The first nine episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale filled the show’s audience with dread and terror. In the series, what was formerly known as the United States has become the Republic of Gilead, a dystopian state that overthrew the previous government after a civil war and is now run by Christian fundamentalists. The Gilead is run by Commanders, who preside as politicians, creating laws and regulations based on the Bible. In Gilead, women are not allowed to hold jobs, control their own money, read books, or even play a simple game of chess.
And then, there are the Handmaids.
Not only are they stripped of their rights like other women in Gilead, but, because they’re able to bear children in a world where fertility rates have dropped, they’re also required to live with Commanders and their wives and act as surrogates. In a monthly ceremony when Handmaids are ovulating, they are raped by their Commander while the Commander’s wife lays with them.
And though the series focuses on one of the Handmaids, June (Elisabeth Moss), another named Janine (Madeline Brewer) has quietly become a pivotal player who could change the future of Gilead forever.
“I think that what she shows you is how this place can break you,” Brewer told BuzzFeed News in a recent interview. “But then I think you come to realize she has her own little bits of resistance. She just kind of takes matters into her own hands and runs with it.”
Unlike other streaming shows, The Handmaid’s Tale is a tough one to binge — and that’s intentional. “You really have to face a lot of tough truths, I think, especially when you’re watching the show and drawing parallels to our political climate in our country right now and the world right now,” the actor said.
Many viewers have pointed out that The Handmaid’s Tale is particularly terrifying to watch in 2017.
But everything changes in the Season 1 finale, which was released this week on Hulu. Toward the end of episode, the women who are trapped in Gilead find themselves in the same position they were in at the end of the premiere: being called together to kill someone who had wronged Gilead. Back then, the Handmaids were instructed to kill a man who allegedly raped a Handmaid; but this time, they are told to kill one of their own, Janine.
That’s when the Handmaids, led by June, finally rebel in an effort to save Janine. Now, for the first time in the series, not all hope is lost for the Handmaids.
“There’s so many times when you see into the lives of these women in Gilead and it’s just unbearable. It’s a fate that’s just, I don’t even know how to say it. I don’t have words,” Brewer said. “So taking Janine from the beginning with her ‘fuck you’ attitude until the end [of the season] was powerful.”
“I feel like she’s made me a more well-rounded person.”
After only reading a few scenes from the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Brewer immediately knew she wanted to play Janine, also known as Ofwarren. (The Handmaids are required to take on the names of their Commanders, so Janine is Ofwarren, June is Offred, and so on).
Brewer, who also played Tricia Miller on Season 1 of Orange Is the New Black and Miranda Cates on Hemlock Grove, had not read the original Margaret Atwood novel, but she quickly fell in love with Janine. The character is different from anyone the 25-year-old actor from New Jersey has played in the past: She ends up being central to the show’s storyline.
“It was definitely a little emotional roller coaster, getting to know Janine and her world and how she feels about things. But also, I feel like she’s made me a more well-rounded person,” Brewer said. “Having to kind of put myself in the mindset of someone who still just fucking powered through and said, ‘This is not going to break me — I am a survivor,’ made me want to be more like her. I love her.”
Viewers meet Janine for the first time in Episode 1 of The Handmaid’s Tale when she arrives at the Rachel and Leah Re-education Center, referred to as the Red Center, where fertile women are brought to learn the ways of Gilead and what being a Handmaid entails. Newcomers are guided by other high-ranking women called Aunts, who are responsible for training Handmaids, helping them through the birthing process, and also handling the executions of those who break the rules.
Janine makes no qualms about how resistant she is to adhering to the demands of the Red Center, which is run by Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). When she first explains that the women will be bearing children for the Commanders of Gilead and their wives, like Rachel and Leah in the Bible, Janine sighs, rolls her eyes, and makes comments, such as “Welcome to the friggin’ loony bin” and “Fuck you” to Aunt Lydia. That’s when the other Aunts forcibly remove Janine, kicking and screaming, from the room and pluck out her eye as punishment.
Like every woman’s experience in Gilead, what Janine goes through is horrifying and dehumanizing. She has a breakdown in the middle of the night at the Red Center and, while sitting in a circle of other soon-to-be Handmaids, she is also forced to recount a time she was gang-raped. At Aunt Lydia’s instruction, everyone points at her and tells her the sexual assault was her fault.
“She finds this defense against the world she’s in because it’s the only way she can bear it.”
These instances ultimately transform her from the defiant, snarky woman she was into an obedient, agreeable Handmaid, a shift Brewer sees as a coping mechanism. “The things that happen to her make her realize ‘I don’t want to be here anymore. I can’t handle it. I can’t stay here. I can’t live like this,’” the actor said.
“It was a really interesting thing to explore, the strength it takes for someone to stay when they truly do not want to be on this Earth anymore,” Brewer said. “And she finds that strength in kind of detaching herself. Janine going batshit crazy is a total choice. She finds this defense against the world she’s in because it’s the only way she can bear it.”
Initially, Janine takes a backseat to other major characters in The Handmaid’s Tale like June, Moira (Samira Wiley), and even Emily (Alexis Bledel), also known as Ofglen. But as the series progresses, it becomes abundantly clear how important Janine’s role in Gilead is.
Janine is the only Handmaid to get pregnant and give birth to a healthy baby in Season 1, which puts her in a unique position, particularly with Aunt Lydia.
The relationship between the characters is a complicated one. Aunt Lydia believes she was put on this Earth to enforce the Gilead’s belief system, and that the Handmaids she’s instructing are chosen by God to bear children. “You realize that ultimately, she does just want them to appreciate what she believes is this incredible responsibility, that they are going to save the human race,” Brewer said. But Aunt Lydia’s methods are violent and unforgiving; she uses Tasers on the Handmaids when they don’t obey her orders, perpetrates executions, has Janine’s eye removed, and Ofglen genitally mutilated.
She does, however, also seem to care about these women in her own way — specifically Janine. Aunt Lydia tries to look out for Janine, but ultimately, she still follows guidelines she’s in charge of maintaining, regardless of the brutality that comes along with them.
For Brewer, working with Dowd — whom she met on her first film, a 2016 indie titled Hedgehog — has been a highlight of her Handmaid’s Tale experience.
“As her character helps my character through a very difficult time, so did Ann kind of help me through a very difficult time while we were shooting,” Brewer said. “To be able to really have those moments with her and be always learning from her — because how could you not? She’s just got so much to give — was a really, really awesome relationship to be able to explore more.”
The characters’ relationship only gets more complicated in Episode 9 after Janine tries to kill herself. Aunt Lydia rushes to Janine’s aid when she threatens to jump off a bridge while holding the baby she gave birth to for her previous Commander and his wife. In a tense scene in which Aunt Lydia and June both try to talk Janine off the ledge in the presence of the Commanders and their wives, it’s clear just how much of a toll Gilead takes on these women.
“Janine was never going to jump with the baby. That was never her intention. She would never endanger the life of her child,” Brewer said. “But she stood on that bridge and had her moment to say everything that she needed to say.”
“You can only take so much shit.”
The actor said she had a difficult time trying to get into the head of someone who was brought to that point, especially “coming from a story like Janine’s that’s already so goddamn heartbreaking in every way.”
“She doesn’t want to be alive,” the actor said. “She can only take so much. You can only take so much shit.”
Janine does ultimately give the baby back to her previous Commander, Commander Putnam (Stephen Kunken), but also jumps off the bridge after doing so. At the end of Episode 9, viewers see Janine lying in a hospital bed with Aunt Lydia standing near her, and they next see her in the following episode, the Season 1 finale, when the Handmaids are all called together to stone Janine to death for endangering the life of a baby.
“We’d been thinking since the previous episode, How is Janine going to be punished for the things that she’s done?” Bruce Miller, the show’s creator, told BuzzFeed News about the scene.
But instead of punishing Janine, as Aunt Lydia instructs, the Handmaids come together for the first time to collectively reject an order. One by one, following June’s lead, they all drop their stones. In that moment, June uses Aunt Lydia’s complex feelings about Janine and affection for her character to her advantage.
“Aunt Lydia comes into the scene wanting in some deep part of her soul for someone to stand up and say ‘Let’s not do this,’” Miller said. “She doesn’t want to do it herself.”
“As Margaret [Atwood] says, ‘We’re not creating cruelties, we’re reflecting them.'”
For Janine, the moment is “all she’s ever really wanted,” Brewer said. “People respecting her, people appreciating her. And she realizes what everyone else has done for her, but she also knows there will be repercussions. They’re all suffering for her.”
Miller also noted that as jarring as the scene is to watch, “people get stoned in this day and age around the world.” He added: “As Margaret [Atwood] says, ‘We’re not creating cruelties, we’re reflecting them.’”
The specific idea of women’s bodies belonging to the state in The Handmaid’s Tale is something Brewer also sees as “a reflection of our society today.”
“We want to make legislation, we want to put laws on women’s uteruses and whether or not they can protect themselves from pregnancy or whatever, but we don’t want to protect you once you’re pregnant,” she said. “We want to have our beliefs and we want to enforce them on everyone else, but we don’t want to have to think about everything that comes along with it.”
At the end Season 1, it’s not clear what happens to Janine after the Handmaids all leave the field where they were told to kill her. With a second season on the way, there are many possibilities for what a future could look like for Janine.
In flashbacks throughout the series, we learn about the past lives of June, her husband Luke (O. T. Fagbenle), her best friend Moira, her lover Nick (Max Minghella), her Commander’s wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), and her Commander (Joseph Fiennes). Janine’s backstory hasn’t been revealed, but Brewer hopes that will come in Season 2 and that Janine will also play a significant role in a possible forthcoming resistance, which the Handmaids refer to as Mayday.
“I obviously really hope they don’t kill Janine because I just don’t want that for her. I want her to live,” Brewer said. “As simple and as complicated as that.” ●
Kate Aurthur contributed reporting to this story.