‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Producers Say Season 3’s Washington, DC Is Like ‘Gilead on Steroids’

Creator Bruce Miller and EP Warren Littlefield also tell TheWrap about Emily and Nicole’s journey to Canada

Handmaid's Tale
Photo by: Elly Dassas/Hulu

If the second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was all about going inward to learn more about the Republic of Gilead and its residents, the third installment in Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel is all about going outward — literally.

Season 3 of the Bruce Miller-created drama, which launches with its first three episodes on Wednesday, will see our characters leave their comfort zones (as much as they have them within Gilead, at least) both emotionally and physically; some journey to Canada, where it’s safe, and others to Washington, D.C., where it’s definitely not.

June (Elisabeth Moss) — who decided in the Season 2 finale to give her infant daughter Nicole to Emily (Alexis Bledel) in the hopes the two would make it to Canada, while she stayed behind to try and save her other child, Hannah — will be the one heading to the capital of Gilead, whereas Emily and Nicole will become refugees in the Great White North.

While Miller doesn’t want to give away the specific reason why the show is heading to D.C. in the first place, he reveals the setting “comes into play because Gilead as a country tries to get Nicole back — they aren’t going to let Nicole go.”

“And what we get to see is how Gilead represents itself to the world and what they think of themselves. And also the reason we’re going to D.C. is, it’s a different environment,” Miller said. “It’s a lot more conservative than we’re used to and we’re seeing what the future could be and do for characters like June and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) and for everybody else. It’s a more conservative world and it’s hard to believe there could be something more conservative than the Gilead we’ve seen, but the Handmaids in D.C. don’t talk, they’re not allowed to talk. So I think what I really wanted to do was show that part of Gilead and then have all our characters wonder if they wanna move in that direction or not and it’s a tough decision to make because society may want to move one way but they personally may not.”

Executive producer Warren Littlefield told TheWrap how this journey outward fits thematically with how they are continuing to approach the adaptation.

“I think year one, of course, was a year of survival for June and we certainly felt Margaret’s narrative,” Littlefield said. “Year two, thematically, was one of motherhood. Survival for June, yes, but also the protection of her unborn child, as well as trying to protect Hannah. And year three takes us to another dimension and that is outside of June herself and her family and goes to others.”

“And the controversial choice at the end of Season 2, turning around in that tunnel and not choosing freedom, June chooses Hannah to see if there is any way she can rescue her, and also chooses to go to war in Gilead,” he continued. “So year three is really the radicalization of June: the responsibility of leadership, joining the Marthas network, being accepted by them. And it becomes a battle that is bigger than her. And so I think that was an appropriate choice for us, because we don’t want to repeat what we’ve done before. And part of that also is we expand the world of Gilead and that’s why we go to Washington, D.C. in year three, because we want to see another dimension of Gilead.”

That dimension is somehow even more dystopian than the portion of the country that was once the United States we’ve seen so far.

“Early on in the writers’ room, they really labeled D.C. as Gilead on steroids,” Littlefield said. “And we meet Commander Winslow and his family, played by Chris Meloni, and like Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), he is a commander but he has more power because he is at the seat of government. As we know, our nation’s capital in reality today is still Washington, D.C. and that’s, in fact, in our world of Gilead, that’s true also. It’s the seat of power. And Winslow is even more powerful than Fred. And so we come to see what that looks like. We take iconic visions of Washington, D.C., such as the Washington Monument and we turn them into a piece of Gilead.”

And, yes, the Hulu drama actually shot in D.C. for a few days to get the exteriors you’ll see in the capital-set episodes.

“I watched the sunrise for two mornings on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and as runners jogged up the steps and went through their daily routine, they looked up and found us,” Littlefield said. “And they had to stop and had to bond and be a part of what we were doing. And we had a really, really interesting relationship with real people.”

Littlefield said that when “The Handmaid’s Tale” — which primarily shoots in Canada — made its field trip to D.C., he was pleasantly surprised by how the cast and crew were received.

“The government was shut down so we couldn’t shoot for a while,” he said. “And then when the government reopened, we were issued a permit and we were working with government employees in uniform who were part of the Parks Department. And I wasn’t sure how we would be accepted, or if we would be accepted, because of who we are. And it was an amazing embrace. They knew exactly where we stood on human rights, on women’s rights, on what the show was about, and they welcomed us with open arms and gave us a great amount of gratitude in how we worked for our couple of days there.”

As for Emily’s story in Canada, Miller says fans will see how “even though she’s out of Gilead, Gilead stays with her.”

“I think that story for Emily is the story of you can’t shake Gilead,” he said. “You escape Gilead, it doesn’t escape you. She was mutilated, so is she going to have a romantic and sexual life or not? That story is fascinating because it’s the story of what June will have to go through as well if she escapes. So you are seeing June’s future, too.”

Littlefield says the producers and writers worked closely with consultants from the United Nations to learn what life would be like for a Canadian refugee in Emily’s situation.

“You don’t just flip a switch when you arrive,” he said. “And so we were highly informed by our UN consultants. We have a battalion of consultants that help work with the writers and Bruce to inform them and give them as much knowledge as possible as we create our fiction out of the events of the real world. So they really took us through a refugee experience, both what it would be like for a refugee in the United States and how it’s different in Canada.”

“So from the moment that Emily is on the shore from that river — and let me tell you, in November in Canada that was one cold river and one cold night —  she’s immediately wrapped in a mylar blanket and given protection and a sense of wellbeing,” Littlefield continued. “And that all comes from our research with our UN consultants. And also, them helping us understand how the process in Canada is not a three-month process, it actually goes much longer, that’s a choice that their government makes and it’s different from here in America, where the refugee experience is about a three month time and then you are on your own. But like I said, emotionally it’s not like flipping a switch and we’ll see what that looks like for Emily.”

“The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 3 launches its first three episodes Wednesday on Hulu.