The most surprising thing about Alexis Bledel’s performance in The Handmaid’s Tale was how quiet it was. Emotionally, it couldn’t have been louder, or more explosive. But with her face obscured in the shadow from her character’s wings—a bonnet forced on the women to keep them downturn and pious—and, as the oppression escalates, her mouth gagged to keep her from speaking at all, Bledel’s performance had to free itself from the shackles limiting her expression.
This is the actress who played Rory Gilmore on Gilmore Girls, a show defined by its hyper-caffeinated dialogue and Bledel’s zippy, sprinting performance. Perhaps that point of reference is exactly what makes Bledel’s Emmy-winning Handmaid’s Tale performance so arresting.
Her gritty turn as Ofglen, named Emily before being confined to dystopian Gilead and forced to serve as a child-bearer stripped of all civil liberties, leverages that bubbly image to devastating effect in an, if not entirely silent, then muffled turn: a gag mask stifles her anguished screams in her most horrific, and exquisitely played, scenes.
“She faces so many challenges, and she faces them with resilience,” Bledel tells us, talking ahead of Wednesday’s two-episode season two premiere. “You want to root for her, but also glean from her strength.” Emily’s story gets darker in season two, she teases. But Bledel’s, it turns out, gets more inspiring.
The mere inclusion of the actress in season two spoils itself.
Ofglen/Emily isn’t executed after an attempted rebellion in which she ran over Gilead’s security guards with a stolen car ended in capture. The second episode of the season delves into Emily’s backstory through gut-wrenching flashbacks, in which we learn that she was married to a woman (played by Clea DuVall), with whom she had a child, and was a talented college professor before a changing world rolling back gay rights and protections forced her and her family to attempt to flee the country.
As is the case with much of The Handmaid’s Tale, hers is a backstory that chills because of its alarming relevance. It’s nearly impossible to watch the news each day, with acts of violence committed and legislation being spontaneously reversed, and not fear that LGBTQ rights—not to mention lives—could feasibly be at such risk.
And so suddenly Bledel finds herself portraying what might be one of the most significant gay characters on television, an avatar for the community’s worst nightmares and also the vigor of its fight.
After a career as the subject of gay fandom and being an ally—starring in projects like Gilmore Girls and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants will do that—she’s now in the position of speaking out on behalf of and in support of the community, too, with a passion ignited by the horror of Handmaid’s cautionary tale.
(Warning: Light spoilers for episode two follow.)
Escaping execution, Emily is sent to the much-warned-about “colonies” to perform prison labor with other banished handmaids. “When a woman is sent there, they call them ‘un-women,’” Bledel says.
The entire landscape of the colonies is radioactive because it is a nuclear wasteland.
“Essentially, all the un-women know upon arriving there that they will die in the short-term,” Bledel says. “So carrying around that knowledge, Emily knows it’s the end.”
Explaining how that changes Emily’s resolve, she says, “She doesn’t have hope and therefore fight in the same way she did the first season, which is one of the central things we know about her. She is not making plans for the future in her mind anymore, or trying to escape. So she’s sort of resigned to what’s going to happen, and she’s carrying around a lot of anger. Her multiple traumas have hardened her. Part of her spirit is broken. She’s sort of decided to dole out justice on her own.”
How she doles out that justice, we won’t spoil here, other than to say it’s a long time coming. A year and a season later, we still can’t stop thinking about the harrowing scenes from the series’ first season, depicting what happens to Ofglen/Emily when it’s discovered that she’s having a same-sex affair.
She and her lover are bound, gagged, and thrown into the back of the truck, which drives them to a construction site where Ofglen’s lover is strung up in a noose and hung while Ofglen watches in helpless, wrenching despair from the back of the truck. Because her lover is a “Martha” and can’t have children, she is killed for the crime of being a “gender traitor.” And because Ofglen is a handmaid she is spared death, but punished with genital mutilation instead.
The scenes are so upsetting to watch, the hanging in particular, that we reacted physically, nauseated. (The first scene of the new season, which centers on Elisabeth Moss’s fate as Offred/June, triggers the same visceral response.)
“I felt sick to my stomach as well, playing that scene out,” Bledel remembers. She was cramped in a van with about five people, and for technical reasons they could only shoot the sequence a handful of times. But the van door wouldn’t stay open to show the audience Martha’s violent fate while Ofglen watched. The only time the door stayed open is the take they used.
“It’s so dark and upsetting,” she says. “Thank goodness it’s the reason to tell this story, to tell a cautionary tale. Otherwise it would just be too upsetting, I think.”
That cautionary tale focuses with more specificity this season. While much of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book that the series is based on became eerily resonant following the election of Donald Trump, which happened when the show was in mid-production, season two no longer has Atwood’s narrative as a roadmap.
As topical as last year’s story was, the series is now able to craft a narrative from the perspective of today’s world, and target its message to resound in it. The circumstances of Emily’s backstory certainly speak to that creative mission.
In her flashback, Emily’s teaching schedule is cleared as “an abundance of caution” because people know that she’s a lesbian with a child. “So you thought it was time to hide the dykes?” she asks an older professor, who is also gay. “They can’t scare us back into the closet!”
It’s when she sees what befalls him that she, her wife, and child attempt to fly to Canada, where they are protected. When they get to immigration, however, they are separated and told that their marriage is no longer recognized, a reversal that happens literally that day. Emily is forced to say goodbye to her family.
“It’s just such a frightening possibility,” Bledel says of the storyline revealing why “it’s important to move our culture to a place of acceptance, because acceptance is going to be more enduring than even laws, which are important, too, but can be revoked and repealed.”
We ask about Bledel’s own connection to the gay community, which she says she constantly thinks of whenever she’s acting out the injustice of a scene like the one at the airport. “I am constantly inspired by the performers in the LGBTQ community, like the incredible Samira Wiley [who co-stars on Handmaid’s Tale], who I look up to and learn from her. I have influences in my own life, friends and loved ones. I feel like an ally to the LGBTQ community because of those personal relationships.”
She says the first season of Handmaid’s Tale was an unexpected ride, one that had her pick up an Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series, and it hasn’t stopped, with the conversations the show helped spark about women’s rights being funneled through a megaphone as the year went on and the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements picked up.
“It was an education I think to hear all of the insightful analyses of the show by journalists who were able to place everything so much more quickly than I did,” she says. “But this year going into season two I have a much greater awareness of the link between the show and the news.”
To that end, we ask her how her participation in the show makes her feel about the current state of the world, imagining that it could fall anywhere on a spectrum from defeated, to galvanized, to hopeful.
“I like to keep hope alive and err on the side of optimism,” she says. “It is hard, you know? It’s hard to do right now, but I try to look ahead and think that being vocal about all of these issues, the way that the press is, and maintaining awareness, which we’re all trying to do. Hopefully that doesn’t allow any of this to be brushed under the rug. Everybody’s making noise about it. I don’t know where it all leads, but I know that there are groups doing incredible work, like the ACLU, to fight back against some real-life horrific injustices. That encourages me.”