Warning: This post contains spoilers for the “Late” episode of The Handmaid’s Tale as well as the 1985 novel.
Offred’s story in The Handmaid’s Tale is one of loss: loss of choice, loss of autonomy, and, above all, loss of family and friends. Individuals vanish with alarming frequency from her personal narrative, in most cases never to be seen again. Making matters worse is the fact that their disappearance isn’t accompanied by any sense of finality; there’s no corpse for her to view or tangible memento that’s been left behind. They’re simply gone, and their fate often remains unknowable to those who loved them. More than any of the rigidly enforced rules that govern the Republic of Gilead, that threat of being erased is what keeps women like Offred in their designated place. Even her regimented life is preferable to joining the ranks of the disappeared.
In a bold choice — not to mention a risky one in that it substantially departs from Margaret Atwood’s novel — the third episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “Late,” shows viewers what happens to one of the disappeared: Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), Offred’s assigned traveling partner when she’s out in public. After being mutually suspicious of each other for some time, the Handmaids found common ground in the series premiere when Ofglen reveals that she’s privy to certain details about the inner workings of Gilead. At the end of the episode, though, Oflgen vanished, replaced by another woman answering to that name. This switch also happens in the novel, where, in a rare instance, Atwood allowed her heroine some closure, with the “new” Ofglen informing Offred that her predecessor hanged herself moments before being taken prisoner.
As we learn in “Late,” this version of Ofglen doesn’t have the same sad, but mercifully short, end. Having been captured by the all-seeing police force, the Eye, the Handmaid quickly passes through what passes for a justice system in Gilead. It’s the first time in this version of The Handmaid’s Tale that we’re presented with a point of view other than Offred’s, and are exposed to aspects of this society that were previously left to the narrator’s imagination on the page. “It was exciting to know that [showrunner] Bruce Miller had created part of Ofglen’s storyline,” Bledel tells Yahoo TV about steering The Handmaid’s Tale into these uncharted waters. “I remember getting the script and thinking he had handed me the most amazing opportunity for an actor.”
Having been ripped out of the public eye, Ofglen’s journey begins in a gleaming white prison, her voice stolen by a Hannibal Lecter-like mouth guard that remains in place until the episode’s closing moments. “That forced me to make very distinct choices in expressing emotion,” Bledel says about having to give an essentially silent performance. “I had to be very deliberate and clear about what Ofglen is thinking with my eyes and my physicality.” Literally manhandled from the moment she’s ushered through the prison doors, Ofglen has no sense of what awaits her and neither do viewers — whether we’ve read the book or not. “Right away, I could feel her plight. Even though she’s probably the most informed Handmaid out of anybody, because she has information she’s not supposed to have about the Commanders, she has no idea what’s going to happen to her,” Bledel says. “There are things in this world that she can’t even imagine.”
It’s that fear of the unknown that drives Ofglen to bravely fight back with the only commodity she has at hand: sex. In the hallway prior to her hearing, she tentatively reaches her hand out to touch her male guard’s crotch, silently suggesting what she’s willing to offer in exchange for her freedom. And Bledel points out that if you look closely at the way director Reed Morano frames the scene, you’ll notice an “Exit” sign deliberately positioned behind the guard’s head, putting into words the thoughts that are running through her mind. “That Exit sign is just out of the corner of her eye, and she thinks, ‘I’m going to get past this guard.’ She’s still trying to find a way to survive, even though she’s fighting against such huge odds.”
Ofglen’s desperate proposition, which fails resoundingly, is all the more significant based on what we learn about her past when she comes before the court. Standing next to an already-convicted Martha, Ofglen is found guilty of “gender treachery,” Gilead legalese for “gay.” And even though the state views that as a sin that merits being “sent to an eternity of suffering,” she’s instead sentenced to a “Redemption” that turns out to be anything but. First, though, she has to witness what her fate could have been. Shoved into the back of a van alongside the Martha, they’re driven to a construction site where the other woman has a noose slipped over her neck and is slowly hoisted into the air via a crane. (While not explicitly specified, it’s very possible that this Martha is the woman Oflgen stands accused of “gender treachery” with. That would account for the way they clutch each other’s hands tightly while in the van together.) This execution plays out in one extended take, with Ofglen observing it all through the van doors — an effect that almost makes it feel as if she’s watching this horrific event being acted out on a TV screen as opposed to happening in reality.
“It’s all too real and doesn’t seem real at the same time,” Bledel says in agreement. “You can’t believe that it’s happening. I remember when we were shooting that scene, we had an issue with the van doors. One of them wouldn’t stay open — it kept closing. That happened a few times. We shot it two times, and in the second take, which we use in the episode, there was a small flock of birds flying around the crane. It was eerie. There was a strange energy to that entire day, because the scene is so grim.”
Even grimmer are the episode’s closing moments, when Oflgen and the audience discover what exactly court-mandated “Redemption” is. Waking up in a hospital bed in intense pain, she raises her hospital gown and sees surgical bandaging where her underwear used to be. Her mouth guard is gone, but she’s too stunned to speak: she’s the victim of genital mutilation, although her jailers have been careful to leave her reproductive organs intact. “You can still have children, of course, but things will be so much easier for you now,” Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) says, her voice dripping with cruel kindness. “You won’t want what you can’t have.”
“I certainly know that [genital mutilation] is something that happens in our world,” Bledel says. “It’s a really shocking practice. So when I realized that’s what happened to this character, my heart just sank for her. Filming that scene in the middle of the night in an empty hospital made it feel like a scene out of a horror movie. It’s definitely her lowest point, and Aunt Lydia only makes it worse, sending her even deeper into despair, shock, and horror.”
Will she find a road back from this despair, and back to Offred? Bledel neatly sidesteps questions about Ofglen’s post-“Redemption” future. “There’s a bit more, but beyond that, I don’t know — I want to know as much as you do! I loved working with Elisabeth Moss and Ann Dowd, and I love the scenes that Ofglen has on her own,” she says. “It was all great to shoot.”
The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are currently streaming on Hulu. New episodes will be released every Wednesday.
Read more from Yahoo TV:
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Postmortem: Elisabeth Moss on That Breeding Scene and Offred’s Real Name
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: Frightening and Bold
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Star Elisabeth Moss: ‘Fans of the Book Are Going to Freak Out’