LOS ANGELES – “The Handmaid’s Tale” is moving on without its most influential superstar.
That would be Margaret Atwood, whose nightmare of a novel drove the first season of the series about an America taken over by religious zealots who have forced fertile women into bondage.
But Season 2, which drops Wednesday on Hulu, moves beyond the pages of the landmark 1985 book, a step every bit as treacherous as the one faced by “Games of Thrones” writers who had to move forward without further books from George R.R. Martin to lead the way.
But don’t expect Elisabeth Moss’ character, June, to find comfort in a New York advertising agency. This is still the Republic of Gilead.
Within the first 15 minutes, the handmaids face harrowing consequences for last year’s refusal to stone one of their own to death. In Episode 2, the story catches up with Emily (Alexis Bledel), who has been banished with other “unwomen” to the Colonies, a concentration camp mentioned but not fully explored in the book.
“I don’t think anything we do is post-Atwood. We’re all still living in her world,” said series creator Bruce Miller. “In the first season, we diverted quite a bit from the book in ways that people didn’t notice and that made me feel really good, that we had a lot of Atwood-ness. She’s still the mother of the series.”
Atwood recently told Vanity Fair that she thought the show remained grippingly grotesque — even though she’s only watched the first of the 13 new episodes.
“It’s very absorbing and visceral — and it’s very tense,” she told the magazine. “Partly because they do such a good job acting it.”
The show’s success — it was the first streaming series to win the Emmy for outstanding drama series — allowed producers a bigger budget to play with, a luxury that’s on display in both the grim look of the Colonies and the ability to pay Oscar winner Marisa Tomei to play one of the camp’s newest members. Five-time Tony Award nominee Cherry Jones also appears in flashbacks as June’s mother.
“It’s a bigger show,” said executive producer Warren Littlefield. “With that expansion we’re able to see how Gilead came about and follow historical events that created this world.”
How Moss chills out
One player still very much on board is Moss. In early episodes, as her now-pregnant character finds herself on the run, June reflects on the events that led up to her ordeal and speculates about the future that her child might face.
“Bruce and I always talked about the impending birth of the child, this child that’s growing inside her, as a bit of a ticking time bomb, and the complications of that are really wonderful to explore,” said Moss, whom the website Vulture tagged last year as the Queen of Peak TV. “It’s a very big part of this season, and it gets bigger and bigger as the show goes on.”
Miller said it was clear from the beginning that Moss was the perfect actress to lead viewers on this emotionally draining journey, in large part because so much relies on her ability to express herself in a universe where handmaids are seen but barely heard.
“You’re writing dialogue that is very spare and almost inevitably the opposite of what the people are feeling,” he said. “There’s an incredible amount of tension. It’s a weird world. She’s wearing a weird hat. So the degree of difficulty is super-high. She confronts 375 problems in a scene and when she solves 374, all she’s thinking about is how to solve 375. I can’t quite get my head around how she does it.”
Moss said her experience in everything from “Mad Men” and “The West Wing” to “Top of the Lake” helped her prepare for the daunting role — along with the music she listens to on her headphones to chill out before particularly challenging scenes (she’s partial to post-minimalist composer Max Richter).
But she’s quick to give a shoutout to someone else whose influence keeps ringing in her ears.
“We love using voice-overs because that’s Margaret’s voice,” Moss said. “It’s our way of getting into some dark moments and still have that sort of dark sense of humor that Margaret has in the book. But yeah, there are moments when it’s just too dark and maybe June should just shut up.”