Janine (Madeline Brewer) is one of the most important characters in the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale.
A former waitress, she’s brought to the Red Centre at the same time as June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss) – but, while June remains silent and compliant, Janine challenges the Aunts in front of everyone. She is punished by having her right eye removed, and her spirit almost entirely broken; shortly after her punishment, she is seen babbling and hallucinating in the dormitory. June does her best to talk her round, but to no avail – it’s up to Moira (Samira Wiley) to slap her and bring her round.
“She does this again and I’m not around, you slap her,” Moira orders June. “Hard. I’m serious. Hey – that s**t is contagious. You want to see your baby girl again, you need to keep your f**king s**t together.”
Their treatment of Janine does the trick – almost too well, though. Because, when we see her as a fully-fledged Handmaid, she is smiling, and pregnant, and seemingly entranced by everything about the regime. When she births a healthy baby girl, she is rewarded with ice cream and a private bedroom, and the chance to nurse and sing long-forgotten lullabies to her daughter, Charlotte (who has been named Angela by the Commander and his wife).
When she speaks to June about her predicament, the reason for Janine’s hopefulness becomes clear: Commander Warren loves her, she insists. He loves her and her daughter, and he’s going to spirit her away from this awful place.
But in episode nine (seen on Channel 4 on Sunday 23 July) everything changes: Janine is shipped off unceremoniously to a new family, and subjected to The Ceremony/legalised rape once again, becoming Ofdaniel rather than Ofwarren. This time, though, she pulls away and begs for them to stop. The viewer sees her sob and shake uncontrollably – and it quickly becomes apparent that something has permanently broken within the eternally optimistic Janine.
It almost feels inevitable when we learn that Janine has stolen back her baby and spirited her away to a bridge, high above the river. And when June nervously steps up to talk her into surrendering herself and her baby, it becomes painfully apparent that the fantasy has entirely slipped away for Janine.
She swears. She’s uncharacteristically still. She wants to drink with her friends. She wants to sing karaoke. She wants to dance with somebody – but who would want to dance with her now?
Unburdened of the lies that she has been fed, free of the fiction that the Aunts are looking out for her, Janine is finally herself again. She tells June (and all of the Eyes gathered nearby) that Commander Warren promised her a real relationship, that they had sex beyond the ceremony, before bundling her baby into June’s arms.
And then, with a cheery, hopeless ‘Bye’, she leaps into the river, red cloak billowing in the water below like a bloom of blood. We later learn she has survived and is on life support – but, in a regime that punishes a woman for speaking her mind by taking her eye, it quickly becomes clear that the future does not look good for Janine, whether she makes it or not.
But what happens to Janine in Margaret Atwood’s book? Well, for those in need of a refresher or who have never read the tome, read on.
Fair warning: the rest of this article contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale, but, being as it was published back in 1985, we’re hoping that doesn’t prove too much of a problem.
In the book, Janine is a similarly troubled character: she was gang-raped and fell pregnant when she was 14, and had an abortion.
She later went on to welcome a baby girl of her own (rather than the son, Caleb, she mentions in the TV show) and forge a career for herself as a waitress – but both her daughter and her job are stripped away from her when Gilead is established, leaving her nothing but a government commodity.
At the Red Centre, she is quickly broken down and forced to confess her ‘sins’ – which leads to the Aunts declaring that she brought her rape upon herself. Her fellow Handmaids are forced to shame the emotionally-fragile woman until she eventually agrees that what happened to her was her fault – and that God had been teaching her a lesson.
As a Handmaid, Janine publicly flaunts her pregnancy in front of her former friends, insisting on going out to the shops despite the fact that she no longer has to. As a result, they come to regard her with a potent mix of jealousy and resentment – and begin whispering about her behind their hands.
It is rumoured – and heavily implied to be true – that the real father of Janine's baby is not Commander Warren, but her doctor, and that Warren's wife secretly arranged this to get a child (inspiring Serena Joy to attempt a similar thing with Offred).
Just as we see in the show, Janine goes on to birth a baby girl – Angela – while assisted by Offred, Ofglen and her other fellow Handmaids. The experience leaves her exhausted and emotionally drained from the experience, but Offred reasons that it is a price worth paying: Janine will never be declared an Unwoman now.
But Janine's triumph is short-lived.
We later learn that Angela, despite being a seemingly healthy baby, is a “shredder” and does not live much past her birth. Janine is distraught by this and the trauma finally, finally takes its toll on her mental wellbeing – which is made abundantly clear at the “Particicution”.
Offred, in her guise as narrator, reveals that Janine appears to have gone insane, barely reacting to the horrific events of the day and not responding even when Offred calls her by her real name. Indeed, she doesn't appear to recognise Offred: instead, she smiles pleasantly at her and wishes her a good day, before wandering off with a scrap of bloodied scalp in her hand.
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Janine's final fate is left unknown – and her role in the book is fleeting, at best. So why did the show’s producers decide to promote her to one of the most important supporting characters?
Speaking to Vanity Fair, Brewer explains that Janine is the ideal foil to June, because she “represents to the other Handmaids what could happen if you lose your s**t.” And, while we see June rise up above the noise and become intent on escaping the horrors of Gilead, the more fragile Janine succumbs to them – thus making her the perfect opposite player to our heroine.
“The opportunity that we’ve had with this 10 hours of television is we’ve been able to suss out Janine’s character a lot more [than in the book],” says Brewer.
“Along with many other characters – Moira, the Commander, Serena, and just everybody. But in the book, Janine is more a source of... frustration and kind of annoyance for the other Handmaids – because she’s the first one to get pregnant, but she’s also kind of bats**t crazy.”
Oh my stars, 13 nominations. I am so proud to be a part of this team. Thank you, Television Academy. Lizzie, Ann, Samira, Alexis, Bruce, Reed, Ane, Colin, Kate, all of our writers, editors, my fellow actors, all of these artists in every department; I am so lucky to call you my co workers and I am thrilled to bring Janine to life with you. Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum #TheHandmaidsTale
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Brewer adds: “Janine, to me, kind of represents [...] how someone can be broken inside this world.
“I don’t think her jumping off the bridge was necessarily [her saying], ‘I just want to die.’ It was, ‘I need to do something, because something needs to change.’”
It remains to be seen whether or not her character will make a reappearance in season two.
Images: Channel 4 / Hulu