Spoilers ahead for Season 2 Episode 5 of The Handmaid's Tale.
The Handmaid's Tale Season 2 returns to the Colonies in Episode 5, this time from the perspective of a newcomer, Janine. Having escaped certain death twice now, she arrives at the Colonies with a slightly different outlook compared the other "unwomen" working alongside her. But not everyone is enamored by Janine's optimism in The Handmaid's Tale Season 2, with Alexis Bledel's Emily particularly angered by Janine's seeming contentedness with working herself to death in the Colonies.
But according to actor Madeline Brewer, Janine's state of mind is a direct result of everything she's been through. "I think it was jumping off of a bridge and living," Brewer says of what changed Janine's outlook on life. "Then she was supposed to get stoned to death and she didn't. So she feels as if she's been spared in some way. Her life has been spared by God. So she's really grateful to be alive. Grateful to have another chance."
At first, it's a bit disconcerting that Janine continues to invoke Aunt Lydia's religious teachings in the episode after those very teachings were nearly the death of her twice. But Brewer says Janine still has a place in her heart for Aunt Lydia.
"I think Aunt Lydia was someone who taught her about God but who also broke the rules sometimes," Brewer says. "So Aunt Lydia's not perfect and I think that meant a lot to Janine. Recognizing her own imperfections and shortcomings and God still loves her. God has still spared her."
At the end of the episode, Janine arranges for a former rabbi to marry two of the women who fell in love in the Colonies before one of them passes away. It's one of the more uplifting moments in the series — particularly compared to the horrific child bride mass wedding that also occurs this week — and proves that Gilead is fundamentally flawed. Even though Janine has retained some of Aunt Lydia's religious teachings and found her own spirituality, she's not homophobic, or in favor of rape and imprisonment, nor is she advocating against women's human rights in God's name.
"It's like she's seeing the world for the first time," Brewer continues. "Because before she was just coping. She was grasping so desperately at something to keep her there because she so, so desperately wanted to leave and to no longer be a part of the world. But now in the Colonies as it happens, which is insane, she's just grateful to be there. Grateful to be alive."
Janine has been through several changes throughout the series. When she first became a handmaid, she was unhinged and rebellious. It seemed highly unlikely that she would fall in line enough with Gilead in order to stay alive. After the birth of her daughter with her Commander, Janine had a mental breakdown and tried to commit suicide with the baby. But she survive and was sent to the Colonies, and suddenly Janine is not only hopeful, but sweet and grounded.
"You get a sense of her sense of humor more," Brewer adds. "Janine I think is funny this season because she's actually a funny person instead of being this weird, unexpected comic relief because she just says crazy sh*t. There's a difference there and I've been so thankful to explore that side of her."
But could that more rebellious version of Janine ever return? Likely not, according to the actor. "That was a defense mechanism," she says. "That was a learned behavior for her. She was confronted with something that she didn't believe in and didn't want to participate in and so she said 'f*ck you.' That's just kind of how she got through the world before. That's not gonna work here."
In the Colonies, Janine gets to know Emily a little better than she did when they were handmaids together. Emily sees the camps as hell, and so the two juxtapose each other — but they also form a relationship based on their shared past. "It's like when you're out at a party and you don't know anybody and you see one person you know and you're like 'Oh my god, come here, save me,'" says Brewer. "Multiply that times ten million and add like a little death to it. That's how Janine feels about Emily."
What's great about The Handmaid's Tale is that there are so many different female characters who cope and defend themselves in different ways. "I see myself, Maddie, in Janine, Emily, Moira, Alma, June," says Brewer. "It's all over the map." It gives the audience choices on their way into the world, especially when the realities of Gilead hit a little too close to home.
"You can't just deny what's happening in the world and invent a storyline for yourself," Brewer says. "The reason we enjoy art in a lot of ways is because [people] feel connected to it. They feel that their stories are seen. They feel that that a story they can relate to is being portrayed. You can't do that if you just start inventing."
The past year has definitely affected the series in its second season, and that shouldn't surprise you. "As society changes the show changes," Brewer says. "With the #TimesUp Movement and the #MeToo Movement and all that's happening, especially in Hollywood, I feel it's kind of in the the core of what we're doing because it's just the way society is saying. We can't make a relevant show without being relevant."
As for the story going forward, day-to-day life in Colonies is all about coping. Women forgo medicine for those who need it more, giving in to the inevitability of their death. They comfort each other, but there's not a lot of hope. But perhaps Janine can inspire a little more optimism. She's proof that change is possible, and that might be just what this horrible world needs.