Well, that was an unexpected turn of events for The Handmaid’s Tale’s Commander George Winslow.
(Major spoilers for this week’s episode, “Liars,” ahead.)
Christopher Meloni’s “high commander,” who didn’t behave like any of the other leaders we’ve met in Gilead and seemed to be the only one truly enjoying his authority, is gone. And the Handmaid’s writers left no room for doubt about that, having a group of rebel Marthas burn him to a crisp inside a furnace after June (Elisabeth Moss) murders him. Murders him!
Not that Winslow didn’t deserve it. The whiskey-loving father of six was about to rape her at Jezebel’s just for sport, and June just wasn’t going to take it anymore. After kicking him in the chest, which he liked, and an ensuing struggle, June gets the upper hand when she finds a pen in the rug and stabs him repeatedly in the chest. One of the blows leaves him gasping for air and pleading “My children!” before June clocks him in the head.
It’s a terrifying victory for June, but perhaps not for viewers, who won’t get to see Meloni rub up against Fred (Joseph Fiennes) again or navigate Gilead in his unsettlingly easygoing manner. In a phone interview with Vulture, Meloni spoke about how he learned Winslow was a dead man, his interpretation of the character’s last words, and why Winslow might not have been as fecund as we were led to believe.
Did you know the full arc of the character when you agreed to be on the show?
No, you never know. They just give you kind of the broad strokes. “He’s a commander from Washington, D.C. He’s a very powerful guy.” I thought it would be more with the Waterfords and their climbing up the ladder of power, so it was very satisfying to have it intersect with June, although it didn’t help me continue on the show. [Laughs.]
When did you find out that this would happen to Winslow?
When I came up to shoot the episode preceding it and the regular cast said to me, “Oh my God, have you read the next episode?” ’Cause I’m a guest star, I don’t get the scripts as quickly as the regulars. So I was like, “No, was it good?” And they would say, “Oh my God, it’s so good. It was so nice having you on the show.” I’m like, Oh boy, the die is cast.
You do hear stories about painful calls between producers and actors when a character’s demise is imminent. This didn’t happen for you?
No. I’m there to provide shock value and to help the regular characters have their story arcs built up and built out.
Well, it was definitely a shocker. What did you think of the story?
The setting I understood: Jezebel’s. I thought it was a powerful, pent-up, cathartic expression, obviously, for June, and correctly ignominious for the commander, or at least for the power structure. It feels as though that’s what my character represented — the heart of Gilead. I was representing the federal government of Gilead. I thought it was very satisfying that sexual violence is met with violence. And I liked that his last words were “my children.” I felt that was poignant. I loved going through all of the stunt work and figuring out the dance of it all. And then I felt the ending and how they dispose of him was like, Oh my God. All I could think of was, for the viewers who are completely invested in this unjust saga, there’s no more satisfying way to dispose of a character. Even as we’re filming it, I’m like, Oh, man, this is gonna make so many people go, “Yeah! Man, this feels so good!”
Yeah! The girlfriends are banding together. They have had enough.
Did you think June had that in her all along? Or did she just crack?
I think you follow June because in her prior real life, she was a real human. She’s no pushover. She’s been forced into a certain way of behaving just in order to get through life. She’s witnessed a lot of things and is lucky to still have both her eyes and all of her digits. To navigate cleverly in this environment, you’re going to start losing things. I think the dam finally broke and she is not going through this again.
June and Commander Winslow had that interesting moment in “Witness” where he asks her how things are going at Commander Lawrence’s house and she responds that he treats her with respect, which provokes the rape ceremony. The actual rape isn’t shown — we’ve seen enough of that on the show — but you still had to play being a part of a group of people that is, in a way, the audience for this heinous act. How did you feel filming that?
That’s a good question, because we’ve made it palatable by turning it into a ceremony. You know, just as much as the Aztecs killed virgins for the sun god or whatever. You ritualize brutality. And why do we do this? For the greater good. Sacrifices must be made. That’s how we can put children in cages — to protect ourselves. If I were part of the ritualizing of the rape scene, I don’t know what my choice would be because, as a viewer, I watch it and I cringe. And what’s cringe-y is the discomfort of the women. And how I’ve seen it played is that the men don’t feel that discomfort. They disconnect. They are pretending to connect, but it’s always disconnected. The wife has to be there. So, when you’re doing it, you build up your own rules and it becomes a character thing.
I know that sounds so actor-y. But what you do as an actor, you go, The character doesn’t believe in this, it’s wrong, but he’s stuck. Or, The character has completely bought into the fact that if you don’t do this, society will crumble. That whole situation was Waterford making a power play on Lawrence. And as much as George admires Lawrence and loves him, especially loves his whiskey, that’s how I entered that scene: Let’s celebrate in this. And, by the way, I’ll probably be aroused watching the proceedings. So did it bother me? Was it weird? Nope. I think this guy revels in this for sport, and maybe he’s paying a little bit of lip service to the idea that this is the only way our society can continue.
Speaking of Commander Winslow’s excitement, he is definitely the most fertile person in Gilead. Six kids!
You know what the writers were saying to me? They said he stole many of his children from other commanders that he killed.
I know! I was like, No, you’re wrong! In my mind, those are all Winslow’s. Well, maybe one he stole. [Laughs.] I was like, You got that wrong. Winslow is very fertile. That’s how I felt about it and about him. That’s what he is supposed to project. He was the biggest running bull in the herd.
That’s why I wasn’t sure about that scene where Commander Winslow is teasing Fred, flirting with him, touching him and rubbing up against him. I know some people saw that as a sign that George was making sexual advances toward Fred. But I wondered if he was just playing mind games, using his sexual power to put Fred in his place, because we don’t see that happen again.
Aha! Good! I think it was intentionally left, or at least I intentionally left it, ambiguous. This is a guy with many appetites. Take that for what you will.
Tell me about filming your final scene. There’s a lot of punching and kicking before the pen comes out.
I flew in and we rehearsed it a day earlier. The stunt people had blocked it out pretty clearly and cleanly. And then Elisabeth and I got to it and it took a day. We had a stunt person for Elisabeth but not for much of it. On the first take — and it almost always happens — adrenaline was ripping and Elisabeth popped me with that pen. It was like, Wow!
So it was a real pen that you used? Who knew you could cause that much damage with a pen?
It was! Yeah, the whole thing we were going for is that she punctured a lung. It’s kind of this cat-and-mouse, and then she hits something and she catches me between the ribs. That’s why he’s [gasps for air]. He starts losing the ability to get as much oxygen as needed, and in that moment she’s able to get in there and, well, you know the rest.
His last words imploring her to save him for his children can be viewed in different ways. How did you see it?
Part of what makes this show so great, besides its visual style, is obviously the writing, which in that moment was so good. Let’s look at the ambiguity in that last thing, which is something that someone says to ask for mercy, right? Don’t kill me; I have children. But also value in Gilead is all wrapped up in children. If you don’t have children, you have no future. You don’t have a stake in the future. So they’re really a coin of the realm — hence why I have so many children. So it could be that what you have read into his psyche is “But I’m so rich! This can’t be happening because I’m rich and powerful. My children! I have all my children.” It’s a way to look at it. That’s what he’s thinking about. But I liked that in the middle of this brutality, there was an outward look, what looked like an empathetic tug at the heartstrings of viewers to make it a more difficult moment for June and for the viewer.
Are you sad that you’re not going to be on the show anymore?
Yes. I want you to start a campaign. Bring back Winslow’s brother — his identical twin.
’Cause we definitely can’t bring him back. We know where he went.
I’d have to get into a tanning bed for a long, long time and get a smoke machine to constantly have smoke emanating off me.