Janine has been to hell and back. Yet the dystopian drama is still the most fun work the actress has ever had.
Madeline Brewer knows the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale is hard to watch. “I did not breathe for the first 20 minutes of the first episode,” says the actress, whose sunny personality parallels that of her character in the Hulu dystopian drama: Janine, an improbably, relentlessly cheery handmaid, all red curls and bounciness. “I had to stop watching it and just take a minute to sob, and feel what I was feeling.”
The scene she’s talking about—in which handmaids who refused to stone Janine last season think they are going to be hanged until, at the last minute, it’s revealed to be a cruel, punitive ruse—set the terrible tenor of the show’s sophomore season. Based on Margaret Atwood’s novel about a near-future, religiously radicalized America in which an underclass of fertile women are forced to become breeders for political elites, The Handmaid’s Tale has never been easy to stomach. And, unusually, even though she’s in the show, Brewer understands how emotional a viewing experience it can be for the unprepared: “I stopped reading the scripts, and I’m finding it out with everybody else,” she says. “I watch it with my boyfriend and my friends and my mom.”
Isn’t it challenging, watching a show in which her character is raped and tortured, her right eye removed for no bigger crime than insolence, with people who love her? In this season, Janine has been sent to work in the toxic wasteland of the Colonies, and also returned to the civic terrain of Gilead, where she is once more made to have sex each month with her designated commander in the hope that she’ll bear a child for him and his wife. “It makes you think of what people can become and what they’re capable of,” Brewer answers, pondering the show’s dark-mirror reflection of our own society. “It makes you think this of yourself too: Who would I be in that situation? Would I take on the role of the warrior, or would I take on the role of Janine—the eternal optimist, but who’s not ready to fight the fight yet? Would that be me?”
“Optimist” is putting it lightly. The other handmaids are crumbling in the regime’s grip. One abused handmaid detonated a suicide bomb inside a gleaming new government building. Since her own return to Gilead, Emily (Alexis Bledel) is becoming more brittle and angry by the day. June (Elisabeth Moss), prostrated by guilt and grief at the execution of a man who tried to help her escape, has finally internalized Gilead’s lies. Yet somehow, against the persistent hell of authoritarianism, Janine has managed to retain a sense of wonder and innocence. Brewer imbues her with an impossibly springy effervescence; much like a straggling dandelion in the Colonies that she makes a wish on, Janine is the one bright—even funny—spot of the show.
“It’s a real privilege, honestly, to not just be stuck in these intense dark moments,” she says. “Janine’s in her own world by choice. She’s like, No, can’t do that, I’m going to look for the good. This season, she’s just so grateful to be alive, and that is what keeps her going.” Take, for example, the scene in which Janine happily looks on as two women, one of whom is on her deathbed, are wed in the dingy Colonies barracks. The ceremony was her idea. “I think she feels like, I’m doing this because we need something beautiful…. Those two are still in love with each other. That hasn’t been taken from them.”
That is, until her return to Gilead brings her back into the orbit of her baby. Hearing a rumor that baby Charlotte—her Gilead “parents” call her Angela—is very ill, Janine stumbles; all the sunshine is suddenly gone, replaced by a desperate desire to see and touch her daughter again. “It’s excruciating to be away from your child. I’m sure several mothers know what that’s like right now,” she says, referring briefly but pointedly to current affairs. Despite not being able to raise or even see her, Janine has kept Charlotte close. “There’s this part of Janine’s costume, a woven vest,” Brewer explains. Ane Crabtree, the Handmaid’s Tale costume designer, started calling it a web, which naturally evolved into “Charlotte’s web.” “It’s like carrying Charlotte with her through her every day. Just a little piece, even if it’s just imaginary.”
In a future plagued by infertility, motherhood has become so fraught and valuable a capability that the handmaids, bound to sexual labor because of their fertility, have a strange sort of power. In the most recent episode, “Women’s Work,” this plays out explicitly: Because Charlotte is now ailing beyond the point of medical help, Janine is permitted to see her one last time. Her presence, though, is exactly what saves the child. The episode closes with Janine stripped down to her underclothes, holding Charlotte to her chest, and singing Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Wanna Be With You” to a now laughing, happy, healthy girl. “It’s a true testament to human touch, and the importance of a mother’s love,” Brewer says of the game-changing moment. With the handmaids angry and hopeless enough to commit terrorist attacks; with June reminded of what power feels like thanks to a brief, illicit political collaboration with Serena Joy; and now with this indication that at least one handmaid has a mothering advantage over a Wife, there’s a sense that the tide is turning.
But this slightly triumphal moment is a rare one in a season that has showed the growing cracks in Gilead and the ever more brutal ways in which it punishes those who want to destroy it. Simply watching an episode feels like an emotional marathon; what could it possibly be like to film? “I’m very lucky in that as soon as I put the eye on”—the prosthetic scarring over her character’s injury—”I feel more like Janine. And as soon as I take it off, I leave Janine there,” Brewer says. “If I’m on set, I have that eye on, and it feels weird and it itches and it’s claustrophobic. I imagine that’s some of how Janine feels, you know? She’s missing all of this periphery.”
Brewer laughs, though, saying that Nina Kiri, who plays fellow handmaid Alma, will try to surprise her by standing just outside her field of vision. I joke that the prank seems a little rude, and Brewer explains that while filming can be physically grueling—shooting for the Colonies took place 90 minutes outside Toronto, where it was “fucking frigid,” and the air was filled with tiny, throat-clogging feathers to create the evil haze we see on screen—the set is actually, surprisingly, a great place to be: “We’re goofy as hell, but we’re making this just incredibly heart-wrenching show. And it’s crazy to say it’s the most fun I’ve ever had working.” What do they do to decompress between scenes? “Honestly, sometimes we’re online shopping on our phones or, you know, Snapchatting people. Just talking about family and life and getting to know each other as people.”
By this point, Brewer must know Janine incredibly well. Did she have an idea of what Janine was wishing for when she spotted that tiny yellow flower in the barren Colonies? “Yeah,” Brewer says, eyes shining but resolute. Does she want that to be a secret? “I think I want to keep it,” she says, smiling. And what about Brewer herself—does she cherish any wishes about what she’d like people to take away from this demanding, soul-excavating show? That, at least, is something she’s all too ready to share. “I want people to be awake. I want them to be aware,” she says. “The show requires you to do some work. You have to feel. You have to open your eyes and open your heart, and I hope that people carry that into the rest of their lives.”
For herself, the show has already had an impact: “It makes me feel like I need to invest more in sisterhood. In my female relationships and in all walks of life. But it might not make a man feel that. It might make a man feel like, Maybe I need to get more involved in Planned Parenthood. Maybe I need to just shut up and listen.” It might be different for everyone, she muses, whether it’s running for congress (“I’m not qualified,” she whispers) or whatever. But: “If some part of The Handmaid’s Tale makes them feel like, I have something to say, then fucking say it. Please. Just get it out there.”