At one point in the “The Handmaid’s Tale”’s new season, June (Elisabeth Moss) finds herself in a storage facility filled with Boston-area street and landmark signs — vestiges of the city she used to know. She contemplates a sign that reads, “Entering Salem.” Another says, “Faneuil Hall,” ironically referencing the Freedom Trail.
So yes, Hulu’s dystopian hit is very much set in Greater Boston, but don’t expect to spot Moss or supporting actress Samira Wiley (“Orange Is the New Black”) filming in the Back Bay or Cambridge.
“We would love to be shooting in Boston, but, you know, the benefits of shooting in Canada, and specifically we’re in Toronto, are just so significant that it just puts so much more production value up on screen,” said executive producer Warren Littlefield (“Fargo”). “We need to do that.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” which was renewed for a third season earlier this month, has more explicitly anchored itself in the Boston area for season two, prominently featuring Boston locations such as the home of the Red Sox. In the first major moment of the second season, June is forced into an overgrown, abandoned Fenway Park.
“[Creator] Bruce [Miller] wrote in the script, ‘the cathedral that is Fenway Park,’” Littlefield said. “That comes from [Miller] and all the writers being very tied into the world around us. And looking at fascist regimes in other parts of the world, it’s not uncommon that murder and torture happens in public places that are places of a statement.”
In the scene, upon Fenway’s field stand both a long row of nooses and Aunt Lydia, portrayed by Holyoke native Ann Dowd, who gives a harrowing speech.
“She walked out on the field and grabbed the microphone, and she had goosebumps, and we all did,” Littlefield said. “She’s really proud of her roots.”
The scene is unique in that it features footage from Boston. The visual effects team filmed for a night at Fenway, then juxtaposed those shots with ones of the actors on a Canadian ball field. When Littlefield approached Red Sox chairman Tom Werner — with whom he goes way back — about shooting in the ballpark, they discussed how filming in Fenway would impact baseball and the team.
Littlefield said he gave the following explanation: “I think when you go into the scene, which is going to be fairly horrific, the reveal that it’s Fenway — you will mourn the loss of what is a national pastime.”
Littlefield also pitched The Boston Globe for permission to use its logo. In the second and third episodes of the current season, June hides out in the newspaper’s former Dorchester headquarters. In real life, the Globe’s staff has moved to new offices in the Financial District. In the show, the Dorchester offices are empty for a particularly gruesome reason: The Globe’s staff has been murdered in an attempt to silence the free press. Using his connections at the Red Sox, Littlefield approached the owner of both the Red Sox and the Globe, John Henry.
“I said [to Henry], ‘Look, The Boston Globe has an incredible tradition of support for freedom of the press, and that’s what we’re about,” Littlefield said. “We’re only reminded each and every day in the Trump world we live in that the freedom of the press is absolutely — the press is under attack. And so, we’re defenders of it. We’ve shown a Gilead world what happens.’ And [the Globe] embraced us.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale’s” art department consistently looks for ways to make its grim world feel as if it’s in Boston, Littlefield said. A quick search on social media shows that even though the show exists in a world of pure fiction, it can feel scarily authentic.
“Gilead doesn’t exist, thank God,” Littlefield said. “In order for that world to feel real, these [locations] really, I think, help establish that.”