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SYFY WIRE The Handmaid's Tale

'The Handmaid's Tale' showrunners praise Elisabeth Moss' directing mastery in the Season 5 premiere

The fifth season of The Handmaid's Tale returns with June battling two sides of herself.

By Tara Bennett
Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid's Tale Season 5

To say that the political and social climate of the United States as changed significantly since the 2017 debut of Hulu's series adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is pretty much a gross understatement. Over the five years that the series has played out the harrowing experiences of June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss), in Gilead, real-life activists have borrowed heavily from the visuals of the series for female-centric social protests around the country. The red handmaid cloaks with their white blinders speak volumes in their silence. The creator of the series, Bruce Miller, and executive producer Warren Littlefield have certainly taken note and admit they're as surprised as anyone how much the country has changed in such a short period of time. 

With Season 5 the first of the series to drop in a post-Roe v. Wade world, it seems like it would be an increasingly difficult situation to walk into the Season 5 The Handmaid's Tale writers' room and not have the outside world influence the course of the show's narrative. Bruce Miller tells SYFY WIRE that has certainly been the case.

"You're absolutely right, that you can't deny that the outside world is going to change how you write and how you think," Miller says. "But we do try not to, directly. We all talk about the news and we're very involved in the world around us. All the actors are as well. Everybody talks about it, but tries not to bring in the specifics, because we try very hard to follow June and follow that story."

Every season of The Handmaid's Tale has been told primarily from June's perspective, first as a Handmaid in Commander Waterford's (Joseph Fiennes) home with his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), and now as a Gilead refugee in Canada. But across four seasons there have been pointed flashbacks of June and Luke Osborne's (O. T. Fagbenle) everyday life that depict the slippery slope of pre-Gilead lost liberties that in turn lef to civil war and the eventual establishment of a totalitarian and Christofascist regime. Miller says having Atwood's book as a guide has allowed them to not get mired in current-day politics. 

"It actually makes it easier because we always know where we're going to go, which is what would happen next to June?" Miller explains. "What's the next thing she would remember from her story? I think that we are allowed to follow her with all her setbacks and all of those things because of Elisabeth Moss and her performance and the performance of the whole cast. I think we just take advantage of that in such a big way of making sure that we feel that we're using these actors to their fullest and that's what really brings the characters to life."

Part of using actors to their fullest involves getting them behind the camera, in the case of Moss, who is also an executive producer and now a frequent director for the series. She directed the premiere of Season 5, which sets the tone for where June is mentally and physically after she and her former fellow handmaidens murdered Commander Waterford with their bare hands in the fourth season finale. The aftermath has the vengeful Offred waging an internal war against the more measured June trying to adapt to freedom and reconnect with her husband and daughter. 

First episodes of every season on any series are always demanding to set up, but Miller says he and Littlefield were hoping Moss would put herself up to take on the task. "I think Warren and I had been waiting for her to bring it up because that's what you need, is the desire," Miller says about how she came to direct the premiere. "She certainly had the skills and certainly had the experience. But, if she didn't want to, I wasn't gonna push her. She's a grown woman. But we were both very eager to say yes when she brought it up and were happy she was also eager to do it."

Littlefield adds, "I thought her work in Season 4 as a director — like let's not even touch Lizzie Moss, the award-winning actress — was formidable. She made her mark. I think she's taking it to another level in Season 5. The question was do you want to take on, after the end of Season 4, opening up on a thematic that's June versus Offred? The trauma, the anger, and trying to wash away the sin. And she wanted that," he enthuses. "Honestly in the triangle of trust that is Bruce, Lizzie, and myself, where so many decisions are made, it was easy. We were like, 'Go!'"

He also notes that Episodes 1 and 2 of Season 5, both of which Moss directed, are very different in tone and execution. "502 is an opera. It's technically a ballet, but it's an opera," he says of its melodramatic tone that culminates in the episode's climax. "She rose to that."

New episodes of The Handmaid's Tale Season 5 stream on Wednesday on Hulu.