“The Handmaid’s Tale” is somehow on its fifth season, and for not one moment since it premiered in 2017 has this show given Janine (Madeline Brewer) a moment of peace.
Season 5, Episode 4, “Dear Offred” puts Janine in an impossible position with painfully sinister implications. After being poisoned by Esther (McKenna Grace) in the previous episode, she recovers and appears to be more precious than ever to Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). Lydia, ever the pious manipulator, entreats the fragile Janine to be her eyes and ears among the handmaids moving forward.
“Will you watch over them and tell me when any of them are struggling?,” Lydia asks. She claims to want to do things differently, to act with compassion, but Janine is skeptical.
“If I do, you’ll just do something horrible,” she replies.
But she doesn’t say much more, and when she returns to the company of her fellow handmaids, the unspoken understanding is that Janine is in a unique — and uniquely difficult — position. “Janine, in a way, [is] kind of playing Aunt Lydia — not playing her. I think that there is a genuine — there is an earnestness to what’s going on with them,” Brewer told ScreenRant. “But I think that she’s not just being a good, pious little Handmaid anymore.”
For those actively repressing the various atrocities Janine has suffered on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a quick refresher: In Season 1 flashbacks during the rise of Gilead, Janine is a textbook rebel. She rolls her eyes and scoffs at Lydia’s teachings, causing disruption and inconvenience for the other women present. As punishment, the Aunts take Janine’s eye, a reference to the Bible passage ““if thy right eye offends thee, pluck it out” that almost instantly subdues her spitfire personality. She experiences a mental breakdown at the red center, but June and the others grow to be protective of the fragile and disconnected Janine who emerges. She’s never the same after that, smiling brightly through her time as an obedient handmaid and always a little too close to snapping back to reality, and losing all control.
But lose it she does, again and again: When she has an affair with Commander Putnam (Stephen Kunken), who doesn’t love her back; when she is reassigned and separated from her daughter; when she jumps into the river; when her baby is in the hospital. Janine is beaten by Lydia, by another handmaid, and abused by Esther in Season 4. By the time Season 5 starts, she has escaped and returned to life as a handmaid multiple times, never by her own choosing — and Janine is holding on by a thread. Enough already.
To quote IndieWire’s Season 5 review, “You can only see the same bad shit happen to the same good people for so long.” “The Handmaid’s Tale” is treading water while it idles toward the finish line; contrived physical violence against women is an easy way to rack up shock value while masquerading as commentary. Try as it might, the show can’t capture the momentum and prescience of its first season (after which it departed from Margaret Atwood’s novel). If Janine does die in the coming episodes, it will still be devastating, but undoubtedly used to motivate June towards her next self-important crusade.
But Janine is alive for the time being, and back to being a handmaid — even if she hasn’t been assigned yet — but she’s got some of the old fight back in her. The latest installment, “Dear Offred” is the closest “The Handmaid’s Tale” has come to Janine before Gilead. She grows frustrated with Lydia’s Bible verses, and even references that it was Lydia who took Janine’s eye. She curses — which she was once reprimanded for — and stands up to Lydia.
“I know what you do to those girls, your precious girls,” she says. “I see who you really are. I’ve still got one good eye, remember?”
Perversely, Janine’s near-constant suffering serves no one more than Lydia — primarily as a showcase for Dowd’s magnificent performance. But letting an Emmy winner do Emmy-winning things is not sufficient grounds for Janine’s cyclical arc of misery; she will never die as long as the show needs a proverbial punching bag, but she will endure every kind of savagery while June survives unscathed by comparison. Even as she weeps over Janine’s barely stirring form in Episode 3, it’s clear that Lydia gets off on the tribulations of those precious girls, even when she’s the one hurting them. Offering them thoughts and prayers gives her purpose, and her piety — while rooted in real belief — has twisted and warped into something menacing. Even if she wants to move forward with compassion, her track record as a violent disciplinarian is one many precious girls won’t soon forget.
It’s unclear how Janine will be used in the ongoing battle between Gilead and the rest of the world — and between Gilead and June herself. Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) wants to present a polished Gilead to the world, and Janine has been entangled in a lot of what doesn’t quite fit that definition (in Season 2 she was banned from an event so that the scar on her eye would not be seen). Every player in this abhorrent society — including June — views Janine as weak, helpless, and less than. She is either a wounded creature that needs protecting or a disposable pawn that can be deployed for bigger conflicts. That’s bad news as June and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) prepare for all-out war, both laser focused on drawing the other out and destroying her for good. With six more episodes and another entire season imminent, we ask only one thing: Leave Janine out of it.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” airs Wednesdays on Hulu.