During rehearsal for a scene in this year's season of The Handmaid's Tale, director Kari Skogland had an epiphany while running her fingers over the script. It occurred to her that the main character June, despite being an editor in her pre-Gilead life, hasn't touched paper in years, much less a pen.
So when the Commander's wife, Serena, invites her into the Commander's office to edit reforms she intends to send out under the Commander's name, it's a seductive offer. To rifle through paper? To roll her fingers over a selection of pens? Would it really matter what she was using them for, so long as she could finally just use them again? It was an inspiring realization.
"I always like to wait for the set to talk to me a little bit," Skogland tells SYFY WIRE. "And I realized as we were blocking it that the whole scene was about paper, and the pen, and how the pen is mightier than the sword."
That's why Skogland — who directed four episodes this season and is nominated for her work in Episode 7 — devotes time and attention to June's tactile experiences. The click of a pen is a deliberate echo of a scene at the end of Episode 6, when a Handmaid clicked a detonator to explode the bomb at the Red Center. Contemplating the papers and pen she's been offered, June realizes she holds a different kind of power in her hand, but what does it mean? Will it give her the ability to reform Gilead from within, or make her complicit in upholding the regime?
"It's a deal with the devil," Skogland says. "It's an unholy alliance. We're left thinking she's been seduced by the paper."
Throughout the episode, Skogland endeavored to enhance the emotional effect of each scene. She had Serena, for example, installed behind her desk as if she were sitting on a throne. And in the funeral scene that opens the episode, the director wanted to create a sense of ritual. So although the script called for Aunt Lydia to stand at a pulpit with rows of Handmaids seated before her, Skogland wanted circles within circles, "to give it a Busby Berkeley quality."
At the center of the circle is Aunt Lydia, whose grief becomes the scene's focal point. The Handmaids' grief is dictated by the form of the ritual; Aunt Lydia's is different. "It was really important to me that we feel the loss," Skogland says. "Ann Dowd plays Lydia as such a horrific character that we never get to see what this might mean to her. She believes she's saving the world. And for her to have lost her girls? She's having as much trouble as the Handmaids are holding it together. Grief is the great equalizer."
The funeral was shot on a golf course, and the production had toyed with the idea of having horses lead the Handmaids in. But Skogland thought it would look more appropriately bleak if there were just one single drummer leading them. She used multiple cameras, including a Technocrane and Steadicam, to create a sense of scope and scale.
"I wanted it to feel like snippets of a grander moment, that we were just getting bits of," Skogland says. "If the funeral took an hour, we were getting the highlights of the hour." And she continued this impressionistic approach throughout the episode, such as when Commander Waterford wakes up in the hospital, and when we see flashbacks from Moira's pre-Gilead life.
When it came time to shoot the scene in which Moira finally found out what happened to Odette, Skogland decided to film the character's close-up first, knowing it would be the most grueling part of the scene for Samira Wiley. "It seems seamless," Skogland says, "but in fact, it was redone over three or four hours for different camera angles," Skogland says. "And often, once you've done it five or six times, a performer has to start dredging up emotions from a new place, which is harder to do."
Skogland says she made sure Wiley didn't see any images of her character's dead lover before the cameras rolled — and so the close-ups we see are her first reaction. "It was probably a seven-minute take," Skogland says. "And as she was doing it, she broke my heart. I wept at the monitors."
Throughout the episode, there is a recurring theme about identity — names given or denied, former selves reclaimed or lost forever. Skogland highlighted the moments where the Handmaids get to have their own names (not the names they were assigned), both when the authorities in Canada recognized them and when the Handmaids themselves shared them with each other.
"In the opening scene, they couldn't really grieve," the director says. "But then at the market, saying their names becomes a joyful thing. Instead of being remembered or grieved, they were celebrated. It's small things like that — a pen, or being able to communicate freely — that we should always cherish."