'The Handmaid's Tale': Alexis Bledel on Emily's Unsteady Future as a Refugee (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
Of all the handmaids on Hulu’s Emmy-winning series The Handmaid’s Tale, Emily has had one of the most harrowing journeys seen onscreen.
Played beautifully by Alexis Bledel, Emily was initially a university lecturer married to a woman named Sylvia (Clea DuVall) before Gilead took over parts of the U.S. Her life is transformed after she’s unable to obtain a visa and is stopped at the airport. While her wife and son are able to get through, Emily is forced into servitude as a handmaid. Since then, she has been severely punished for various crimes. After she was discovered having a lesbian relationship with a Martha, she was forced to watch the other woman hang before being genitally mutilated. Later, she was sentenced to life in the Colonies, where she poisons a former Commander’s wife after running over a guard. When a resistance attack resulted in a shortage of handmaids, Emily was reassigned to Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), where she attacked Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd).
In season three, Emily has barely made it out of Gilead alive, managing to swim to the Canadian border with June’s baby, Nichole, after Lawrence helped her escape. “Right off the bat, it felt very different being outside Gilead -- almost like a different show,” Bledel says, “but then after I got into the work, I realized it’s not different at all given everything that Emily is battling internally.”
Now, Emily is trying to get acclimated in a new country, where she’s free but also a refugee. Gone is the life she had before Gilead and there’s no returning to it. At first, all she has is Moira (Samira Wiley), who is the only person who understands what she’s gone through and initially takes her in while Emily works up the will to reach out to Sylvia. To help her better understand the refugee experience, Bledel and the producers turned to the U.N., which gave her a “wealth of knowledge to pull from,” she says. “There was so much more than what we could actually fit into the scenes.”
One of the more emotionally charged moments comes in episode four, when Emily finally reunites with Sylvia and meets her son, who was a baby when they were first separated. “The expectation is huge,” Bledel says. While fans may have expected a tearful reunion, with the women running up to each other and happily embracing, what unfolds is a tepid dancing around all the unknown that’s grown between them. “Now they’re so far apart and it’s incredibly isolating and painful to be reunited,” the actress adds. “Even though it is a happy moment on many levels, it’s incredibly painful for everyone because it’s never going to be the same as it was.”
Even though they were excited to have the actress back on set, Bledel says her scenes with DuVall were challenging because she was trying to play everything Emily was going through and figure out if she was “showing too much or not enough.” She credits DuVall, who she says “has the ability to be so real on camera -- nothing is ever forced or overdone,” with helping calibrate her performance.
While Emily and Sylvia’s initial reunion is behind them, Emily’s story is far from over. “Just because you're free doesn't mean you don't carry the scars of Gilead with you,” executive producer Warren Littlefield says of “Emily’s journey to freedom,” which becomes caught up in the unfolding diplomacy and negotiations between Canada and Gilead.
In later episodes, she’ll have to atone for her past crimes. “She doesn't know if Sylvia will ever understand some of the choices she's made,” Bledel says of what her wife eventually learns about Emily’s time in Gilead. And, like Moira, Emily will have to figure out her place in Canada, knowing what exactly is happening across the border. “I imagine her being part of the resistance, for sure, but it’s hard to say exactly how that will play out,” the actress teases.
While the series is far from over -- producers have teased that an endgame hasn’t been formally discussed -- it’s hard not to imagine what the future holds for Emily. Given her journey up until now, which has resulted in many tears for fans, is there happiness in her future? “Well, certainly, just getting to talk to Sylvia and seeing her son again were moments of overwhelming happiness. So, I think there’ll be moments,” Bledel says, adding that the overall feeling of this season is a hopeful one. “Emily is fighting a fight within herself which is very different from the one she’s been fighting externally up until now. She has to recalibrate herself, and that’s the journey she’s on.”