Warning: This interview about “The Bridge” episode of The Handmaid’s Tale contains spoilers.
It’s not a coincidence that the dominant theme of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s penultimate episode is escape. With the first season wrapping up, and Season 2 poised to push the series into territory that ventures beyond the borders Margaret Atwood established in her novel, multiple characters are seeking to flee Gilead before things go from bad to worse. Unfortunately for Offred (Elisabeth Moss), she isn’t among the refugees…yet. Instead, the two women she’s closest to — one a longtime BFF, and the other a new friend — make their exit in drastically different ways. As Samira Wiley promised last week, “The Bridge” brought us back to Gilead’s garish brothel, Jezebel’s, for a second encounter with Moira, whose capitulation to her circumstances was made clear by the fact that she had accepted another name: Ruby. But an emotional confrontation with June reignited her fury, and by the end of the hour, Moira was literally back in the driver’s seat, hijacking a client’s car and speeding away for parts as yet unknown.
The episode’s other escape plan proved more tragic than triumphant. But that’s all too appropriate considering that the would-be escapee is Janine (Madeline Brewer), who has emerged over the course of Season 1 as the show’s most tragic figure. Already a rape victim before Gilead legalized that crime, Janine had managed to put her that early trauma behind her. In the series premiere, though, we watched her resolve and spirit be utterly shattered by Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), who insisted that Janine’s rape was her own fault. And she’s continued to lose things in rapid succession over the course of the show: her eye; her freedom; Warren, the man she thought loved her; and Charlotte, the daughter she carried, birthed and watched be handed over to her captors. Those losses have pushed Janine to the edge of sanity, and, in this episode, to the edge of the titular bridge. Holding Charlotte in her arms, Janine is ready to jump into the roiling waters below.
It would be too easy, to describe Janine as a broken woman. And, according to Brewer, it would also be a mistake. “It’s really about Janine taking her power back,” the actress says about that extended sequence on the bridge, which she feels captures Janine at her strongest, not her weakest. “She doesn’t go to that bridge because she wants to harm the baby; that was never going to happen. She wants them to listen to her. If she had just handed the baby back and then tried to get her two cents in, they would have locked her up. But she’s out there on the bridge with the baby and she’s like, ‘You’d better f***ing listen to me.‘”
The story she has to tell certainly is damning, exposing the rot behind the supposedly rosy Husband-Wife-Handmaid triumvirate that’s a central tenant in Gilead society. Since entering Warren’s home as Ofwarren, Janine and her rapist have been carrying on a secret affair outside of the breeding ceremony that he encourages with promises of running away together and raising Charlotte as their own. It’s all lies, of course, and Janine learns that the hard way when she’s rechristened as “Ofdaniel” and placed in a new home. Up until the night of the first breeding ceremony with her new “family,” Janine expects Warren to rescue her. When he doesn’t appear, she explodes in a stunning act of defiance, shoving Daniel off her mid-thrust and screaming, ” Get the f*** off me!”
If Janine has appeared to be in kind of a disaffected dream state for much of the show, Brewer characterizes that moment as her awakening. “Janine realizes that she’s being raped. Why didn’t she realize it with Warren? Because she thought it was love, which made it lovemaking. She’s always wanted what other girls have; she wants love, she wants acceptance. And in her relationship with Warren, she’s finally the object of affection. She’s the desirable one. And it turns out that she’s been made a fool of.”
Readers of the book may not be familiar with viewing Janine as a sympathetic figure. Viewed through Offred’s envious eyes on the page, she’s a sycophantic servant of the state, and becomes even more insufferably smug and superior during her pregnancy. But Offred takes a more nuanced view of Janine in the series, even defending her early on in “The Bridge” when another Handmaid snidely calls Ofwarren “so lucky,” and complains about her new post. It’s a shift in characterization that pleases Brewer, who clearly adores the woman she’s playing, to the point where her own identity and Janine’s sometimes blur. Midway through our interview, she apologizes for repeatedly dropping F-bombs, explaining that’s more of a Janine thing than a Madeline thing. “She says a lot more ‘F***s” than I do,” Brewer confesses with a laugh. “In interviews, I’m always trying to think like her, and also think like me about her. So I get confused.”
After sticking up for Janine in the beginning of the episode, Offred comes to Janine’s rescue again during the climax, summoned by Aunt Lydia to verbally pull her back from the bridge’s edge. It’s a position that Atwood’s version of Offred never would have been in, and it speaks to the friendship that June and Janine forged in the Red Center. “June saw what happened to Janine on her very first day there, so she has a lot of sympathy and empathy in her heart towards her, because Janine represents someone that’s been broken by the system. And for Janine, friendship is all she wants. An important aspect of playing my scenes with Lizzie was showing Janine’s desire to be included. And Lizzie plays two things simultaneously: I could see in her face that she felt pity for Janine, but she’s also saying, ‘I accept you and you are my friend.'”
In the end, Offred’s friendship saves Charlotte, but Janine remains committed to her escape plan. After handing the baby over with the promise that Offred will ensure Charlotte knows her real mom’s identity, she steps off the ledge and plunges into the river, forever beyond the reach of her tormentors. On second thought, not quite forever. The episode’s coda reveals that Janine was fished out of the water seconds before taking her final breath, and whisked away to a hospital under Aunt Lydia’s watchful eye. “It’s not a conclusion to her story, I promise!” Brewer teases. “I remembering telling Bruce [Miller, the showrunner], ‘Please don’t kill me,’ and he was like ‘Don’t worry.’ That made reading the scripts more fun, because I knew it wasn’t over.”
And when — not if — Janine returns, Brewer promises it will be with a renewed sense of purpose, knowing that, like her friend June, she’s living for her daughter. (Let’s also not forget that Charlotte has a brother, Caleb, whose current whereabouts are unknown. The same goes for his parentage, by the way; Brewer says that Janine’s son isn’t the product of another breeding ceremony, but declines to reveal any other details, such as whether he was born after Janine’s gang rape.) That said, there is another potential tragedy lurking on the horizon, should the writers decide to follow Atwood’s original storyline in which her child ended up “in the shredder” not long after birth. “I hope they don’t do that, because I love Janine and I don’t want her to have to go through that,” Brewer says, once again slipping from Madeline into Janine. “I’m not making predictions, but if in Season 2 my baby is still alive, than I’ve got a reason to stay alive. Charlotte is my reason for being. She’s my reason to not walk off the ledge of sanity — or the bridge.”
The Handmaid’s Tale releases new episodes Wednesdays on Hulu.