Season 5 addresses the actress’ departure from the series with an unexpected twist for her character.
Ahead of The Handmaid’s Tale’s return with season 5, longtime star Alexis Bledel announced that she was leaving the Hulu series. “After much thought, I felt I had to step away from The Handmaid’s Tale at this time,” she shared in a statement, revealing that she would not be back as Emily, a fellow handmaid who managed to escape Gilead with June’s (Elisabeth Moss) daughter, Nichole, and later struggled with PTSD as she resettled in Canada.
According to executive producer Bruce Miller, Bledel’s departure was not sudden. “It was far before production [began],” he tells ET's Will Marfuggi. “You know, Alexis had been doing this for a long time and she had been thinking and talking to her people, so it was all handled very professionally. Still, though, we have plans for the character and we had to do some pivoting.”
“I love Alexis. I’ve known Alexis for years, back from our Mad Men days. So, I love her very much. We were very sad that she couldn’t join us this year but I think she’s spectacular,” Moss says, adding that “it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to handle, I’ll be honest with you, because she’s such a great, fantastic part of the show. But I do think that it was handled in a really good way.”
As a result, her character was written off, with Miller and Moss explaining how they set up Bledel’s exit and if there’s a chance she could return for the sixth and final season of the series. [Warning: Spoilers for the season 5 premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale.]
With the series picking up immediately after the events of the season 4 finale, after June killed Commander Fred (Joseph Fiennes), it’s not long before she turns herself over to authorities. But before she does, a bloody June meets up with a group of former handmaids who reveal that, like Emily, they plan to return to Gilead and bring justice to their former captors and abusers.
Later, June runs into Emily’s wife, Sylvia (Clea DuVall), who says “she went back to fight, to find Lydia if she can.”
She adds, “It’s what she needed to do.”
When June offers to “fix” things, Sylvia tells her no. “She’s gone. I’m never going to see her again,” she pushes back. “She’s gone. I don’t need it to be someone’s fault.”
As it turns out, June was the last to know about Emily’s departure. When she goes to tell Moira (Samira Wiley), it’s revealed that they have people looking out for her and if she’s spotted along the border, she’ll be returned. “It happens more than you think,” Moira tells June, who is still in shock that anyone would want to go back to Gilead.
“Somebody has to come back, and Emily’s always been the one even though she’s kind of the quiet one sometimes,” Moss says. “She’s always been the one that is at the forefront of the resistance. She’s always been the one that makes moves.”
Prior to getting out of Gilead, Emily notably ran over a guard with a Mercedes in season 1 before eventually escaping with Nichole. Then, while in Canada, she suffered with PTSD as she struggled to settle back in with her wife and son. In season 4, she’s confronted by a former Aunt named Irene (Carly Street), who seeks out Emily’s forgiveness for reporting her relationship with a Martha to the Eyes but Emily refuses.
“She makes some wild choices and so I think the idea of her going back into Gilead’s very realistic,” Moss continues. “And it gave us the opportunity, which I really liked, to juxtapose that with June because June is constantly wrestling with whether or not to go back. And so, it gave us the opportunity to show what that looks like when you leave your family.”
Moss adds, “I think we handled it the best way possible.”
The real cost of Bledel’s departure, however, was how no longer having Emily affected storylines involving other major characters, including Moira and Rita (Amanda Brugel). “All the people had big stories with that character. So, when you lose that character, even though you’re still in the beginning of the season, it’s very difficult to pivot your whole story,” Miller explains, that they “had something juicy” set up.
That said, the door is open for Bledel’s return as Emily for the final season. “That character was not at the end of her journey as far as we were concerned,” Miller says, explaining that they “were mindful of that, from a practical standpoint, to [leave] that door open.”
New episodes of The Handmaid's Tale season 5 debut Wednesdays on Hulu.