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[This story contains mild spoilers from the fourth episode of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s fourth season.]
“I’m honored to tell this part of the story,” says Madeline Brewer.
The Handmaid’s Tale star, who has played Handmaid Janine since the beginning of the flagship Hulu drama, can’t quite recall when she found out that her character would be getting a flashback in the fourth season, which returned to streaming on April 28.
“There is a blur of time from when we started season four to when we actually started finishing season four,” Brewer tells The Hollywood Reporter, noting how production on the current season was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. “Regardless, I’m so proud that Janine is the person that they gave this flashback to.”
In the fourth episode, titled “Milk,” Janine and starring Handmaid June (Elisabeth Moss) find themselves on the run after a nail-biting escape from Gilead authorities that left the rest of their friends dead. When they link up with other rebels in Chicago, the group’s leader offers them shelter in exchange for sex, while marveling at their existence as “sex slaves in America.” When June cannot go through with the act, Janine steps in. “It wasn’t so bad. He thinks my eye patch is cool,” she tells June after the fact, in reference to the red velvet covering she wears (after having her eye removed as punishment under Gilead law).
“Specificity is the most important thing in terms of their journeys as refugees and of survivors of sexual trauma — but a very specific kind of government sexual trauma, which so much of the world deals with all the time,” showrunner Bruce Miller says, in a separate conversation with THR, about the stories this season for The Handmaid’s Tale‘s characters after Gilead. “We were trying to be both specific and to drench ourselves in the real, true-life stories as much as possible. What I definitely wanted was not to show one refugee experience or one experience of someone after sexual trauma, but to show that there are a range of experiences that are all normal and can be healthy or unhealthy; there are all sorts of experiences.”
In order to help tell those stories of survivors, which play out through the actions of Janine and June in this episode, Miller and his writers room spoke directly to resources at the UN and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. “We did a lot, a lot of research about the refugee experience as we were planning all of those stories,” he says of the season as a whole. “We try to be as accurate as we can be and oftentimes, as opposed to taking a 30,000-foot view, we take actual anecdotes from people and we put them in the show so that we know we’re being very specific to an event.”
As these current events are unfolding, meanwhile, viewers are given glimpses of Janine’s life before Gilead that help to fill in her backstory. In the series, it is known that Janine was a single mother, to a boy named Caleb, and that she was a waitress. Unbeknownst to Janine — but known to June and viewers — is that Caleb died in a car accident after he and Janine were separated in Gilead. Viewers had never seen Caleb, until now.
“I was really excited to meet and put a little body to Caleb,” Brewer says of the touching mother-son moment where Janine is rocking Caleb back to sleep while singing Bob Marley’s “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” To feel closer to Janine’s identity as a mother, Brewer kept pictures on her phone for years of how she imagined her character’s son might look — her “Caleb photos,” she calls them. “I’ve talked about him in season one, but to finally meet him and see a piece of their life together, to see their little apartment and the love that they have; it’s such a beautiful, strong, powerful connection.”
She continues, “I’ve always known that Janine first and foremost wants to be a mom. But not just in the physical parts of pregnancy and breastfeeding, but taking care of her child. Being the one who wipes their tears, puts a bandaid on their knee — all of the mundane, day-to-day stuff of motherhood.” Those rights, of course, are stripped away from Handmaids who bear children in Gilead. “That’s what Janine treasures the most in the world,” she adds. “So seeing even a little glimpse of that was really special for me.”
Also during the flashback, Janine is shown seeking out an abortion after an unplanned pregnancy. But the clinic that she arrives at, after a Google search, is not what it appears to be. When Janine arrives, a woman feeds her propaganda about abortions, sighting false information about the procedure and side effects. As she finds out later, these anti-abortion crisis centers exist to lie to women in order to manipulate them into keeping unwanted pregnancies, due to the dropping fertility rate in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale.
“The scene felt heavy because it felt important, to me, for people to hear what women who are seeking an abortion go through; the ways that they are manipulated,” says Brewer of tackling an issue that women all over the world can face. “I think that what we show on the show is actually one of the more mild cases of it.”
One of several pandemic-related changes to the currently airing season revolved around Janine’s storyline. As Miller noted previously to THR, COVID-safety restrictions meant less extras on set and location changes. As a result, some of the scenes that were planned for Janine’s flashback weren’t possible when they returned to set in the pandemic era. Miller praised Brewer’s flexibility to THR: “Madeline Brewer’s performance has been ripe for exploration and expansion since the very first time we met her. She is so talented and precise and thoughtful and smart, and absolutely in control of her tools as an actor. I’m always so impressed by Maddie and what she can do with a little, and it was so nice to see what she can do with a lot.”
When describing the lost scenes, Brewer paints a picture. “You were supposed to see Janine serving at Dennys; you were going to see how friendly she is and how much she loves her job and her coworkers and how good she is at it. She makes a living for her and her son,” she says. “In terms of the abortion storyline, Janine was supposed to be coming out of her car and get accosted by people who are trying to tell her, ‘Save your baby. Your baby already has fingernails.’ And she’s scared and it impacts her, and then she goes in and she’s manipulated. It’s still intense in the way we’ve done it, but it was written to go further and we had to change it for COVID.”
Of that reality about pro-life crisis pregnancy centers, she continues, “There are people outside of crisis centers with bullhorns and they are yelling and approaching women physically, getting in their space, and it’s scary. It’s traumatizing. What we’ve shown is a little more mild, but does really capture how women are manipulated and taken advantage of completely when they’re in a vulnerable situation, when they’re already scared. They’re making one of the most difficult decisions that they will probably ever make, and so I’m glad that we show a version of it.”
In present time in Gilead, Janine, while also fiery, consistently relies on June, and that push-and-pull continues in their search for freedom. “June is very much in the role, as the season goes along, of being a leader and a mother figure,” notes Miller. “And there is no more childlike of a Handmaid than Janine; it seemed like a very good match.”
But in her past, before enduring all of the abuse and trauma that she has experienced in Gilead, the flashback scenes show that Janine had her own story she wanted to tell. Ultimately, Janine locates an abortion clinic that offers her the safe procedure, stressing that the decision is her choice and hers alone.
“They say that, whether they told you or not, someone you know has had an abortion. It’s a much larger part of peoples’ lives than most think,” says Brewer of the relevant story. “A lot of people who have sought out abortions have gone through something like what Janine has gone through. [Janine] had the autonomy, the understanding of yourself or the self-possession, to say, ‘No, this is what I know I need. This is what I know is right for me and for my child that I already have.’ I was honored, truly, to bring this part of a reality of so many peoples’ lives to the screen.”
That moment of relief, and ownership over herself, is juxtaposed with Janine doing what she felt she had to do in order to keep her and June alive. When Brewer reflects on the story they told, she says, “We see Janine beautifully. I’m proud of the episode. I’m proud of who Janine is.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is now streaming the first four episodes of season four on Hulu and will continue to release episodes weekly on Wednesdays.
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