[This story contains spoiler’s from the fourth episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale season five, “Dear Offred.”]
Last season was a big one for The Handmaid’s Tale’s Janine.
Not only did the fiery handmaid played by Madeline Brewer survive a near-death explosion, but she also rose from the ashes as a leader in her post-Gilead life and was given a long-awaited backstory episode to showcase her inner strength. Her journey, however, was all the more heartbreaking when, by season’s end, she was captured and returned to handmaid headquarters at the Red Center, where she decided to obey Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) and fall back in line with Gilead’s totalitarian society rules in order to survive.
When chatting about that decision, Brewer had shared that her hope for her character moving forward was that Janine would find her purpose. Then, with the show’s season five return, she found it.
“For so many years, Janine has been told repeatedly, and it’s been enforced repeatedly, that she is just a walking womb and that her only purpose on this planet is to be raped and to have children for other people,” Brewer told The Hollywood Reporter when speaking at the beginning of the season. “So, to find purpose in helping these girls [the handmaids] gives her a reason to live. It gives her a reason to be there. She is thinking, ‘If I can be purposeful, if I can be helpful, maybe they won’t post me [to a family] and maybe they will need me here.’ That’s her hope at the beginning of this season.”
After Janine was recaptured in Chicago and separated from starring handmaid June (Elisabeth Moss) — who ultimately escaped to Canada where she is now living as a refugee — Janine begged Aunt Lydia to let her die, rather than return her to life as a handmaid, where she would be raped in hopes of bearing a child for another commander and his wife. “She’s so certain that she cannot do that again,” says Brewer of Janine’s season five outlook. “I think that after she was out and had a taste of freedom and then got caught, she feels a level of, ‘Maybe that’s not what’s meant for me.’ If I can find purpose here, I can live. And if they post me again, I will find a way to hang myself.”
Given Janine’s history, Brewer says, it’s not a far reach to see how she could get to such a place. But the actress doesn’t view it as despair. “She just doesn’t have dreams of freedom anymore, it’s just too far gone. And I don’t think that’s her giving up. I just think that’s her being very practical,” she says.
Janine has endured traumas ranging from sexual abuse to physical abuse (her eye was removed as a form of punishment), and she has lost two children. Her first, a son, died in a car accident after they were separated in Gilead. Her second child, Charlotte, whom she gave birth to for the Putnam family as a handmaid, has remained in her orbit but out of reach. Janine’s shift of obedient behavior at the Red Center results in brief but heartwarming reunions with her daughter, where Janine does the impossible and respects her place in the Gilead hierarchy just so she can have the fleeting moments.
“To have any chance, even the whisper of a chance, to be able to see Charlotte is enough,” she says. “At this point, all Janine can ask of herself is: ‘Can I live with this?’ Because she’s very comfortable going the other way if need be, and I don’t think that’s weakness. I think it takes incredible strength to stay. To choose to stay is the most powerful thing, against everything inside you telling you not to, that there’s nothing else. To stay is the most admirable, powerful display of strength.”
Janine has narrowly escaped death before. She jumped off a bridge after kidnapping her baby from the Putnams and being forced to give her back, and she survived the bombing in Chicago in season four. But this season, when her handmaid mentee and fellow secret resistance fighter Esther (Mckenna Grace) poisons both herself and Janine in an act of revenge, the attempt on Janine’s life stings of betrayal.
The second episode of the season saw Esther poisoning Janine with chocolates and telling an unaware Janine after she ate them that she wanted to hurt Janine for her role in Esther’s handmaid life. The harrowing scene, which left the two women spitting blood on the Red Center floor before being rushed to the hospital, came after a traumatic visit that Esther had with her new commander, Janine’s former Commander Warren Putnam (Stephen Kunken). Janine has since woken up and endured weeks of recovery, but Esther remains in a coma.
“It’s another layer for Janine of, what does this do to her? She’s been on the verge of death before and in the hospital. Is she going to make it, is she not? We’ve done this. But this time, instead of it being brought on by herself, this was brought on by someone who she loves, and this is a lot more painful,” explains Brewer. “She knows Esther, and she knows what she’s been through. And I think there’s a large part of her that feels a maternal need to nurture this child — this hurt, little baby bird, who turns out to be quite a bit of a vulture.”
She continues, “All of her friends are dead or gone, and friendship is something that has helped keep her alive. We’ve seen how handmaids always walk in twos. Ultimately, Janine will always choose her friends. She’s fiercely loyal. So, I think with Esther, and then with the betrayal, it breaks something in her — something essential to who Janine was has now been turned by this horrifying betrayal from someone who I really think she does love and care about.”
Filming the scene required precise choreography, as Brewer and Grace tried to “perfectly spew” their coughs of blood in the right direction while rolling on the ground. “Every few minutes, Mckenna and I were filling our mouths with mouthblood, which is a really sweet sugar juice. It’s really gross, it could give you a cavity, it’s that sweet,” she says with a laugh at the acting task. “I have a great photo of me and Mckenna just smiling, just covered in blood. We’re having the time of our lives, but Ann [Dowd], who runs in and screams and cries, was having a bit more of an emotional day!”
Onscreen, the event sparks a change in Janine, as viewers clearly see when she wakes up that she is no longer docile. Instead, she confronts Aunt Lydia about her contributing role in Gilead’s abuse of the handmaids, which, in turn, does the unthinkable and motivates Lydia to want to make changes and, finally, take steps to protect her girls. Perhaps the most powerful cog in Gilead’s slow wheel of change is the impact all of this has on Lydia, who can use her powerful allegiance with Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) in small ways.
“Ultimately, Lydia cares about these girls. As much as we want to think that she doesn’t, if you spend even 30 seconds talking to Ann [Dowd] about Aunt Lydia, she’ll say, ‘She loves those girls, she loves girls.’ And she does. I think you see it in every scene that Ann and I have. There’s so much love there,” says Brewer. “And my hope is that Aunt Lydia is realizing that if you love these girls, you have to advocate for them in a very real way, not just in the ‘It’s God’s will’ kind of way.”
Behind the scenes, Brewer wasn’t concerned that this attempt on Janine’s life would be the end. “I would hope that after five seasons, there would be a little bit of a warning. I don’t think Bruce Miller would allow that to happen, he’s too kind a human being to surprise me that way,” she says of the creator and showrunner.
But she certainly acknowledges the shift. “I think there is some energy from what happened that Janine takes into the end of the season that you will see,” she teases. “There is a void in the Red Center without June, and the only way you survive Gilead is with a June; with some sort of June. So, I think Janine tries to embody a little bit of that June energy for these handmaids. And I think she finds purpose in it.”
The Handmaid’s Tale‘s fifth season is currently streaming on Hulu, with new episodes dropping Wednesdays.