When The Handmaid's Tale premiered in 2017 it felt like fate. Suddenly, just months after Trump's election, came a show we all needed—about women, stripped of their rights, finding strength and agency in a world without any. The Handmaid's Tale was a terrifying and prescient glimpse at what could happen to us if we let it, and now it's gearing up for an even more powerful season 2.
The sophomore installment, out this April, follows Offred's story beyond the source material of Margaret Atwood's novel and into new territory. Season 2 will give viewers their first glimpse of the Colonies—a thus far only murmured-about place where misbehaving women (known as Unwomen) are sent to work until they die.
I went on an exclusive visit to the Toronto set just as the show was gearing up to film these anticipated scenes, where I reunited with Ofglen (played poignantly by Alexis Bledel) and immediately paid my respects to Offred's closet. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, after all.
Alexis Bledel's Character Is Back—and More Heart-Wrenching Than Ever
Before we get to all the glorious secrets I learned from this set visit (like how they highlighted Offred's lack of privacy by purposefully using squeaky wood on her staircase) let's fast-forward to the scene I watched being shot—a truly painful moment between Alexis Bledel's Ofglen and her wife, played by Clea DuVall, trying to leave America for Canada with their son. The shoot took place in the Toronto airport (which I flew out of later that day, #convenient), meaning mass amounts of normal people were milling about with The Handmaid's Tale cast, crew, and about 300 extras including ACLU reps and ICE police.
With Trump's travel ban top of mind, the scene has to be one of the most emotional in season 2—and the context lent a sharp sense of urgency to Bledel's performance. "It was like a gut punch to imagine recent events being linked to what plays out in the scene," she told me. "I do remember feeling that shock and disbelief. Watching this cautionary tale, the audience will feel the full weight of that correlation more than Emily [Ofglen] does; her experience is so immediate because it's all happening around her so fast, so I just stayed in her experience."
Speaking of Trump, remember that most of The Handmaid's Tale season 1 was written before the political shitstorm that we found ourselves in last year—it's amazing happenstance that the show came out when it did. So how much will the draconian policies of Trump's presidency influence season 2? A lot. "Oh, I think we can't help but let it influence us," creator Bruce Miller told me. "We have let it influence us. And there are a lot of issues we brought up last year that we want to address this year in ways we never had time to."
Welcome to the Colonies
If you're imagining the Colonies as a dark and grime-filled wasteland, you're on the right track. They're just about as depressing as you'd expect, but there's a certain sinister beauty that the cinematography team worked to capture. "It's a whole new bunch of locations that we've never seen before, so we're trying to work out how that should look," director of photography Colin Watkinson (who won an Emmy for the show) told me. "Bruce Miller had an idea which ties into everything we did in season 1. On the face of it, some things are really beautiful, but they're actually not."
Costuming is a huge part of capturing that sinister beauty, and the Colonies gave designer Ane Crabtree a chance to create a whole set of new outfits—a pretty daunting task considering her designs for the Handmaids became so instantly iconic that the show literally had celebrities calling in with requests to borrow them for Halloween.
In season 1, Crabtree drew from famous pop cultural images saturated in red (the apple in Snow White, for example), but this season she's finding inspiration everywhere, from Andrew Wyeth's paintings to Russian Soviet posters and constructivism to Amish and Mennonite imagery to present-day migrant workers. And when it comes to the outfits themselves, she's designing with the Commander in mind. "I always come from a point of view of male power and how to subjugate women via costumes," she says. "This is a world created by a Commander. What I'm trying to do is un-peel the layer and show the humanity of each person. The outfits are a form of propaganda."
Color is hugely important in Handmaid's Tale costuming as a code for social class (the Handmaids themselves wear red, Wives wear teal, Marthas wear green), and finding a color for "Unwomen" in the Colonies was a challenge. Crabtree landed on soft blue, but it's actually shapes that will draw in the eye—specifically circular cut-outs in the back, which are brutally reminiscent of a literal zero. "The Unwomen are kind of the new Handmaids in season 2. They're turning over soil trying to move radiation so they get filthy. They have probably six months—at best two years—to live. We're trying to show that humanity in their costumes. I made beautiful sheer pieces to be worn under their outfits, since they strip down as their clothing is full of radiation."
In my *personal* opinion, Serena Joy has the chicest and most covetable costumes on the show—and in season 2 she's getting a whole new slew designed around the fact that she's expecting a baby that's not hers. "Wives mimic being pregnant, so I'm making very close-body shapes where your eye is drawn to where Serena might be pregnant if she were carrying the child. It's almost like a medieval girdle, yet sporty and sculptural."
All the Handmaid's Tale Secrets You Never Knew You Needed
Okay, it's time for my favorite part of the set visit: SECRETS. I came away with so many fun facts from The Handmaid's Tale that I barely knew what to do with myself, so let's get right to it.
1.The ceiling in the Commander's office has a massive map of Gilead on it—a small but amazing detail that you rarely see on-screen. "You never see the ceiling that much because the lighting in there is so moody and beautiful," says season 1 production designer Julie Berghoff. "When I was building the Commander's office I was thinking about this place that was taboo for every woman. Maps were such a beautiful element—it's almost like the Commander can sit in his chair, look at the ceiling and say, 'Oh we've taken Florida.' Instead of having a map on a table or on a computer, we wanted to playfully make it a piece of art."
2. Those paintings in the mansion? They're meant to have been stolen from the Boston Museum, and the design team had a *very* hard time deciding whether to include the artists' signatures on them. "We had a lot of discussions about if Serena could have art in the lower part of the house, but realized Wives are still privileged," Berghoff says. "We had many discussions and decided that we'd keep the names on to show the fact that they had a Monet, or a Cézanne."
3. The cinematographers use a special lens for Offred that they only break out for one reason: "Offred has a specific lens for when she's internalizing her emotions and we want the viewer to feel like she's thinking," Colin Watkinson says. "We save it and don't really use it on other occasions."
4. They also have a special lens for Lydia because she's so effing scary: "For Lydia we use wider lenses than we would for closeups for other actors because her character is so menacing," says Watkinson.
5. They use specific lighting on Joseph Fiennes so that—to quote Watkinson, who was in turn quoting Joseph himself—he looks "very machiavellian." It definitely ups the terrifying villain factor.
6. Serena Joy doesn't sleep in her bedroom, but if you watch the show you wouldn't know it. There's actually a twin bed in a room you hardly see: "I made the room to be where Serena Joy goes to sleep at night because she can't stand sleeping in her own bed, since that's where the ceremony happens," Berghoff says. "Her 'real' room is almost more like a museum piece—for the ceiling, we did a lot of birds. I wanted to give her an element that she could almost cling onto, to disappear and fly out of the room."
7. The bag Offred carries to the grocery store was a two-week saga: "We tried recycled plastic and decided they wouldn't have that," Berghoff says. ""She ended up carrying something that was somewhat see-through, because everything has to be vulnerable with the Handmaids, and the Commanders want to be able to see every item they're carrying. It took like two weeks to decide which bag she should carry."
8. Speaking of groceries, "The grocery store was a huge undertaking because we created every label with no words. Everything had a symbol for where it was made, what its ingredients were, where it came from," Berghoff explains. "Every piece of fruit had a thought process behind it—when she gets oranges, the implication is, 'Okay, they conquered Florida.' If they had artichokes, it meant they conquered California. The evolution of Gilead was always in mind."
Watch The Handmaid's Tale season 2 in April on Hulu, and check back here for more interviews and exclusives.