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Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale is a model of longform worldbuilding

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The show’s third season makes its world richer with each new detail 

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Sometimes, discovering a new fictional world is like forming a crush on a relative stranger. It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement for something fresh and unique. In fiction, that can mean discovering a new universe that feels revelatory. But often, the more you learn about that world, the less it holds up, and the less time you want to spend with it. Reading the next book in the series, or watching another episode, you become disappointed, because this shiny new world doesn’t make nearly as much sense once the details are filled in.

The secret comes down to ensuring that each new detail introduced, each new development, not only makes coherent sense within the narrative’s established framework, but actually enhances the audience’s understanding. And most franchises don’t hit that bar. The Wachowskis’ original 1999 film The Matrix is a good example. It’s a near-perfect science fiction movie on its own, set in a future where machines have turned the human race into batteries kept complacent by a virtual reality. But the ancillary material (including comics, animated shorts, and video games) tried to build a simple story into an epic story-verse, and the sequels The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions added in some convoluted notions without enhancing the original story. For all the time the story spends in the human city of Zion, the dance-orgy and character-drama segments don’t say much about how this future functions, or add dimension to the man vs. machine conflict. The new details complicate the franchise without helping hold it together, or providing meaningful story hooks for the main characters.

Photo: Sophie Giraud / Hulu

The Harry Potter universe — both in print novels and in the films — has also been subjected to heavy analysis (both serious and comedic) from fans who don’t feel the details add up. All those nitpicks, though, are really rooted in discovering the flaws of J.K. Rowling’s worldbuilding. For instance, she takes the time to establish a fantasy financial system, complete with its own coinage: galleons, sickles, and knuts. But a Reddit user who did the math on how much those were worth discovered some odd facts — like how Harry had to spend more money for textbooks than his own wand, and the vast price discrepancies for various types of candy. And Rowling’s expansion of the “Potterverse,” through official Hogwarts “textbooks” like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, or the Fantastic Beasts films she’s scripted, have either directly conflicted with established lore or just made it busier and more frantic. The more she adds to the Wizarding World outside of her books, the less sense it makes — and the more fans have rebelled against her casual additions to the story.

But sometimes, the more opportunity a creator gets to build out a world, the richer it becomes. In adapting The Handmaid’s Tale, many critics have felt that the show could have easily been a one-season miniseries, especially given that season 1 completed its adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel. But in season 3, showrunner Bruce Miller has justified the ongoing continuation of Hulu’s dystopian drama by avoiding the expansion trap many other franchises face. In terms of worldbuilding, Atwood gave Miller a road map that could theoretically stretch centuries into the future. And Miller and his creative team have been skilled at inventing new ways to illustrate how the country of Gilead — a separatist state in a splintered America — operates politically and personally.

Photo: Jasper Savage / Hulu

With each subsequent episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, the world of the show continues to evolve. As handmaid June (Elisabeth Moss) fights within the system to try to bring it down, the world’s political climate is progressively getting more definition. The expansion of character backstories and flashbacks speaks to the changes which led to the rise of Gilead. The Commanders still wear suits, their wives still wear teal uniforms, but this season, we’re seeing the regional differences between the fashions in what was once Boston and what was once Washington, DC.

And the show’s increasing scope and ambition are giving viewers a wider perspective than just what’s happening in Gilead. In Canada, June’s husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), best friend Moira (Samira Wiley), and former handmaid Emily (Alexis Bledel) struggle with expatriate life, and with the knowledge of who and what they’ve left behind. Baby Nichole, who Emily brought to Canada, has become a political football, as Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) demands the return of the “kidnapped” child. When he takes his case to the media, it becomes an international issue.

More and more, the show features the Commanders meeting to discuss the ongoing battles to maintain control of their territory — not just because of the ongoing war against what’s left of the United States, but because of the international political battles Gilead faces as it tries to assert itself as an officially recognized regime. Meanwhile, the Aunts contemplate how to maintain control over the increasingly rebellious handmaids and other women who may not be fully loyal to the cause. This season, their methods are becoming more brutal, from public hangings to even more horrific mutilations than usual — except that the show is also careful to make it clear that the public face of Gilead is concerned with keeping these punishments under wraps. June is sometimes able to flaunt this fact to Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), since Waterford includes her in his televised pleas for the return of Nichole, and it would look bad for her to appear abused on camera.

Photo: Jasper Savage / Hulu

The Handmaid’s Tale is at its best when the warping effects of this world’s crumbling birth rate is at the center of the narrative, as it taps into the sort of primal terror about the end of mankind that could potentially motivate a society to such acts of cruelty, in the name of “the greater good.” But the greater good is often even greater for the rich and powerful. One of the most striking aspects of season 3’s sixth episode, “Household,” is meeting the Waterfords’ host in the rebranded capital of Gilead — not just Commander Winslow (Christopher Meloni) and his wife Mrs. Winslow (Elizabeth Reaser), but their five children, adopted and otherwise. “The privileges of rank,” snarky servant Rita remarks. But the way one of Gilead’s most powerful leaders has used his privilege to grant himself a house full of young laughter — the most children seen together on-screen in the entire history of the show, apart from in flashbacks — speaks to the ways this society still has its complicated politics and underlying secrets.

And judged on the basis of architectural plausibility, Gilead’s choice to transform the Washington Monument into a gigantic cross might seem absurd. But as a potent symbol of what has happened to America, it’s a brutal yet effective visual choice. More importantly, it’s consistent with what viewers already know about the Gilead leadership, a group of men who used fundamentalist panic over declining birth rates to tear down their country and invent a new and terrible realm.

Photo: Barbara Nitke / Hulu

The human cost of their actions, meanwhile, is never forgotten. One of the most haunting sequences of “Under His Eye,” season 3’s seventh episode, comes when Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and Mrs. Winslow tour an unrestored DC residence that the Waterfords might move into. “Unrestored” in this instance means that the house is a wreck. Broken glass and abandoned belongings tell the story of the previous residents’ violent exit. There are no bodies, but the moldy wine glass, dusty video game controller, and once-cheery nursery say plenty about the house’s past — and Serena and Mrs. Winslow’s nonchalant acceptance of the scene reveals that in Gilead, this is normal and expected.

The future of The Handmaid’s Tale as a story universe will experience a fascinating complication this fall, with the publication of The Testaments, Atwood’s official sequel to her original novel. The book takes place 15 years after the end of Handmaid’s Tale, and in the official statement announcing the book, Atwood promised, “everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.”

Whether The Testaments will align with the TV show’s universe remains to be seen. While Atwood is a producer on the series, and Miller has frequently referred to consulting with her while developing the show over the years, the book seems poised to stand alone. If they’ve coordinated their stories, it may enhance the TV version of Gilead, rather than contradicting it. In the meantime, the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale continues to take care in making every horrific detail feel real to the audience. It’s real enough for the show’s most terrifying trait to come into focus: the idea that what it depicts isn’t too far off from what could happen today.