(Warning: This post contains spoilers for the first three episodes of Season 3 of “The Handmaid’s Tale”)
Commander Joseph Lawrence is an enigma, even to Bradley Whitford, who plays the character — one of the architects of Gilead — on Season 3 of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“The fun thing about this guy, and the horrible thing, is that he is filled with contradictions,” Whitford told TheWrap. “And the basic way I think about this guy is like Robert McNamara, the guy who ran the war in Vietnam for Kennedy and Johnson. He was a brilliant, brilliant businessman and economic thinker who revolutionized the auto industry and then took all that brilliance and exterminated a couple million people in Southeast Asia. And I think Lawrence is a guy with a big brain that has obliterated his humanity. And I think when you meet him, what you are seeing are the unconscious beginnings of his humanity coming back.”
First introduced at the end of the second season, Lawrence helped Emily (Alexis Bledel) escape Gilead with June’s (Elisabeth Moss) baby, and tried to get June out herself at the start of the Season 3 last week, though she decided to stay for her other daughter Hannah. And while those heroic actions might lead you to believe that Lawrence is a man who has realized the error of his ways in helping construct the dystopian society, the trio of episodes that launched the Season 3 prove things are not that simple — especially now that June has moved into his house as his new Handmaid and begun to challenge him in a way he hasn’t been in years.
“I think, you know, he talks about how he likes Emily,” Whitford said. “I think he’s very caught up in his mind about this notion of, not just usefulness, but part of what he likes about her and what is really intriguing to him about June is that he connects with their bravery. But at the same time, I think he is testing June at different points. I think a lesser writer on a lesser show would have someone like Lawrence — who created this horrible situation — would have an epiphany and become an unconflicted champion of the people he had oppressed. But I think in order to do justice to the situation that June is in, I think a character like Lawrence is more realistic. He doesn’t know where this is going to go.”
Lawrence and his wife Eleanor (Julie Dretzin) don’t have June participate in the customary Handmaid ceremony in an attempt to get her pregnant, and he allows Marthas to run an underground railroad of sorts out of his basement. But he also made June dispose of the dead body of one of those Marthas to teach her a lesson about who is in charge.
“Part of the cruelty that comes up in the first couple of episodes, I think, has to do with him testing her to see what she can take,” the actor said. “I think he has a sort of patriarchal, condescending fear that this may be a sentimental mother who is not to be trusted on the potentially dangerous path that they may be on. But he definitely does not have a clear plan and I think he’s sort of constantly in play.”
While fans have yet to get a clear picture of Lawrence’s past and how his economic theories and writings led the former United States to become Gilead, Whitford would be “absolutely, totally fascinated” to get a backstory episode and has his own ideas about what made his character who he is today.
“I think basically what happened is Lawrence is using right-wing religious forces as a delivery system for his ideas,” he said. “And I think he doesn’t have a lot of respect for them and I think he didn’t realize how crazy this was going to get. But at the same time, he’s very, very defensive about it, which June has to maneuver.”
“He’ll get very defensive with her when she attacks him for what he’s done,” he continued. “And when he gets defensive, his rationale for all of this is, ‘Yes, I’m fully aware of the brutality here, but it was the end of the world. This is chemo and it’s not pleasant. It’s brutal and it’s exactly what we need to save the world.’ It’s kind of pathetic that his way into empathy for what has happened to women there is because his love for his wife is genuine and deep. And I think his only access to the scope of the misery that he’s inflicted is when he sees it in his wife.”
New episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 3 launch Wednesdays on Hulu.