Since The Handmaid’s Tale began to broaden its scope beyond Margaret Atwood’s existing novel, the nefarious world of Gilead has grown ever wider and more threatening.
That includes new characters in addition to new locations like the dreaded Colonies. Season 2 introduced Bradley Whitford as Commander Joseph Lawrence, an enigmatic architect of Gilead’s fabric who excuses Emily (Alexis Bledel) from the dreaded Ceremony and ultimately helps her escape to freedom in Canada.
In Season 3, June (Elisabeth Moss) finds herself in Lawrence’s employ, expecting an ally but instead gaining a formidable and mutating adversary. Where Season 1 dealt with identifiable heroes and villains, Lawrence is governed by the morally gray.
“This guy is absolutely fascinating, precisely because he is so filled with contradictions,” Whitford told Mashable at the show’s Season 3 press day. “On a lesser show it would be much clearer. It would be a guy who had an epiphany and is on the good side now, and this guy is much more complicated than that.”
“He finds their bravery hypnotic.”
Yes, this is a character who sends Emily to freedom, who lets Marthas run an underground resistance from inside his own home, yet who engages in his own sadistic, self-amusing brand of misogyny. He treats the dead Martha in his basement as a spill that needs cleaning and blames the loss on June’s perceived incompetence.
“The active state of this character is the tussle. It’s his humanity peeking out,” Whitford says. “I think he gets scared, I think he gets very defensive at times, I think he understands that what he has wrought has caused tremendous pain, but I think there’s a pragmatic emphasis in his brain that says, ‘Yes, this is chemo. It’s horrible and it’s gonna save you, and you’re welcome.’”
What Lawrence has wrought, specifically, is the Colonies themselves, a horror we witnessed firsthand through Emily in Season 2. Whitford compares Lawrence to Robert McNamara, one of the economic minds behind the Vietnam War. He deals in utility; the worst thing he can think or say about a person is what he eventually says to June: “You’re useless.”
Like Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), Lawrence is perversely drawn to brave and defiant women, but compelled by an urge to “stick his fingers in the fan.” They challenge him, entertain him — “he finds their bravery hypnotic,” says Whitford — but if they go too far in his eyes, he cuts them down.
Whitford and Moss both lay their acting chops bare in a scene where Lawrence, avoiding a bubbling argument with the other commanders, asks June to get him a book off the shelf. Since handmaids are forbidden from reading, June can’t even look like she’s found the book before Lawrence explicitly directs her to it. He draws this out, taunting her, forcing her to feign ignorance even though the entire room knows she can read. It’s a stunning power play and a warning from Lawrence, whom Waterford tells us “doesn’t like to be bored.”
“[He’s] testing her, which I think in his mind is serving a higher purpose than simply humiliating her,” Whitford says. “What comes off as cruelty from him, I think he sees a certain purpose in it, although it’s hard to distinguish because clearly he has horrific misogynistic condescension.”
The delicate dance between June and Lawrence, Whitford says, is central to both characters’ journeys and possible victories in Season 3.
“It’s a really striking thing acting these scenes with her because you realize … Nobody understands him. Nobody sees him. She does. And that is striking, and a form of extreme intimacy that is not romantic or sexual in any way, but … she is able to challenge him in a way that I think he doesn’t know how to deal with.”
“I don’t think he knows where this is going, I really don’t. I don’t think he knows how brave he wants to be.”
Catch new episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale Wednesdays on Hulu.