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They Do It with Mirrors: How 'The Handmaid's Tale' and Real Life Intersect
March 1, 2021  | By Alex Strachan  | 14 comments

Real life intruded briefly on the made-up world of TV drama this past week as The Handmaid's Tale's Elisabeth Moss, writer-producer Bruce Miller, and production executive Warren Littlefield fielded questions in a Zoom conference call with members of the Television Critics Association (TCA).

The fourth season of Handmaid's Tale streams on Hulu in April, but it was more recent events that captured the moment later in the session. The new season finds Moss's character June in Canada, having fled Gilead with 100 children at great personal cost. The new season will revolve around the escalating conflict between the matriarchal rebels on the run and the firmly entrenched patriarchal forces still in control in Gilead. The new season will consist of 10 episodes.

The Handmaid's Tale, adapted from Margaret Atwood's Booker Prize-nominated novel, has become a cultural lightning-rod in the wake of Donald Trump's tumultuous four-year presidential reign which culminated in a full-on assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by Trump loyalists.

It was perhaps inevitable that any connection between fiction and reality — real or imagined — would come up during the conversation. And it did.

Moss said the best fiction always touches on real life because there's a humanity there that's universal.

"I always just return to Margaret's book, which came out in 1985 and felt incredibly relevant and truthful then," Moss said quietly. "She's often said that she never put anything in that book that hadn't happened or was currently happening.

"And here we are, however many years later, and we still feel that relevance. There's never been any intent or design in the writers' room to do one of the Law & Order-type shows where we write from the headlines. That's not what we do. We follow these characters, and they are very, very human. They are mothers, they are fathers, they are friends, they are brothers, and they are sisters, and they are enemies.

"A lot of our story tends to resonate with people, I think, because it feels relevant and because these are themes that are never going to be not relevant or not truthful.

"Unfortunately, there are always these gigantic events that happen in real life that were either in the book or have happened on the show, and that is far beyond me to comment on.

"I believe, though, for all of us, that what is most relevant about the show is its humanity and the way it looks at human nature — the problems we all encounter, whether we have big lives or small lives, wherever we are. That's, for me, where I find relevance and truth."

Handmaid's Tale show-runner Miller, widely lauded for successfully adapting the Atwood original to modern times and at the same time translating it from the written page to the more visual medium of television, admitted to being badly shaken by the events of Jan. 6, despite being more than familiar with Atwood's vision of a dystopian future.

Familiarity is not the same as being comfortable, and Miller would prefer it if The Handmaid's Tale were less prescient, he said.

"Television drama is a safe place to see your worst fears acted out and experience them at a remove," Miller said. "It's very different to come up with what you think is something horrible in your head, and put it on television, and then hear something like it happening in the real world. That is just sickening. There's nothing good about it — at all. As I've said before, and often, I am hopeful, and I'm working and giving my money toward making our show less relevant."

The new season, Miller said, will be more focused on what happens in the post-Trump era.

"A lot of the show this season is about waiting for things to snap back to normal and why aren't they snapping back to normal as quickly as we want, and, 'When am I going to feel normal again?' It's very much, 'When is the world going to settle down after things have changed?'

"We're just trying to follow our characters through what is a very historical time in Gilead of America, and unfortunately, we're going through a historical time as well."

Littlefield, entertainment president of NBC during its halcyon years in the mid to late 1990s and now head of his own production company, The Littlefield Company, said The Handmaid's Tale is "unbelievably relevant," adding, "I think what Bruce was saying earlier is we kind of wish we weren't."

Yes, the national political picture has changed, Littlefield said, but an uneasy mood remains.

"A calm has come over us, a sanity we haven't had for four years — not even close. The sea is as choppy as it's ever been, though. I think that that's true both for our journey and the story we're telling. Not intentionally, but we seem to mirror the very issues of life and safety and human rights that we're wrestling with every day in the streets of this country. We're playing them out in our show. And I don't see that changing. I wish we could feel in a little more of champagne-popping mood, today but I don't think that's the case."

The Handmaid's Tale returns April 28 on Hulu. TCA Zoom conference calls continue this week.

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