Madeline Brewer on Janine’s Powerful ‘Handmaid's Tale’ Flashback Episode

·11 min read
Photo credit: Timothy Fernande
Photo credit: Timothy Fernande

After the devastating events of last week’s episodes, there are now just two OG Handmaids left standing in The Handmaid’s Tale: Elisabeth Moss’s June and Madeline Brewer’s Janine. And they’re still running for their lives. This week’s episode, “Milk,” focuses on the pair’s fraying relationship in the immediate aftermath of losing their friends, and also delves into a period of Janine’s pre-Gilead life we haven’t seen before.

In a flashback scene, we learn Janine is pregnant again, a few years after giving birth to her son Caleb. Since she’s barely making ends meet as a young single mom, Janine makes the considered and rational decision to terminate the pregnancy, and goes to what she thinks is an abortion clinic. But it’s actually an anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy center” designed to trick women into coming for medical advice, then scaring them with vicious pro-life propaganda. Although Janine is ultimately able to obtain an abortion elsewhere, this haunting scene foreshadows the rise of Gilead and its fundamentalist doctrine.

“Janine’s dealt with a lot; she can hold her own,” Brewer tells ELLE.com of the flashbacks. “I’m really proud that they trusted me with that storyline, and I hope that any woman who has ever struggled with that decision or made that decision will feel seen.” Below, Brewer digs into Janine’s past, her complex relationship with June, and the surprising decision she makes in the episode’s final scene.

I have to say, the scene where June and Janine almost drown in a huge vat of milk was unbelievably stressful to watch, even by the standards of The Handmaid’s Tale. What was that like to shoot?

It was interesting! We shot it at the end of that block, and honestly, I kind of put it out of my mind until we had to do it, because I knew it would be a long haul. We were in it for two days, and they were long days, but at the same time, it was kind of fun. Because it was just four of us in there. We’re just paddling around. But it was big. There were big scenes. And it really did take place inside of a milk tank, just me and Lizzie drenched from head to toe. I look back on it, and it’s like…what a crazy thing to do at work.

I already don’t really drink milk, but I think otherwise that scene would have put me off for life.

Oh yeah, I don’t drink milk either, but it was actually unsweetened vanilla soft serve mixed with water. It had to be opaque enough so that when we dunked under the water, you couldn’t see any red, but they weren't going to use straight-up milk because it would be rotting all day. That’s not to say that it smelled good in there, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been!

Photo credit: Hulu
Photo credit: Hulu

Janine’s absolute fury at June in that scene is really striking. Because the viewer has been on that agonizing journey with June through episode 3, you’re very much on her side, but then it’s so interesting to see Janine’s perspective because her anger is also completely understandable. What do you think is happening for Janine in that scene?

I think Janine is realizing more and more where June’s motivation is. Janine’s motivation is simple: We’re going to get out and we’re going to go be safe and live a happy life, whatever that means. As long as it’s outside of Gilead, as long as we’re not Handmaids anymore, that’s a life she can bear. That’s all she wants, and I think that what she’s realizing is that June wants other things. June wants revenge. June wants to bring Gilead to its knees. She wants to tear down this establishment, and Janine just wants to get out. So I think Janine’s realizing that June is motivated by revenge and anger and that those motivators aren’t entirely pure, and they can get people hurt. They can get people you love really hurt, and killed.

So I think she’s just mad at her for taking stupid risks. She kind of hits a breaking point in that scene. To know that your friend betrayed you and your other friends, and now they’re dead? It was such a complex scene, because of all the love that Janine and June share as friends, as sisters. And then for June to say, “I should’ve left you a long time ago,” basically saying, you would have been dead a long time ago if it weren’t for me. I think Janine knows that in a way, but also, I love that it goes right into Janine’s flashback there. Because it’s like, no, actually, Janine’s dealt with a lot. She can hold her own.

That flashback scene, where Janine goes to what she thinks is an abortion clinic but is actually a pro-life “crisis pregnancy center,” is so haunting, because unlike most of what we see in Gilead, it’s a reality in America right now.

Exactly. Those places are real, those places that kind of trick women into coming in and then try to talk them out of having an abortion. What we saw there was a mild version of what a woman who’s seeking an abortion goes through. I see this on TikTok, but I’ve also seen this in real life—people just accosting women trying to get into an abortion clinic and yelling with bullhorns and scaring them with lies and fake statistics and just awful, cruel things to say to someone who’s about to make one of the most difficult decisions that they will ever make mentally, emotionally, physically. They are experiencing something that… especially if you were a man coming at me with a bullhorn? Sit the fuck down! So I’m very proud of Janine’s storyline because it takes an immense amount of strength and resolve to make that decision, and you have to be very self-possessed. Especially as a young single woman with a child who loves her child desperately. When the crisis pregnancy center lady says “Every woman regrets this,” it’s just so manipulative, it’s so sinister. And it’s also a lie.

A total lie. And later, when Janine realizes all she has to do is take a pill, her relief is so palpable.

That scene in the script, I think it said: “On Janine, her whole life ahead of her.” Because it is. She just wants to be able to live her life on her terms and she’s not ready. She needs to provide for the life that she already has with her son, and she’s doing a good job, and she’s working hard, and she wants to go back to school and better herself for her and her son. I love that moment where she just kind of blurts it all out, and it’s like, she’s weighed the pros and cons, and she’s made a decision about what’s best for her. Just let her make her own decisions. I’m really proud of those scenes. I’m really proud that they trusted me with that storyline, and I hope that any woman who has ever struggled with that decision or made that decision will feel seen. Because maybe some women regret it, but not every woman regrets it. That’s absolutely not true.

There’s a really interesting reversal at the end of the episode. Steven, the rebel leader, is demanding that either June or Janine sleep with him in exchange for protection. June is going to do it and then she can’t bring herself to, so Janine very calmly goes ahead and does it. Can you talk about that decision for her?

When I first read it, I didn’t like it. But then I really sat with: Where is Janine at this point? What has she been through before Gilead, and in Gilead, with Warren? What has she lost? June is at a point where she has been in love in Gilead and found love and has saved her child, so I think she’s just like, I’m not being exploited anymore. I’m out of Gilead. I’m not doing this anymore, and that is perfectly fine and good. But Janine is at a point where she’s more like, I don’t care about you. What I care about is my friends and having a meal and some warm clothes. And so I’m going to do what I need to do to get those things. And that takes nothing away from me. There’s no morality attached to it. In that moment, Janine is like, this is what needs to be done, and my friend can’t do it. It doesn’t bother Janine in the way that it bothers June.

Photo credit: Sophie Giraud
Photo credit: Sophie Giraud

Yeah, because when I first realized, I was like, oh no Janine. But then it made me think of sex work. It's just work. It doesn’t have to have that significance necessarily.

Thank you! That is the correlation that I’ve been looking for this entire time, yes. It’s like sex work. It’s like: I need something. You’re going to pay me for this in this way. And so I will do this for you. It’s transactional. Janine just doesn't have this moral attachment to the act of sex. She’s like, this is fine. I’m fine. Who cares? Let’s go about our day. Let’s go get something to eat.

This feels like a very cathartic season compared to previous ones. Has it felt different to you?

Yeah. Parts of it felt like a return to the very beginning, but I also feel less confined in it. Seasons 2 and 3, we were very confined to our world, really heavy, really Gilead. And now, as we branch out more and there’s more people in Canada, and we’re running around the continental United States, it’s broader and yet somehow more specific. When we were all contained inside June’s brain, it was uncomfortable, which is what we wanted. That discomfort was necessary, but now it feels like the more we stretch, it’s stronger. I feel stronger in this season. I feel a lot of power in this season.

There’s a lot of talk about the concept of justice this season. What do you think justice would look like for Janine?

That’s so interesting, because the word justice has transformed to me, honestly, with the coverage of the Derek Chauvin trial, and people saying “justice is served.” It’s like, no. Justice would be George Floyd going home to his family. Justice would be George Floyd alive, taking care of his daughter. Justice is such a complicated word in Gilead. I mean, justice for Janine would be to be with Caleb and with Charlotte. But as we know, Caleb is [dead], and Charlotte is with another family. So justice for Janine, I think now, would look like being a mom, taking care of her child. Living a very, very mundane life would be justice for Janine. An uncomplicated existence. A quiet, beautiful life.

Photo credit: Sophie Giraud
Photo credit: Sophie Giraud

Janine sometimes says things that are a little out there, or don’t make sense, so it can be easy to dismiss her. But often she’ll actually be the one who says the thing that really sums up a situation. She’s kind of a truth teller.

I think a lot of people have dismissed Janine as the crazy one, but Janine has always been very aware of what’s happening. It’s just that she has to choose to check out because if she’s in it, she’ll lose it. It’s too painful. And so I think that sometimes, Janine is a little bit of the voice of the audience, saying the thing that’s on everybody’s mind. Janine will wear her thoughts on her face. She tells a guardian, “Suck my dick!” She doesn’t really take a lot of shit. She fights back in her own little ways. The fact that she is still alive is a revolution after what they’ve done to her.

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