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[This story contains spoilers from the premiere of season five of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.]
The Handmaid’s Tale picked up right where it left off in its return, giving the Hulu dystopian drama an opportunity to zero in on the immediate impact for the handmaids who were involved in the shocking season four finale murder of Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes).
The fifth season of the Elisabeth Moss-starring series reconnects with June (Moss) right where viewers left her — cradling her youngest daughter, Nichole, while covered in Fred’s blood and brushing off questions from her husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), while internally plotting her next move. The opener follows June as she leaves the family home she recently returned to after escaping Gilead and goes on a journey that first sees her reconnecting with the women who helped her seek vengeance on the Gilead abuser, and June’s former commander, as she contemplates whether or not to confess to the crime.
But one of the handmaids who helped June, Emily (Alexis Bledel), is missing from the meetup. When June seeks out her friend and fellow survivor at her home, Emily’s wife, Sylvia (Clea DuVall), tells June that Emily decided to go back to Gilead to fight and to find Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), and that she called to say goodbye to her family, which includes a young son. When June wants to save Emily, Sylvia tells June not to go after her, convinced they’ll never see Emily again. “It’s what she needed to do,” says Sylvia. June feels like what Emily did is her fault, but Sylvia presents it as a tragic but lost cause: “It doesn’t matter, she’s gone.”
While the fifth season was in production, Bledel, an original star on the series, announced that she had departed The Handmaid’s Tale after four seasons. “After much thought, I felt I had to step away from The Handmaid’s Tale at this time,” the actress, who earned four Emmy nominations and one win for her role as the resistance fighter, said in a statement in May. “I am forever grateful to [showrunner] Bruce Miller for writing such truthful and resonant scenes for Emily, and to Hulu, MGM, the cast and crew for their support.”
When speaking to Bruce Miller about how they went about handling the Gilmore Girls alum’s exit, the creator and showrunner said they wrote their own feelings into Emily’s ending on the show.
“[Alexis] made that decision completely on her own; it was a complicated time and she let me know,” Miller tells The Hollywood Reporter. “What I tried to do was deal with it in the way we were all feeling at that point. Like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ So I think that, in some ways, the real emotions wag the dog.”
The Handmaid’s Tale, in season four, had portrayed life after trauma when it followed the handmaids who survived Gilead in their lives as refugees in Canada, which has taken in those who escaped in hopes of giving them a better life. And while Emily’s escape saw her reunite with her family, who had presumed her to be gone, the handmaid had a difficult time adjusting to normalcy given the atrocities and abuses she had experienced during her time in Gilead.
“It didn’t feel healthy, but it felt correct,” says Miller of Emily’s decision to go back to Gilead and continue the fight, even if it means she likely wouldn’t survive there on her own. The punishment for participating in the murder of a commander would likely see Gilead putting Emily on the wall once she is captured.
“We had been planning and assuming that character would be there [for season five], so when we lost Alexis, who is such a dear part of our family, you feel the same way,” he continues. “A feeling of, this person has gone on to run away from home, what’s going on? Emotionally, we tracked it for all of us. But I think story-wise, it made sense for her. When I was watching season four — as I obsessively rewatch our show — it felt like such an inevitable ending for her. That if she was going to do something after Fred, she was not going to just sit around and wait for the next person to jump into her trap; she was going to go hunting.”
While Emily’s fate seems dire, Miller makes it clear that, should Bledel want to return to the show, he would happily continue Emily’s story for the sixth season, which was recently announced to be the final one for the hit Emmy-winning and MGM-produced series.
And, even if Bledel doesn’t return, Emily’s impact is set to reverberate — as her decision deeply affects June when the starring handmaid sets out on her season-five course. The premiere eventually sees June confessing to the police about murdering Fred, only to be told that, since the act happened outside of Canada’s jurisdiction, she is free to go. How June reckons with that lack of punishment plays into larger decisions ahead.
“Emily is still very much part of the story this year,” explains Miller, offering a hint of what June will be wrestling with as the season continues. “At the beginning, June is rudderless without Emily and feels like she could easily be that person and disappear. Up until then, it’s just been an intellectual exercise. Alexis’ character does loom very large over the beginning, with it being a dangerous tale for June to be considering. And June spends the whole season asking herself if Emily was right: ‘Well, if Emily thought that was the right thing, I feel so shitty, maybe that will make me feel better?'”
The fifth season of The Handmaid’s Tale debuted with its first two episodes and releases weekly on Wednesdays on Hulu. Listen to Miller talking about the perpetual relevance of the series on THR‘s TV’s Top 5 podcast here.
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