Three seasons in, Hulu’s Emmy-winning series The Handmaid’s Tale continues to terrify with its prescience. The latest season, which aired during the summer of 2019, still told a story of women risking their lives and safety to rise up against repression in a dystopian world run by religious extremists. But it also dealt with refugees, gaslighting politicians, and whether it’s better to flee or stay and fight the system from the inside.
All of this is not lost on the actresses who play the women who live and navigate the political minefield based on author Margaret Atwood’s Gilead, the fictional New England totalitarian state overrun by the zealous group known as the Sons of Jacob.
Handmaid’s lead Elisabeth Moss and co-stars Yvonne Strahovski and Ann Dowd came together on Zoom to discuss the journeys that their respective characters take in season three, and how they’re intertwined in their resistance. Both Moss and Dowd – who have each won an acting Emmy for their work on the Hulu series – stressed that doing a show like this is its own form of activism. But seeing their work impact the real world when it is referenced time and again via protest signs and the red Handmaid attire? That’s when they know they’ve done their jobs.
“In a way, it’s a good way for us as humans to go and put our feelings into the work that we are proud of,” Moss says. “We feel grateful and proud when we see women dressed up as handmaids and protesting. All of that is the positive side of it, for sure.”
Although it could seem weird to see so many people take to the streets in real life in the oxblood dresses and white bonnets associated with her character June, Moss gets it. “When I put on that costume, I’m also protesting. I also feel, as June, that I’m protesting,” she adds.
Given that June’s very survival in Gilead is dictated by her ability to remain silent and complacent as a handmaid, Moss found other ways to show June’s protest. Avid watchers can read between the lines in June’s steely stares at her enemies and the coded ways she emphasizes or reacts to Gilead greetings such as “praise be” (you’re thankful) or “under his eye” – a reminder/threat that God, or someone, is always watching.
June isn’t just navigating what to say; she’s still figuring out who she can trust, and what happens when her actions put others in danger. The ninth episode of season three, entitled “Heroic” (directed by Daina Reid, written by Lynn Renee Maxcy), follows June as she is forced to stand vigil over a fellow handmaid’s (Ashleigh LaThrop) hospital bed after the woman snapped under the pressures of the place and was subsequently shot.
“I feel like that episode is a real turning point for June,” Moss says. She adds that not only was the episode a challenge because the team had to make scenes look different given that the episode takes place in a small room, but “because how do you take somebody who has been through everything and had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at her, and then throw the kitchen sink at her?”
And who are the people throwing the proverbial sink? Frequently, it’s Strahovski’s Serena Joy Waterford, a powerful wife within Gilead who is keenly aware that this ranking can become less steady with any infraction; and Dowd’s Aunt Lydia, a devout woman who forcefully groomed June and other captured women into their new purposes of sexual servitude.
But are these women bad? Or are they also victims of this patriarchal new world order?
“I don’t think you should pity her at all,” Strahovski says of her character, who has been seen both leaning toward June’s rebellion and inflicting mental and physical harm. “Of course, I understand her better than anybody and … I can literally sit here and talk for hours and justify every single thing she did.”
As someone who does not share Serena’s belief system, Strahovski says the character is a strange head space to occupy. In episode 6 of the third season, entitled “Household,” the show traveled to Washington, DC, where the Waterfords are invited to the capital of Gilead to map out the next chapter of their ascension in the totalitarian state.
Written by Dorothy Fortenberry and directed by Dearbhla Walsh, the episode includes a giant set piece at the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall. Both have changed under the rule of Gilead, where the Waterfords stand on the famed steps overlooking the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument, now transformed into a giant, ominous cross. Strahovski says donning Serena’s trademark teal dress and perfectly wound hair bun to stand in an area known for people exercising their First Amendment rights to peacefully assemble and object made her feel “dirty.”
“As actors, when you play these horrid characters, [you know] that yes, they have feelings and they have hearts and they have moments where you, as an audience member, can sympathize,” she says. “And selfishly, as an actor, I want you to feel pity for Serena and be confused [by her choices]. Butyou just feel kind of gross sitting there and justifying all these horrendous actions.”
Similarly, there can be a softness to Dowd’s Aunt Lydia. She’s quick with a cattle prod – and members of her flock have the scars to prove it – but she still feels as if she’s helping her “girls” find a place (and stay alive) in Gilead. In previous seasons, there have been hints to Lydia’s life before the Sons of Jacob took power, but in this season, episode 8 (entitled “Unfit”) shows Lydia’s life before as a grade-school teacher lonely for love and judgmental if her students’ parents didn’t live up to her standards.
Dowd says the episode, where Lydia is rejected by her principal (John Ortiz) after she pursued a romantic relationship, “broke my heart, quite honestly” because “shame was really at the core of what led her.”
“At least in The Handmaid’s Tale as we’ve come to know her, it just clicked that if shame rules the day, you will never be free,” Dowd explains.
The fourth season of Handmaid’s had barely begun production when the coronavirus pandemic shut down filming – Moss jokes that they’ve filmed a “teaser’s” worth of footage – but the actresses promise that the upcoming season will have what Strahovski calls “surprises” in store for fans, especially after the season three finale closes with June in mortal danger and Serena hauled off to the slammer.
Moss elaborates that the show has evolved so much for these characters that they are not the same people that viewers met in the first season. She says that so much time has passed since the Sons of Jacobs’ uprising that the show’s flashback scenes could now go backwards in time in Gilead instead of life before Gilead.
“All these characters – Ann and Yvonne’s included – have reached this place where they’re not the flashback versions of themselves and they’re not the Gilead versions of themselves,” Moss says. “They’re these new characters and these new people.”
Because of this, Moss explains that “there’s this freedom that I think is really extraordinary.”
Well, praise be.