'The Handmaid's Tale' Director Kari Skogland on Identity, Easter Eggs & More

Kari Skogland
Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Kari Skogland photographed during the Toronto Interational Film Festival. 

Skogland also talks about the Waterfords' contraband record player and that iconic final pen click shot.

Kari Skogland has directed some of the most memorable episodes of Hulu’s hit series The Handmaid’s Tale, including the Season 1 finale and “Other Women,” which was probably the most devastating episode in the show so far. Billboard caught up with her following the release of “After," the 7th episode of Season 2.

The episodes that you direct have lines and statements from earlier in the series or the episode repeated in a new context. Is something that you think about as you're working?

Well, yeah, what you're looking at there is a theme. I'm there to support the writer and the performer and trying to bring out the best of all of it. So in the case of any kind of repeated ideas or themes or words, hopefully you've heard them once or seen them once, and then you see them from a different perspective. And it's changed your mind in some way, so I guess there's an evolution. One looks at them to have an evolution from some point of reference or understanding -- as you hear the same word again, it now means something different. That's really what I look for.

Episode 7 of season 2 was the first time that we've seen June as a character in Moira's flashback -- and it was the first time that Moira got to have her very own flashbacks. How did that affect your work with Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley on this episode?

It's interesting, because those flashbacks have always had that particular perspective, which was June. And so it was really important to take a look at that and go, "Well, how are they shifting perspectives?" And the whole series has always been June's perspective. So it was a real intellectual shift that I had to try and embrace in a visual sort of style or take, I suppose, not only the camerawork, but how they were executed, to say, "Alright, now we're in the Moira..." even though in some cases June was in the moment. But it's not June's flashback.

And it's a revolution, I suppose, to the series to some degree to say, "Oh, we're going to go into this person's face and get to know them and have all our world to be, to understand their world a little bit." And of course, of all people, Samira was so wonderful to work with. So the scene where she finds her dead lover in the book, it just broke my heart. I [was] sitting at the monitors weeping, and we were driving towards the moment where June is empowered, even if falsely.

There was going to be this joy. The way to get out was the click of the pen, which was a '"the word's mightier than the sword" moment. So I came at those with a different kind of, not only agenda, but visualization. I tried to make them less linear so that they evoked a memory versus a narrative -- as impressionistic as possible. And Bruce [Miller] really embraced that idea, that for Samira to be sort of impressionistic.

I feel like we think of June differently when we see her in other people's flashbacks rather than when we see her in her own.

Of course! Yeah, and that's to see who she was before, who she's had to become. And you know, I've done a lot of research and I've been working on projects that embrace people who are tortured, or exploring what that is. And of course the "before" you and the "after" you are two very different people, and once you've had this element of rape and torture, and been singled out to be different. It was her complete loss of identity [in Episode 4, which Skogland also directed] and she had to kind of come back. So it's always reminding us who she is…very critical to our understanding that the loss of this character, the loss that she's undergone, which is her former self.

What was also powerful was the juxtaposition of the lists of names, where it's in the "of" patronymic at the beginning, and with actual names and faces when Rachel Tapping listed them again at the end.

Yes! What was wonderful about shooting that was, again, I wanted to come at that as an impressionist sort of thing, so that it wasn't linear and it didn't feel like moments, and embrace this whole idea, which would be memory and sort of supporting that idea of a lost former self. That's why I shot it the way I did, where it embraced the slow motion and where she was talking, and sort of mix up the editing style there. I also wanted for us to understand Lydia a little differently, but she was so affected by this loss of her children. Because she's heinous in a way, but she has a noble goal and so her grieving in this way that her charges, her children, the people that she was trying to save in her way. To see the toll it was taking on her was really important to setting up the whole episode.

That's one of the things that's really frightening about Aunt Lydia, isn't it?

Yeah, I love what Ann Dowd does to the character, and that she's full of heart and soul and this firm belief that what she's doing is so right. It hopefully helps the audience question that kind of galvanized extremism. She just does a wonderful job of embodying this sympathetic character with a kind of heinous agenda when she needs to. She can dish out tough love like nobody I've ever experienced.

I was so happy to see the second Ofglen finally get a name. That photo of her looks like a mug shot to me, while the other women's photos look like something that their loved one would have saved, or that would have been on their social media account before Gilead. Was that intentional?

[Laughs] Well, it was intentional. There was a whole big discussion because it's actually not intended to be a mug shot, more like a driver's license shot, because she had this troubled past. If you remember, she came to it saying, "Actually, this saved me." Because her troubled past was drug abuse and various other things. So in a weird way, she came to the party late, but being oddly saved. So we decided to have a happy picture among the other happy pictures wasn't really her story. I love that you picked that up.

Any system she found herself in abused her for her body, and she didn't have anyone who would have been looking for her.

Correct, correct. That was just a little layer that we put in. We were worried that she wouldn't be recognized, like how do you recognize this character for all that storyline? It was very intentional.

Lillie Fuller, the second Ofglen, was really fascinating to me because we don't know what her awful life was like. I wish I could know what her interior journey was, when she was literally muted.

I did an episode with her where she wanted to talk, but couldn't. And I think that's sort of also a lovely metaphor for in fact what women who have suffered abuse go through, whether their tongues were actually cut out or whether they feel they can't talk about it because of shame, and all the various things that go with it to drudge it up, and to bring it to the fore. Like all of the characters, you want to know so much more and you want to dive in but there's not enough space. You have to go in small little clues, little Easter eggs are buried in each episode, of that kind of thing.

I love the Easter eggs. As a superfan of the show, I'd heard the name Odette twice toward the beginning of Season One. But I didn't have a face for her until now.

We were very careful about how that -- I mean, I can't speak to the whole series, but I can certainly speak to the episode about when that name, when it was uttered again. Because nobody was to know where Odette connected until we finally said the name in that episode. So that was another Easter egg of, "Okay, who are we talking about here? Who is Odette?" And then when we connect the dots in episode seven, and that she's dead, that was also Bruce Miller’s genius.

I noticed that the Commander and Nick both have record players, and I didn't take the Waterfords for vinyl aficionados.

It's the idea that it's contraband. Bruce can probably speak to this more than I can…I love the idea. It was Joe Fiennes who really was part of that, creating that notion that as contraband, he was kind of, just like they drink, they positioned themselves above the law of the land. And so music of course is not allowed, but if you're Commander, you can kind of do what you want.

And that music of creativity, the music of the land, the music of laughter, all of that is all part of what's destroyed when you have extremist actions or call it fascist or even though Gilead in its way wants to preserve humanity, it's doing so in such a heinous fashion. And you know, if you squash music, you actually kill the heart and soul, yet music will always find its way back in.

At one point, Serena Joy was a happy consumer of popular culture, when she talks about Antigua and brunch, and her record collection, and movie popcorn. How did she square that with planning on destroying a society that had all these things in it? You see her missing it...

It came from an extremist perspective and I guess it got to a level where it was punishing all of us, but in particular women, for not behaving. So she had this idea, but of course it backfired, and once she realizes she has to be the product of her own making, and take on the submissive role, and dull her brain and do all the things that go into what she endorsed and fought for…it's questioning the questioners. Serena can't admit she may have made a mistake, because to admit that would be to nullify everything she has embraced, so it's an incredible conundrum and I think Yvonne [Strahovski] plays it beautifully. The Commander is incapable of doing his job and she is forced to step up or lose their position, because to lose their position would be the fall of their small empire. And it becomes threatened, because the sharks are circling to take over not just the position, but her, because she's gorgeous. So the Commander's wife is something to behold. She ends up circling the wagons and using her own power, which includes Nick and June, and they all collude to save their situation because they realize it could be, in a weird way, worse.

Even though they’re propping up an autocratic state, I wanted to cheer that June and Serena get to read and write again.

Well, yeah, because they do it in secret. They're pretending that the Commander is doing the reading and writing. That was the moment where it's kind of seductive. That's what I intended: there's June, a former editor, and suddenly she's going to be handed -- and this was very much Bruce's notion -- she's going to be handed words, but they're words of a dictator. They're words of a fascist society. Is she going to collude with those words? What is that? And yet she's seduced by the fact that she can read again, that she's being given this, the keys to the castle. And she's a revolutionary, but she's going to be in the inner circle, inner sanctum, inner the core of the whole thing -- she's going to get access to the books and it's going to give her tremendous leverage in a way. So it's very seductive. And that was the intention of that scene, she's at the very end, where she's handed the pages and she kind of puts her hands on them like they're gold on gold, and how that just melts her.

Nearly every recap has mentioned Elizabeth Moss' thumb on the red pen at the end of episode seven next to Tattiawa Jones' finger on the detonator on episode 6.

That was a planned coincidence, if that makes sense. I saw the shot, and the notion of the thumb on the pen was the explosive, so I embraced the visual metaphor.

When I look at Emily, I think about how she can't think of herself as a professor, or as someone's partner or a mom anymore, and all these things have been taken from her. And there's the way that Serena says to June, "You're an editor," like she's giving her that identity back. They’re reclaiming their professional identities. 

We identify ourselves as much by our name as by what we do. So for her to say "you're an editor" suddenly gave her a point of reference again and spoke to the identity of her own history. So it was an absolute seductive moment for her to say, "Come on board, join my train for the moment, because I need you. Even though it's been heinous, suddenly, I need you." How do we feel about June in that moment? We understand, and yet we hope she doesn't take the bait, but we know she will, as anybody would, and maybe's a moment of hope, and at the same time a moment of devastation that she's going to join forces with her enemy.

Final question: who or what do you think that you would be in Gilead?

Oh, goodness gracious. I honestly I hope in my soul, as much as I hate the notion of it, I hope I'd be the fiesty June in that she never gives up and she is continually a wonderful role model. I would hope that I would be able to measure up to her.