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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Boss and Star Alexis Bledel Talk Emily’s Past and Post-Gilead Life

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read until you have watched the first two episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” season 2.

It’s funny how far a “pious little s— with a broomstick up her a–” can come given the right set of circumstances. In Margaret Atwood’s original novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the character of Ofglen disappeared as quickly as she came, hanging herself towards the end of the novel when she saw the van coming to arrest her so as to not give away her Mayday compatriots before an inevitable death. But in Hulu and MGM’s version of the story, her journey is far from complete even now, two episodes into the second season.

“When we created the role of Emily we were expanding from the book and we didn’t know how it would come together. We didn’t know what Alexis [Bledel] would bring to it, and by the time we saw how amazing it was she was gone, we only had her for a couple of episodes,” showrunner Bruce Miller tells Variety. “In Gilead you don’t always know what happens next, but in this case we had the opportunity to tell Emily’s fate and how it has affected her. She’s different than you expect her to be every time. You thing she’s going to be a pious little s— and she’s not — she’s a rebel. And then just when we think she’s nice she drives over some guy’s head.”

After sitting out the second season premiere Ofglen, nee Emily — named after Emily Bronte, reveals Miller — returned in a character-centric episode that expanded upon her backstory as a professor with a wife (guest star Clea DuVall) and son, as well as offered a deep look at where she is now.

Emily is living in the Colonies at the start of the second season — a vast nuclear wasteland that was only mentioned in passing in Atwood’s tome. She was sent there after finally snapping at the end of the first season and stealing a car to run a guard. Women in the Colonies work hard and die quickly, as the ground under their feet is rich with radiation. It is a place that Janine (Madeline Brewer) also finds herself soon enough, but Miller didn’t want to explore that world just with the story of a new person arriving there.

“Emily’s story was super interesting to us,” Miller says. “It was more interesting to introduce someone who had been there for a while. That was the very practical reason right off the bat to have Emily in The Colonies. There was also the Emily backstory that we had gotten hints of. She had a wife and a child, we knew she was caught at the airport — but we lost her halfway through last season. Alexis was only on for a bit of the season so I felt like she’s the face you want to see because she’s the one you haven’t had a chance to see for a while.”

Talks of Bledel returning full-time for the second season began after her character was dragged away in that open-ended scene in the market following her short-lived joyriding adventure. With Emily’s return comes another unique take on the way Gilead was able to so completely and utterly take over America in such a short period of time, even among the educated like Emily and her university colleagues — one of whom was hanged in a flashback for being gay. It’s through those snippets that viewers learn how quickly Emily’s prestigious and happy life deteriorated, and why in the present day she’s as hardened as she is.

“There are certain levels of trauma that are so harmful that you probably couldn’t become accustomed to them,” Bledel tells Variety. “The show depicts an extreme case of a totalitarian takeover, which thankfully doesn’t happen often in the real world. But it is a cautionary tale because there are fascist regimes that have taken over, for example, and are taking over in different parts of the world. People can go through a lot — Emily has gone through so much at this point. She is meant to be someone who is uniquely determined and so strong in the face of opposition and seriously a fighter.”

In one of the episode’s more memorable scenes, Emily and her wife and son are trying to leave the country for Montreal, Canada. While the couple has called ahead and brought their certificate of marriage to help the process, by the time they get there new law has declared their marriage unlawful and only Emily’s wife and son — who have Canadian passports — are allowed to leave.

Although that particular plot was crafted well before Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, the scenes were filmed after it, allowing the production team to use the real-world events as a launching point.

“The visuals definitely were inspired by the way the travel ban played out — a crowded airport filled with lawyers; what does that feel like in America?” says Miller. “We looked at a lot of pictures from the travel ban and that helped us understand how that would work [and] who would be there. Would ICE be there, would the US army, would it just be TSA? We also looked at other things, like the train stations in Nazi Germany and what does it look like for people to be fleeing from one place to another? We try very hard to think about what would really happen and adding those extra levels of realism make it scarier.”

“It’s such an upsetting circumstance to read about,” adds Bledel. “So while filming, the emotions came just as easily because it is just an upsetting thing. It’s horrible to imagine.”

Meanwhile back in The Colonies, there were other real-world events from which to draw inspiration, like the nuclear disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima, to expand and extrapolate on the brief mentions of the radiation-plagued lands in the book. In particular, Miller was left wondering what kinds of people would end up there and how they’d deal with such a fate being dealt to them. He was especially curious what it would look like if a wife were sentenced as an “unwoman.” Enter Marisa Tomei as Mrs. O’Conner, whose journey on the show was incredibly short-lived given the publicity surrounding her guest-star appearance.

Emily, who has found purpose in her purgatory by helping to ease others’ pain with her medical knowledge, appeared to be helping Mrs. O’Conner with medication while everyone else shunned her. But when Mrs. O’Conner’s condition quickly deteriorated, Emily revealed she had poisoned the woman to a painful death instead, doling out justice for the woman’s part she played in Gilead’s institutionalized rape.

“Emily has accepted the fact that she’s going to die on some level, because otherwise she wouldn’t be able to get through the day there. She’s decided to keep herself busy by tending to the sick,” Bledel explains. “She has also taken on this mission to dole out justice. She’s kind of working on those two things and she’s carrying around a lot of anger. This fury rises up in her and is triggered by different things in a sort of impulsive way, and she reacts to that. She’s vengeful at this point because of all the trauma she’s been through, which has been horrific and has definitely broken her spirit and hardened her to the point that this is who she’s become.”

New episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” are released each Wednesday on Hulu.

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