[The story contains spoilers from the ninth episode of season five of The Handmaid’s Tale.]
Bradley Whitford recalls a key tip he received when directing his first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale.
The script is often lying, he was told by creator and showrunner Bruce Miller. And as a director, it was his job to tell the truth.
For his first episode behind the camera — the ninth episode and penultimate hour of season five, “Allegiance” — the actor who plays Gilead Commander Lawrence was tasked with seeking out the truth about his own character. For the past couple episodes, Lawrence has been trying to convince June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) to return to Gilead — the oppressive regime and country she escaped — and live in New Bethlehem, a modernized, liberal island settlement where refugees can return with amnesty and reunite with lost family and friends. A step in the right direction, he says, to help redeem himself over the guilt he harbors for helping to create Gilead. “A place where one might visit their grown children running their own houses,” he says of New Bethlehem. “You can live a life, June. I can make it happen. You can be with Hannah again.”
Hannah (Jordana Blake), June’s oldest daughter, was taken by Gilead at the start of the Hulu dystopian drama, and June has been fighting to get her back ever since. This season has given updated glimpses of Hannah, who is now named Agnes, and who is in training to become a Gilead wife at the age of 12. This episode saw the Canadian military conduct a failed and fatal rescue mission to save Hannah and other girls-in-training, prompting a hurtful — and revealing — phone conversation between June and Lawrence that fissures their complicated relationship. “Eleanor hated you,” June tells him of his late wife, who took her own life in season three. “She was so broken and so ashamed of the man she loved that she’d rather be dead.”
Lawrence is tearful after the conversation, but puts his feelings aside to announce his new marriage, to the former Mrs. Putnam (Ever Carradine), and stand atop the commanders — as he is called “one of us” — and says he will consider fixing “the problem” of June Osborne. The episode then ends with a symbolic shooting at the memorial for the soldiers who were killed in the failed raid, as June leaps to save a young girl while bullets rip through the American flag behind them.
Whitford speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about what truths to take away from the pivotal penultimate episode of season five, including the changes he made to that powerful final scene: “I knew I wanted to end the episode with that image of a woman protecting a child in a world of very dangerous firearms and nationalism.”
Commander Lawrence is a curious character; you never know his intentions. He wants to help June, but he’s also the “architect of Gilead.” Going back, how was Lawrence first described to you, and why did you want the role?
I came in as a guest actor for the last couple episodes of season two. All I knew was that this was a brilliant guy — I think they said “brilliant, eccentric” — and it was told to me they were thinking he might become very powerful again in Gilead. But, trust me: You don’t know; and they don’t know. I don’t think any show knows exactly where the series is going, because it’s a dance between the alchemy of the cast, the alchemy of the actors with the writing, how the audience responds and what works. I knew it was a potentially really interesting part and potentially a big part of the show. But, initially, I didn’t even know if I was going to be back on season three.
After you were upped to series regular for season three, what questions have you had for creator Bruce Miller and the writers about Lawrence’s motivations? And have you had any significant input, or did they ever infuse you, or any of your personal politics, into the character?
I wouldn’t say personal politics. There’s definitely a dance that goes on, where they’re always seeing what works. Every great writing staff does this. They sort of intuitively are watching the shows and the dailies and, at least subconsciously if not consciously, the actors are kind of guiding them. A great thing about the show is that there’s a real back and forth that is allowed between the writers and the actors. This year it was interesting because there’s a lot of story in these last three episodes. When you get into year five of a show with actors who, in my opinion, are profoundly good actors across the board, the writers are in a very difficult position. Bruce said something very interesting to me when he first said I could have the opportunity to direct. He said, “The interesting thing about this show is that the script is often lying. And as a director, you’re trying to tell the truth of a situation where the script is often lying.” And I do think that is true.
That’s interesting because Lawrence has been his most vulnerable in these recent phone conversations with June. In their last conversation, he was cold to June, but had tears welling in his eyes. What have these conversations with June revealed to you about Lawrence and what were you trying to convey in their last chat, after the raid to save Hannah was thwarted by Gilead?
My fundamental belief about Lawrence is that he’s a guy with a huge brain where, in this particular circumstance, his brain and ambition obliterated his humanity. I say this in the show: He was using these religious nutjobs as a delivery system for his ideas at a moment of crisis, and then it went crazy. One of the great things about Lawrence is his true and great love of Eleanor. And he killed her. He knows that he destroyed her, whatever the logistics of the end were. I think he feels like he has to make this better and that it’s a bit of redemption for a sin he’ll never fully atone for.
What’s very interesting to me, and I’m always bringing this up, is that Lawrence brought June into his life. There’s something interesting about this notoriously problematic, rebellious handmaid that Lawrence was drawn to and then, without him even realizing it, June was leading him. And I think in the wake of Eleanor’s death, there was a kind of fearlessness. June got him to do some dangerous stuff. Fred [Waterford]’s murder or Angel Flight could have gotten him up on the wall. At this point, the conflict between them brings up an unfortunately relevant, legitimate argument. Lawrence is saying, “Don’t be naïve. Your little fantasy of utopian democracy and inclusion almost destroyed the planet. It doesn’t work. It can be manipulated. Democracy doesn’t work.”
And this is an idea that [The Handmaid’s Tale author] Margaret Atwood talks about all the time. I’ve lived my entire life thinking that democracy is inevitable. But it rarely happens, and it rarely works for long. And I think Lawrence is basically saying, “Stop. These self-centered guerilla actions, which by the way leave this trail of carnage behind you, are all in service of an idea that doesn’t exist anymore. Functional democracy in that world” — and unfortunately, maybe in our real world — “maybe it just doesn’t work. Yes this is monstrous, but you can’t get rid of it and replace it with Vermont. But you know what we can do? Maybe we can stop the rape. Maybe if we show what this kind of Hong Kong openness can do to Gilead, maybe we can start these reforms.” That’s the argument they’re having. Lawrence thinks June is naïve and, as June says, he’s a part of it. And unfortunately, this argument keeps getting more and more relevant.
This penultimate episode, “Allegiance,” has action, suspense; it produces a fair amount of fear and terror. What were some of your inspirations, and what was your favorite scene to direct?
First of all, I was excited and shocked when I read the outline of the episode for the first time. I naively thought I’d probably do a bottle episode, mostly in the studio and that I probably wouldn’t be in it. I was shocked at the logistical scope of it. I love the challenge of the proposal scene [to Naomi], which is clearly a specific tone. (Laughs.) But at the same time, it was very important to get that shot at the end where you see Lawrence in the doorway. I knew for Lawrence, I can’t just be flip. If you read that scene, it’s a straightly comedic, non-ambivalent kind of comedy scene. But you need to ground it in some way. So even something simple like a shot where you see Lawrence wrestling with it at the end is important.
It’s not in the script that an American flag gets shot up. And that shot meant a lot to me. I was so terrified we wouldn’t be able to get that Janelle Monae song, “Americans.” But we did. The lyrics and the image of this kind of desecrated myth of nationalism with June instinctively protecting the next generation, while nationalism just destroys the planet — I thought that was all potentially in that shot. And it worried me: Are people going to get upset about the flag? Are they going to think I’m desecrating a flag? No. I’m not for that kind of desecration. It’s a statement against that kind of [desecration]… it says something about guns. I knew I wanted to end the episode with that image of a woman protecting a child in a world of very dangerous firearms and nationalism.
And it was tricky because we shot it in 200 frames and I didn’t know if I had the song. But I was just like, “Oh fuck it, cut to the song.” If you’re doing 200 frames for 30 seconds of a song, that’s super slow motion. The full time of the shot was like 3.5 seconds; the first squid had to go off at 1.8 and it had to have a certain cadence. And then you’re shooting it all one night, and the nights were short.
That ending actually pulled me out of The Handmaid’s Tale for a minute, because it spoke to present-day shootings. It gave me chills.
That was, unfortunately, what we wanted to do. The complete and utter insanity of our choice to live in a world where shootings of all kind and where, obscenely, school shootings, are routine. I know a bunch of people working on gun reform and [activist] Fred Guttenberg, who lost his daughter at Parkland, is a friend of mine. And there was a part of me that wanted to show the obscenity and the desecration of America that the normalization of gunfire has brought about.
The Handmaid’s Tale at its core is about a mother having her daughter taken away and the fight to get her back. This episode, for the first time, shows Hannah’s perspective, and proof that Hannah remembers who she is. And after that hopeful glimpse, the episode ends with June protecting another little girl. What was it like to go inside Hannah’s world for a minute?
That was the most moving thing to me when I read the outline for the first time: That Hannah knows who she is when she writes her name. She hasn’t forgotten who she is. And that she has the sort of strength of will and spirit that June has. It was fascinating to see her. It’s amazing. She’s so grown-up. After that horribly creepy reveal of her at the funeral [in episode two], you wanted to get the eeriness of it. This is on a military base [the Wives School] that’s been converted, and it was really fun working with the art department. I wanted some creepy combination of army bunk and canopy bed. And there was a lot of discussion about this: The point of the mission is not the mission but the fact that Gilead got the information, got tipped off and made the mission never happen. And so it was about the loss of the mission. It’s not about gunfire — it’s not like a Michael Bay movie in the middle of The Handmaid’s Tale — it’s about how far of a fall it is for June in that hallway when she realizes this trail of carnage that she is leaving behind her.
That realization pushes June firmly onto the side of rejecting Lawrence’s New Bethlehem offer, which is followed by a closure conversation between her and Nick (Max Minghella). Did you feel this was a parting of ways for them?
Man, I thought they were good in that. It was just heartbreaking to watch. We all wrestled with this a lot, and it’s a really collaborative process on this show. I cannot overstate how blown away I was, and it’s not just because I’ve known her for a long time, by the amount of work that Lizzie [Moss] does while remaining totally kind and functional and obsessed with getting the story right; it’s unbelievable to me. It had to be this place that people get to where you realize: It doesn’t matter that I love you. I do love you. And because I love you, us being together will destroy you. And it couldn’t be an angry breakup. It had to be one where you knew they were breaking up, but that it was because they loved each other. So, getting that tone was important.
The episode also sends Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) on the run, and I found myself rooting for her to escape. What were some of your conversations about that character conflict?
I think it’s amazing how she’s laid the groundwork for that, heroically, as an actor. It’s one of the incredible things about the show. You see it with Yvonne, you see it with Ann [Dowd], where somehow, there is the cost within. It’s an extraordinary achievement to maintain the possibility of redemption in characters like that. And I don’t know if redemption is possible, or if it’s deserved, even. But it’s very interesting. What a season for Yvonne, isn’t she incredible? Her and Lizzie in the barn? Their ability to go that deeply and that fearlessly into it, is just bizarre. I was already in love with all of these actors, but man, you fall in love with them when you’re directing them. What Lizzie can do, what Yvonne can do, what Max can do? As a director, I feel more in love with the actors than I did before, which was pretty deep.
You mentioned the scene of Lawrence offering the quid pro quo to Naomi, the former Mrs. Putnam. Have you given thought to Lawrence’s sexuality; has it been more about the power for him, and not the relationships?
I think he was deeply in love with Eleanor. And that’s always been one of the north stars for me about him. I think he was fully in love with his wife; I don’t think he’s interested in anyone else; it’s not a priority for him right now. And I think, frankly, if he didn’t have the opportunity to do what he wanted to do for Eleanor’s sake, given what he did to her, I think he’d probably be gone. I don’t think he’d want to be alive anymore. Eleanor’s memory is very present for him. And I think he’s disgusted by Commander Putnam’s (Stephen Kunken) easy, sleazy attitude. I think it repels him. I think it’s at the core of what disgusts him about [the Gilead commanders].
By the end of the episode, the commanders tell him, “You are truly one of us now,” as he’s standing there with his hand on new wife Naomi’s shoulder and calling the shots. We’ve seen him go along with the Gilead way to gain power. Now that he’s at the top, what will he do with it?
I think that’s the question. I don’t think he is simply wanting to get power; that was the Lawrence before we met him. He’s gone through the opportunity to get power in Gilead and it disgusted him and it killed his wife. If it helps him pay the debt he feels he needs to pay to Eleanor, to be called by the other leaders “one of them,” I think he’ll be fine with that. But it’s strategic and not something he’s aspiring to.
It’s quite a long con he’s pulled off.
Yeah, yeah. It’s a long journey. That’s what’s fun about these shows; it’s such a long relationship with the character.
The episode ending with the shooting further shows how June and the good guys are on the back foot at the moment. How strong, or how much of a threat, is Gilead going into the finale?
Gilead is on the rise, just like in this world where fascism is on the rise. It looks like it’s working. So, I think unfortunately, going into the finale June isn’t safe because Gilead is stronger. And again, it’s that argument. He thinks it’s naïve for June to think she can get rid of Gilead, and Lawrence may be the naïve one thinking he can reform it.
The Handmaid’s Tale‘s fifth season is now streaming, with the finale releasing Nov. 9 on Hulu.