been on, you have deficits that you try to balance with your staff.”
The writers faced a formidable task, particularly because they had to adapt Atwood’s novel not only for television but also for current times. Many of the fears women had in the Reagan era still persist decades later (rape, body autonomy, abuse, lack of basic health care options, etc.), but the Junes and Moiras of the millennial age who wrestle with feminist causes do so in drastically different ways than the women who came before them.
“What’s changed in the last 35 years that we really should address to make it feel more like today?” said Miller. “We have to ask that question, because it’s much more scary if it feels like it’s really in the world today. Think about horror movies; if you would never go into that creepy house at night, then all of the sudden you’re not as scared of the monster because you know you’d never be in that situation. The more it feels like our world, the better.”
That instinct paved the way for Elisabeth Moss’s Offred, who Miller admitted is significantly different from the character in the book. While fans agree that Moss is outstanding in the role, there’s contention over whether TV Offred’s sly, snarky passive-aggressiveness and open rebellion felt too steeped in hashtag feminism: flashy and declarative but often ineffectual outside of who are already believers.
Miller doesn’t see it as a trade-off. “I just tried to follow, to create a June that felt like a person I would know today who’s around that age, with the same amount of fire and stubbornness and tenacity and intelligence and worldliness that she would have,” he said. “The voiceover was how we made sure she kept her sense of edge and humor in the situation, but she lived through it, and you don’t want her to be flippant in any way … every time June acts though, she has the same motivation as the book: All the action at the beginning and for most of the season is just her counter-punching and trying to survive.”
Miller and company spent the season expanding and updating the novel in a similar way to how they adapted June: keep the core of character and story motivation, and put a mouthy, millennial face on it. (“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.”) In most cases, viewers loved the additional world-building and related to the new nuances in old characters.
But there were certainly some (color)blind spots that slipped through.
Miller and his all-white writers’ room did do their research. “There’s so many parallels with the Handmaids’ story and American slavery in general,” said Miller. “Their children are not theirs, they’re taken away. That was such a heartbreaking part of the history of American slavery, and we used a lot of those narratives to kind of get our head around what that would feel like to get pregnant and be pregnant knowing the baby’s not going to be yours.”
But in Season 1, those insights were applied to oppressed characters writ large. Fans who expected an exploration of intersectionality between race and gender that Samira Wiley’s casting teased were sorely disappointed after the finale aired. Moira (and Luke, to a certain extent) was never utilized by the writers as a tool with which to expose the ways women of color are systematically punished twice as hard as their white counterparts.
“I’ve been fascinated by the conversations about race. I think that it’s one of the best things about Twitter and Facebook, and the conversations going on on social media that I’ve been reading,” said Miller. “It’s a different world in terms of me as a writer interacting with our audience than it was even 5 or 10 years ago. We’re taking advantage of that. I love listening.”
Miller isn’t just listening, but he’s bringing the conversation back to the writers’ room as they prep for Season 2.
“The thoughtful conversations online really inspired a lot of thoughtful conversations in the writers’ room about this,” said Miller. “The first season, there was a lot to deal with in terms of setting up a world and setting up characters and setting up everything,” he continued. In a second season, with more breathing room, fans should expect to see a more nuanced handling of women of color on Handmaid’s Tale.
“It’s always hard to add another topic that is complicated and deserves real attention, but we’re up to the challenge,” said Miller.
“All the discussions, as you said, the critiques, but also the things people got out of the show, that they love, all the connections that they made. All of those things have really helped inspire us for Season 2.”
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 1 is now available to stream on Hulu.