(Warning: This post contains spoilers for Episode 404 of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”)
“The Handmaid’s Tale” continued its fourth season Wednesday with a new episode that picks up right where the third and final installment in last week’s premiere batch left off: With June (Elisabeth Moss) and Janine (Madeline Brewer) running for their lives after just barely making an escape across some train tracks, leaving their handmaid friends, who weren’t so lucky, dead on the ground behind them.
During this hour, while Janine and June struggle in the present day to find a safe place away from Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) and the Eyes, the two confront their anger with each other over, as Janine is still hurt about June revealing her friends’ location and June views Janine as a burden. But the episode, titled “Milk,” also flashes back to the past to reveal Janine’s pre-Gilead days, at a time in her life when she still had her young son Caleb — before he was taken away and placed with another family in Gilead — and finds herself pregnant again.
TheWrap spoke with Brewer about Janine’s choice to get an abortion, and people’s attempts to prevent that decision, as well as Janine and June’s journey to freedom in Gilead, which leads her to make the choice to perform a sex act on the man in charge of a group of outliers in Chicago so Janine and June can gain entry to their hideout.
TheWrap: What was it like finally getting to Janine’s backstory episode and finding out this is the person you’ve been playing for four seasons of “The Handmaid’s Tale”?
Madeline Brewer: Janine has been living in my brain for four years now. And not just Gilead Janine, but pre-Gilead Janine has been something I have daydreamed about for so long. So to finally get to see it was really, really special. And, you know, I didn’t want to dive too deep in and make too many decisions about who she was because, you know, you get the episode and it could be like completely different than what you thought. And then you kind of have to reconcile that in your mind, which is difficult. So I just kind of had my decisions about Janine. And then I got the script and I was like, oh, this is exactly it. This is exactly who I know she is. She is living on her own with her son. She’s working her ass off. She is good at what she does. She loves the people around her. And the fact that with the abortion storyline, it feels honestly appropriate to me that this is the story that Janine gets to tell or that I get to tell through Janine. Because so much of the show is about motherhood and mothers going to extremes to be with their children. You know, we see Serena Joy do it. It’s been June’s driving force for four seasons now. But we also see this really complicated moment with Janine, who is a woman who loves her children more than anything, to the point where it’s – I mean, I heard the phrase motherhood is a disease. It just does something to you. But we also see her struggle with the decision to be a mother, again. And, you know, when I think about Janine, I think about this mother who loves being a mom more than anything and knows that the decision that is best for her as a woman, as a person and as a mother, and what is best for her child is to not have another baby. So incredibly difficult for her, of course. But seeing her in that moment and seeing her with that clear-headedness of no, I know what is right for me and to have that power in that decision and that autonomy, I think it’s a powerful thing to see.
Why do you think this was the episode to reveal Janine’s emotional past, which is juxtaposed with her fight with June in the present about how best to move forward after the deaths of their friends, and June insisting Janine would have revealed the other handmaids’ location if put in the same situation June had been?
I thought it was a really interesting time to choose to tell that story, especially like in the milk tanker and all of that. And I think that it is important that it comes right on the heels of Janine saying, ‘You don’t know what I would have done,’ because I think that for so long we’ve all, I mean, myself included, have made up our minds about who Janine is and the predictability of her unpredictability. And I think it’s a really beautiful thing that we see, OK, you know what, we don’t actually know her. We we know what we think we know about this young woman. And we’ve made some decisions about her and the way that she reacts. Even June has been like, ‘Oh, God, I’ve got to watch out for Janine because what if she goes crazy? And and what if she puts us in trouble or that?’ And I think that it’s really interesting that we see this moment, we see Janine own her power and own her decision and make a decision for herself and she’s not in another world. She’s very clear, very grounded. And I think we all, as people who enjoy this character, we need to know that about her. We need to know that that she’s not all that we’ve made her up to be in our minds just based on like, ‘Oh, one-eyed, batshit crazy Janine.’ She is so much more than that. She’s so much more complicated. She’s so much more powerful. And I’m glad people get to see that. And I’m glad Janine gets to own that power in front of June, because June has kept Janine safe for so long, but Janine has kept June safe, too. All of those women have kept June safe.
What do you make of Janine’s choice to perform the sex act on the man in charge of the band of rebels so that she and June can stay, a decision June was at first trying to take upon herself and didn’t think Janine capable of?
I think it’s interesting because it’s like, and I was looking for this phrase before when I was talking about this and I couldn’t find it. It’s like it’s transactional. It’s like sex work, you know. It’s like, ‘Well I’m going to do this because you have something that I would like and I have something that you want. And there’s really no other conversation, because that’s all it is.’ … And I love that there’s so much involved, but it’s kind of subversive in this episode, how autonomous Janine is throughout. She really just like makes decisions for herself and wants to do things and says, screw it, I’m doing this. And I love that. I love that about her. I love that it’s still within her, even though we wouldn’t expect it to be.
A new episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 4 launches next Wednesday on Hulu.