Christopher Meloni is no stranger to playing interesting and unexpected characters.
Ever since he broke out on TV with the dual roles of bisexual felon Chris Keller on Oz and Det. Elliot Stabler on Law & Order: SVU, he’s gone on to play a vampire guardian on True Blood, reprise his role as Gene on the Wet Hot American Summer continuation series, portray a secret bounty hunter on Underground and appear as Elektra’s sugar daddy on Pose. Following his most recent series, Happy, which was recently canceled after two seasons, Meloni has signed onto The Handmaid’s Tale as a new, high-ranking commander, joining the ranks of season three’s stellar guest stars, including Amy Landecker, Cherry Jones, Clea DuVall and Elizabeth Reaser, who plays Winslow’s wife, Olivia. And like many of the characters he’s played before, Winslow comes with a few unexpected twists.
Now that Hulu’s Emmy-winning series adapted from Margaret Atwood’s celebrated novel has reached its halfway point in season three, things are only getting more complicated for June (Elisabeth Moss) and the Waterfords (Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski) -- especially as Fred attempts to regain his place among the commanders and Nichole’s return becomes the focus of this agenda. In episode six, fittingly called “Household,” the action moves to Washington, D.C., the highly conservative power center of Gilead, where audiences finally meet Commander Winslow and Olivia, who are hosting the Waterfords and June during their visit.
At first glance, the Winslows are everything Fred and Serena have been dreaming about. They have a happy marriage, a large house full of kids -- all fathered by the commander with various handmaids -- and undisputed power and rank in D.C. “The number of children he has is unheard of,” Meloni says. “He represents everything that Fred aspires to be.” Essentially, he’s like a lion at the top of a mountain, the actor adds, especially to the Waterfords, who are still rebuilding from the ground up.
While seemingly leading the perfect Gilead household, Winslow is not all that he appears to be. Halfway through the episode, a scene unfolds that can be interpreted in many different ways.
During a game of billiards, Winslow shares his admiration for Fred, whom he first doubted but admits to being surprised by his ability to reshape the politics around Gilead by involving Switzerland in his plight to bring Nichole home. As the game continues, Winslow displays physical affection, playfully tapping Fred with his pool stick and later caresses his shoulder, all the while teasing a future for him and his wife in D.C.
“He is first not sure about Fred Waterford’s tactics and then he respects him,” executive producer Warren Littlefield says, explaining that interaction. “Then there's affection, and then we're like, ‘Whoa, all of this stuff is going on.’”
While the moment suggests that Winslow might be a closeted gay man, or at least have some physical attraction to Fred, Meloni says it’s not quite as clear. “I thought of it as a nice touch,” he says, preferring not to get too specific about the motivations behind it. “Everyone has their own interpretation of it… It’s what your brain tells you it was.”
Another telling moment, that certainly has fans buzzing, is when Winslow gets extremely close to Fred in order to take a shot with his butt nearly pressed against his opponent. “I intentionally positioned myself in such a way and engaged Joseph in such a way -- it was all intentional,” Meloni says of his actions in the shot, explaining that he “thought of them as animals, you know, literally dogs sniffing each other’s a**es [to find out] who’s alpha.”
Framed nicely in the camera, the moment could have easily just been a bit of fan service since Meloni’s rear has been the subject of many conversations. (For reference, just watch this segment on Conan: “Christopher Meloni Has the Best Butt in Primetime.”) But the actor says, “I don’t do things so the fans will go wild.” However, he seemed to take delight -- laughing during our conversation -- in knowing it was appreciated.
Meanwhile, Littlefield goes even further to suggest that Winslow, whom he describes as “a compartmentalized man,” might not be straight. Or that there might be gay men hidden among the commanders. “In another world, who knows what that outlet might have been for Winslow, but we’re in Gilead. We’re in the most extreme version of Gilead in D.C. that we’ve ever seen,” he teases. “So do we peek at it? Yeah. How far do we go there? Well, we’re in Gilead in Washington, D.C.”
Whatever plays out between Winslow and Fred is just the tip of what’s to come from Meloni’s character, who has a big presence during the show’s D.C. arc. “If you were here to hate the Waterfords, then just wait,” he says with a big laugh, teasing a menacing presence to come. “He’s a man of voracious appetites.”
“There’s a great trajectory for that character,” Littlefield says, adding that his compartmentalized nature will have “pretty dramatic ramifications. It’s explosive.”
New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale debut Wednesdays on Hulu.