Madeline Brewer
Madeline Brewer (Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

For Madeline Brewer’s character Janine, Season 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale has been a roller coaster. But then, what season of the grim dystopian Hulu series isn’t? Janine started the season off enjoying a measure of freedom on a remote farm with her fellow renegade handmaids. After being recaptured, she and June (Elisabeth Moss) escaped once again, ending up in Chicago, where they were taken in by a group of American insurgents resisting Gilead’s theocratic regime. We saw glimpses of Janine’s past in flashbacks before she was seemingly killed in an air raid on Chicago, only to return several episodes later. In the show’s most recent episode, she’s back in Gilead, in the brutally maternal care of Aunt Lydia (Anne Dowd).

Through it all, we’ve seen different versions of the character: the hopeful, puppy-ish handmaid, eager to please (and begging not to be hurt again); the brash young mother; the loyal friend; the broken victim of unthinkable abuse. With just one more episode to go, GRAZIA chatted with Brewer about how Janine evolved in real time this season.

Was there a moment that you think really defined Janine’s story this season?

Madeline Brewer: When Janune — I always say Janune! When Janine chooses to stick with June. Like, she wants to stay in Chicago and then she decides, I feel safer when we’re together. That so perfectly, to me, encapsulates who Janine is. That is Janine making a choice for herself. I mean, Janine is powerful, she’s autonomous, she is thoughtful, but she’s also incredibly loyal. She loves deeply, and I feel like that’s such a powerful moment where we Janine make a choice. We never get to see these women make choices, really. I mean, those two episodes — episodes 4 and 5 —for Janine, to me, are all about choice, and all about her autonomy and all about her power and what power really means. It’s juxtaposed by the power that these men are seeking in Gilead. That’s not real power. That’s not lasting power. The power that Janine has to choose her destiny, that’s power.

I, like a lot of people, thought that we might have seen the last of Janine after the bombing in the Chicago episode. When you initially read the script for that episode, did you know you’d be back?

Well, fortunately, I had had conversations with [showrunner Bruce Miller] before the season even started shooting, where he had discussed… “We think Janine’s dead at one point in the show.” But he’s like, “But don’t worry! You’re coming back!” And I’ve been really excited to see what everyone’s response has been — in an egotistical way! It’s like, Oh, everybody misses me! They like me!

Madeline Brewer in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
Madeline Brewer in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (Photo: Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

Your character’s arch this season has been so interesting. I feel like we’ve seen a lot of different versions of her just in this set of episodes alone. What was it like playing a character who was shifting so rapidly based on her changing circumstances?

One thing that I was exploring a lot, and I talked to Lizzie about it a lot when she was directing, but also just as a person I look up to — an actor I look up to a lot and someone who knows the show so well — we talked about how, geographically, the further we get from Gilead and the further we get from Gilead in the story, it’s like, the closer Janine comes to herself. She has had to be a certain version of herself in Gilead as a means of survival. And as we branch away from that, she’s able to put back on those layers of herself that she had to strip away to survive. It’s been really interesting to kind of layer them back on in different circumstances. Even after Janine’s been caught, a layer of Janine that isn’t the eternal optimist— that was really amazing to play. Like, a totally new Janine.

We saw the woman she used to be in those flashbacks. I think part of what’s so tragic about her return in Episodes 8 and 9 is that we saw that side of her kind of re-emerging when she started to stand up to June and assert herself more. Now she’s back to that kind of whipped dog state. Do you think that’s fair?

Janine has just…she’s done. She’s seen enough, she’s had that taste of freedom that’s been once again ripped away from her, and I think it is that moment where she knows that June is safe and she knows that June got out. Janine has always known that June would be the one. She had that taste of love and romance with Stephen in Chicago and she’s just not going back to getting raped every month. She’s so resolute about it and she’s so sure that it’s time.

It’s so interesting to hear you say that because throughout Episode 9, when she’s back in the Red Center, I kept wondering where she goes from here. What’s the plan? How is she adapting?

I think that what happens in those episodes…I didn’t want to go too far back to the Janine that we knew. But ultimately we are back in Gilead, and those layers of Janine that she’d put back on had to come off, some of them, you know, as a means of her survival. But, we see a Janine, especially with Esther, now there is purpose. She sees her purpose. She sees how she can help, and she didn’t know until we were escaping Gilead — Janine didn’t know how much she can help and how useful she really is. I mean, I always go back to Episode 1 of Season 4: Janine’s the one who sticks June with the curling iron, you know? She’s the one who does some of the tough jobs. Janine’s the one who says, This is how I can help, this is what I can do. And I think she sees Esther [Mckenna Grace] and thinks, I know that girl and I can help that girl. I know that girl from before, but also I know that girl because I was her. I can help her before she becomes me.

There’s the version of helping Esther that I think we know that Aunt Lydia wants Janine to do. But what’s Janine’s version of helping Esther in this scenario?

I think that Janine’s version of helping Esther is saving Esther before Esther gets herself in the same kind of trouble that Janine got herself in. The way I looked at it, and I talked to Lizzie about the because she directed those episodes, is now Janine is the June to Esther’s Janine. I’m the one who’s saying, “Keep your f*cking sh*t together!” I’m the one who’s saying, “You need to take care of yourself because no one else is going to take care of you.” When I say that in Episode 9, I’m as much saying it to myself as I am to Esther.

So, yes, it’s obviously served Aunt Lydia, because she can say a big old “F you” to Aunt Ruth. But it’s also…I have a purpose here, and that’s all anybody really wants.

Elisabeth Moss and Madeline Brewer in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
Elisabeth Moss and Madeline Brewer in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (Image courtesy of Hulu)

You’ve mentioned the fact that Elisabeth Moss directed several episodes this season. What’s it like being directed by a co-star? Is this the first time you’ve done that?

You know, I don’t think I have been directed by a co-star before. And, I mean, there’s no one on that set who knows the show better than Lizzie. I mean, she obviously intimately knows June, but she knows Janine. She knows Luke, she knows Moira. She knows every one of us. So, she knows us as actors, and for her to be able to direct us, I mean… Personally, my favorite scene of Janine’s this season is in Episode 8. It’s the scene with Aunt Lydia. We must have spent an hour blocking that and just talking about that. The way it is written is not the way we ended up playing it. We were able to have very real conversations about, Where were we? And where are we now? What are we feeling? It would have been very easy to play those scenes as Janine groveling to Aunt Lydia. And luckily, I’ve been able to talk to Lizzie about where I think Janine is and where she’s going. And so when it came to her directing that scene, she already had… “Maddie, I remember you saying that Janine’s changed a lot. So, let’s bring that to this.” We must have gone through it line by line, but that sort of care and attention, that’s what you get with someone who just loves this show and these characters so much.

I’m so glad you brought up that scene in particular. I mean, how do you even describe what’s going on there? The care that Aunt Lydia show for Janine in particular is so compromised, but it is care of a sort.

Oh, gosh. It’s like, we’ve both been through very intense things since we’ve been apart. And neither of us has any idea where the other is coming from. I do think that Janine and Aunt Lydia have a very real love for each other. I mean, that’s why the scene plays the way it does, because they both love each other so much and they hate each other so much. Not hate. That’s a strong word. It reminds me of most fraught mother daughter relationships. They’re fraught and intense and it’s also a little too intense and it can be overwhelming, and I think that’s a piece of the puzzle. I’m happy to call it love. There’s also something dark. There’s something disturbed about it. How could there not be in this world? And I think both women are doing what they can to honor the love they feel for each other. That’s what we see in that scene. We wanted to meet Janine and Lydia exactly where they are in that moment. My most powerful relationship in the show is with Lydia. None is more intense and fraught. Really honoring that was important to both Ann and I.

The show is obviously still a tough hang—to say the least. Four seasons in, what do you think keeps people coming back?

I think it’s the characters. I think they’re these gorgeous characters that we see ourselves in. I see so many pieces of myself and women that I love in June and Lydia and even Serena Joy. And I also think it scares the hell out of us. We like things that get your heart beating. We’re incredibly lucky to have a loyal audience who are willing to stick it out with us.