Spoilers ahead for “Milk,” episode four of season four of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Madeline Brewer has played Janine, June’s longtime fragile sidekick in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for four seasons now. In episode four of the current season, Janine gets her first and only flashback so far, and we finally get to find out how she came to have Caleb, her first son, and the only child she had outside of Gilead’s captivity. It’s a chance to experience her as a more self-assured woman, albeit one struggling with an unwanted pregnancy and trying to make ends meet. (It’s worth noting that the pregnancy crisis center at the heart of Janine’s flashback is based on real organizations, sometimes called pregnancy resource centers, which falsely advertise abortion services. Brewer considers the show’s take on it “gentler” than what she’s seen in her research of these places.)
At the beginning of “Milk,” we’ve just come off Janine and June surviving by a hair … again. Janine always seems to make it through, doesn’t she? Could that have something to do with June always being there to protect her?
“In any other season,” says Brewer, “I would agree that yes, Janine survives because of June. But there are things that come up in this season [where that dynamic changes]. We have all underestimated Janine, I think, myself included. Sure, Janine gets by with nine lives and June saved her life in season one, but I think that there’s a part of June that needs these women. And they need each other. That friendship has been their lifeblood for so long — that’s what keeps them alive.”
Vulture spoke to Brewer about getting to finally see the origins of Janine (and Caleb), the sinister nature of organized religion, and what it was like to ditch Janine’s signature eye patch.
I know it’s diving right into the deep stuff, but I think we need to start at the crisis pregnancy center. That scene made me angry and sad and frustrated — all the things. Do you think it’s going to piss a lot of people off?
People are going to be pissed off for a lot of different reasons, yeah. There are going to be a lot of opinions. Personally, was stoked to have that as Janine’s history because there is no one who wants to be a mom more than Janine, there’s no one who respects motherhood and loves her children more than Janine, and I think it’s a very important and a beautiful way of saying that it’s not always time and that a woman’s life is worth living on her own terms. So I was proud to be the person who is doing that storyline.
This show delves into religion a lot, and here it informs the horrible experience of trying to get an abortion — then again, that dichotomy exists throughout the show. What’s your take on it?
As it pertains to Janine specifically in this moment, I think that it clearly shows how people are willing to manipulate and take advantage of a woman in a difficult situation, to lie to them and to scare them out of making a decision that ultimately only affects that woman. It baffles me, because I’m not a particularly religious person, but I have religious people in my life who I love very much, but there are elements of organized religion that attempt to control and manipulate and shame. It’s called “Catholic guilt” for a reason, but it’s sinister to me, honestly. There’s this whole TikTok thing devoted to people who work at abortion clinics who film the people outside. It’s honestly one of my favorite things to watch on TikTok.
Watching videos of these young people standing up for themselves and for their bodies and for other women trying to do the same — it is empowering, and it makes me glad to know there are feet on the ground not letting pro-life people who are harassing young women outside of clinics get away with their intimidation and lies. The disrespect they show these young women making one of the most difficult decisions that they will ever make in their lives, that will affect their bodies and their minds much longer than the length of the procedure, it’s dehumanizing. I’m glad that we had even a moment to touch on that, but what we showed in the show is the gentle version. It was manipulative — they absolutely lie to her and it’s disturbing, but it’s the gentler version of the real-life scenario.
When the crisis pregnancy center advocate says, “Every woman regrets this,” it was really shocking.
And of course, that actress was like the loveliest woman in the world.
You’ve lived with Janine for so long, and now you finally get to go into a flashback — as many of the characters have gotten on the show. Is this the first time we’ve seen Janine without her eye patch?
There’s a scene in the first season — it’s the reason I get my eye taken out, because I say, “Welcome to the fucking loony bin, huh?” It’s at the very beginning, June’s first day I think, there’s this badass girl [Janine] next to her. And then they take my eye out and that’s it.
Is it weird to have spent so much time with an eye patch as a character, and then to remove it?
A little bit, yeah. I’m a very physical actor and I’m a very physical person. I’m from Jersey, I’m Italian, I gesticulate [waving arms], and so much of Janine is about hiding or bracing for impact; the shoulders are hunched. To be able to see her more in her element as a woman in the world was so new for me. I actually had to resist the urge to crumble and be like the Janine I’m used to playing. It was strange to exist as Janine in what would be her most natural place.
And you got to be with Caleb for the first time in the show. Though it was short, it was incredibly sweet.
I was so excited to meet Caleb! Caleb has lived in my heart and in my mind for four seasons now, since 2016, since I learned that Janine has a son. It was incredible to be able to see him and a little bit of their life together, and to really see Janine be a mom — not just a woman who’s given birth to a child — but to see her play the role of mom, her most treasured role. You know, I only recently deleted the few pictures of infant boys that I had on my phone. I’d had photos from Pinterest of babies who I thought might look like Caleb, so that I could go in and look at them. It was kind of a Janine thing for me. So, he’s been there, in my mind, but to now meet this wonderful little boy — it was so special.
Now, switching back to the present in episode four: There’s June again, telling Janine what to do — she says jump into a tank that could be filled with gasoline or shit or whatever, and Janine jumps. But Janine starts to ask questions and talk back to June a little bit. Is that the first time we’ve ever seen that from Janine?
Yes. Exactly. And their dynamic changes a little bit. But there are more conversations surrounding that in episode five than four that we can’t get into yet …
Sticking to episode four, then, as Janine and as you, was that sort of scary to finally be like, “I get to do this,” or was it liberating?
I remember talking to Lizzy and being like, “I don’t want to say this to you. I love you. I don’t want to say anything mean.” It’s weird though, because I hadn’t seen the scenes that Lizzy shot when they tortured her and brought her to Hannah. And I’m glad I hadn’t because Janine doesn’t know what June went through when June says, “You would’ve done the same thing,” and Janine absolutely knows, and says it to her, “You don’t know what I would’ve done.” She’s saying, “I’m not always who you think I’m going to be. I’m not just this weak person.” I think Janine knows that’s how people think of her. But she is so lucid.
You think so?
Yes. She knows what’s going on; she’s always listening. She’s much more calculated than anybody realizes, I think.
Well, then June takes her back down a notch, saying, “I should have left you a long time ago.” That felt pretty mean.
It was so mean! And I think June means it. Because June clearly doesn’t see how these women have kept her alive as well. Alma was usually the one to be more vocal about it, to stand up; Brianna went along with the flow a little more. I think in this moment, Janine is like, “Listen. We are in this together. This is not you against the world with us behind you. It is us together. And you told them where we are. You sacrificed all of your friends. We could have all died.”
But this episode ends with Janine stepping up to the plate, so to speak. June couldn’t protect her by giving this rebel guy a sexual favor, and Janine just handles the situation. It’s a weird one, because on the one hand, it’s great to see Janine step up, but also, is she being sexually exploited? Again?
I struggled with that one for a minute. But I think I considered Janine’s past — and I don’t mean Janine having abortion; that could quite literally not have less to do with what I’m about to say — Janine as a teenager when, in episode two of season one, she recounts what I think is a rape or date rape by several boys. When you deal with something as traumatizing as rape, in my research I’ve found that it can change your ideas of value of a sexual encounter. At this point, after everything Janine has been through with men, she does not give one single solitary fuck about getting that over with. She does not care. She ends up having a kind of a relationship with Steven, but she’s like, “I’m starving. I have been starving for days. I’ve been in a milk tank with you. We are finally inside and clothed with food. You are clearly distraught and I’m going to do what it takes.” And it wasn’t in the way of like, she had to do this terrible thing. No, it’s just what she did to survive. There’s no moral value to it; it is just: “I did what I had to do. He thinks my eye patch is cool. I’m good. How are you?” Next to being a mother, Janine’s loyalty to her friends is her identity.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.