Hulu’s award-winning dystopian drama, The Handmaid’s Tale, returns with the season five premiere this week.
Before the new season, Awards Focus spoke to the team behind the show and its actors for a spoiler-free conversation on season four’s close and the grand machinations for season five.
Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, the Emmy award-winning series focuses the latest season on the complexity of trauma in the face of freedom. Star and executive producer Elizabeth Moss directs the first two episodes as the story picks up directly after the astounding season four finale, where June (Moss) killed her first master Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), and is starting to face the consequences of her actions. Meanwhile, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) attempts to raise her profile in Toronto as Gilead’s influence creeps into Canada.
“Those first two episodes and the entire season are very much about June and Serena,” shares Moss. “It’s not the two of them against each other necessarily; it’s them battling with themselves.”
There was a palpable excitement in the virtual interview rooms as the cast teased cliffhanger moments from the new season. US Government operative Mark Tuello, played by Sam Jaeger, visits Gilead for the first time this season after exchanging Waterford for 22 refugees trapped in Gilead. “[Mark]’s very much put in his place in Gilead and just tries to soak up as much as he can,” explains Jaeger. “It’s been fun to watch him evolve this season because although he is a political animal, his cause has become more personal than we’ve seen before.”
Jaeger pointed to Moss’s skills in front and behind the camera as vital to the show’s success. “We’re vulnerable creatures as actors, and we need to know that we’re on the right path in the middle of navigating these scenes. She does such a wonderful job of keeping things light, both for the cast and the crew, and keeping us moving forward with her genuine kindness. I just feel like I’ll go wherever she wants me to because I trust her implicitly.”
Much of the season revolves around the fall-out from June’s actions. O-T Fagbenle, who plays June’s adoring and patient husband Luke, was eager for Luke to step outside his comfort zone after seeing how far June will go to rescue their daughter Hannah, who is still a prisoner in Gilead.
“Luke, for a long time, has lent on the hope that bureaucracy will save his family, that petitioning and patience will do the trick,” explains Fagbenle. “June has this immediacy and active constitution, which makes change and is undeniable. Luke is left realizing that his way isn’t working, so let’s try something different.”
Fagbenle praises the writer’s this season for embracing change for the characters, exposing the multitude of reactions someone may have when tested to their limits. “They continually challenge their characters to be in new situations, face new problems, and find their weaknesses. That’s exactly what they do here with Luke, and he’s forced to grow or break… and he kind of does both.”
Luke isn’t the only character who conflicts with June, as her actions force those around her to confront their feelings toward Waterford’s murder. Amanda Brugel, who plays Rita Blue, a former housekeeper to the Waterfords, and who managed to escape to Canada, remarked on the growing divide between June and Rita. “[Rita is] a religious person, and to take a life is something that I don’t think she agreed with even though it’s Fred, and he deserved punishment, but not necessarily death. So there’s a wedge driven between June and Rita even before the season starts.”
June is also forced to redefine her relationship with Nick (Max Minghella), with whom she shares a daughter, as he is newly married to Rose (Carey Cox) and is living a more committed life in Gilead than he had anticipated. “Nick is definitely feeling beaten down at the beginning of season five,” shares Minghella. “I think the oppression of Gilead has finally got into him, and there is this resignation. I can feel him trying out these new shoes and not liking how they fit.”
Season five of The Handmaid’s Tale marks Bradley Whitford’s directorial debut in the series, directing a highly technical episode later in the season. Whitford shadowed Moss while she directed the first two episodes and overcame several unavoidable challenges threatening to interrupt production on his episode. “How [Moss] does this, I have no idea because she is involved in script development and every aspect of this show. She is very relentless and organized. It’s made me realize just how important that preparation is to create an atmosphere that is something other than existential panic.”
Minghella praised Whitford’s calmness during production as Whitford soaked in the compliment on the zoom call. “I knew Bradley would be very good with the actors because he’s one of the greats. But what was so impressive was his ability to run the set and his confidence in approaching the technical aspects of the show. He directs a huge episode that’s one of the more challenging ones, and he did it with such grace.”
Finally, back in Gilead and struggling to escape Aunt Lydia is Janine, played by Madeline Brewer. Brewer laughs as she reflects on Janine’s perseverance through the series against impossible odds. “Janine has nine lives, and I wonder when they’ll run out. I felt it was time for Janine to take on a little bit of June energy.”
However, this season may change Janine’s unlucky streak as Brewer hints at a shift in trajectory for Janine by the finale. “Janine is no longer Aunt Lydia’s good little soldier,” explains Brewer. “Their relationship has reached the point of mutual respect and trust. But when I read the finale for season five, I was really excited. I get to do some cool new stuff, and there’s a badass Janine, but I won’t say more than that.”
The series received a sixth season renewal, which will also be it’s last. Creator, showrunner and executive producer Bruce Miller is continuing the world of Gilead at Hulu with Atwood’s sequel, The Testaments, currently being developed for the streaming service.