Alexis Bledel’s character will be returning for the third series of The Handmaid’s Tale – but how will Emily/Ofglen cope in Canada? What will she do with June (Elisabeth Moss)’s baby, Nicole? And will she be instrumental in leading the resistance? Here, we take a look at Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel in a bid to find answers.
We’re calling it: Emily/Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) is one of the most compelling characters in Hulu’s TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. And, as the third season approaches (along with Emily’s much-anticipated reunion with her wife and son), it remains to be seen just how much her time in Gilead has affected her.
In the time before Gilead, Emily was a confident and empowered biology professor – one of the youngest and brightest in her field. As Serena Joy’s rhetoric reached fever-pitch in America, though, Emily saw her livelihood – and her personal life – come under threat. So, after learning that her colleague and friend (played by John Carroll Lynch) had been hanged for being gay, Emily attempted to flee the country with her wife, Sylvia (Clea DuVall) and their young son.
They made it as far as the airport. There, stony-faced I.C.E agents informed the couple that their marriage was no longer recognised under the new law.
“Which law?” asked Emily.
“The law,” they replied.
As such, Sylvia and her son were able to move onto Canada, but Emily was forced to stay behind in a country that no longer recognised her human rights. She became a Handmaid, forced into a life of sexual servitude and surrogacy. And yet, despite this, she always refused to accept the authority of Gilead – and always instilled June (Elisabeth Moss) with hope, informing her about secret resistances, Mayday rebels and the like.
Emily was branded a ‘gender traitor’ in episode three of the first season – and, in a cruel bid to “curb her of her impulses”, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) oversaw the mutilation of her genitals in government-ordered surgery.
For a while, it seemed as if Emily’s rebellious spirit had been destroyed: she was assigned to a new household, given a new name, and was forced to censor herself on a daily basis. However, she later decided to sacrifice herself in a last, desperate stand against the Gileadean regime: she stole a car, she used it to run over and kill a Guardian and wound up in the Colonies as a result.
There, she made it her business to help ease the suffering of those poor souls dealing with radiation sickness – unless, of course, she saw them as an enemy to women everywhere. It was a lesson which Mrs O’Conner, a commander’s wife who had been sent to the Colonies, learned the hard way. Emily poisoned Marisa Tomei’s terrified character, then stood over her and watched as she slowly expired on the bathroom floor.
There, she made it her business to help ease the suffering of those poor souls dealing with radiation sickness – unless, of course, she saw them as an enemy to women everywhere. It was a lesson which Mrs O’Conner, a commander’s wife who had been sent to the Colonies, learned the hard way.
Emily poisoned Marisa Tomei’s terrified character, then stood over her and watched as she slowly expired on the bathroom floor.
Since then, Emily’s killer instincts have only been sharpened. Brought back to Gilead and assigned to a new household, the Handmaid struggled to come to terms with the reality of what her life had become, and wound up violently stabbing Aunt Lydia.
Thankfully, though, Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) – the very same man who designed Gilead – decided to help Emily escape the hell he had created for her. It was he who organised the van which spirited her across the border, and it was he who ensured she had a clear passage to (we presume) the safety of Canada.
She, of course, has been tasked with caring for June’s baby daughter, Nicole. And showrunner Bruce Miller has informed us that the unlikely duo will play an important role in the upcoming third season.
“We have not seen the last of Emily and baby Nicole,” “Emily’s a fascinating character,” he said. “Alexis just has brought her to life in a way that is subtle and complicated and strong and very believable and, A really remarkable performance. Subtle beyond subtle and just heartbreaking beyond heartbreaking.”
Miller added: “We have not seen the last of Emily and baby Nicole. And I don’t know that we’re gonna see Nicole going to her first prom very soon, Or Emily for that matter. But we have not seen the last of them. We’ll follow them on their journey after they leave Offred in the tunnel, in the finale, we will be following them.”
But what happens to Emily/Ofglen in Margaret Atwood’s book? 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.
Ofglen is, just as she is in the TV show, introduced relatively early on in the book. A seemingly pious, pro-army disciple of Gileadism, it is revealed that, just two weeks earlier, she replaced a Handmaid who disappeared inexplicably. As such, Offred fears her and finds it difficult to trust her. The pair exchange bland Gileadean pleasantries (“blessed be the fruit”) and walk silently together most days to the nearby shops.
As Offred points out, they are not there to provide companionship: they are there to monitor and report on one another. It isn’t until the fourth chapter that we get even an inkling of Ofglen’s true nature: after they part with the sanctimonious “Under His Eye” ritual farewell, Offred catches sight of her companion’s face – and sees her own hesitation and fear reflected there.
And yet, despite this, Ofglen remains something of an enigma – until chapter 27, when she and Offred stop at a store called Soul Scrolls (which is filled with humming machines that print prayer after prayer after prayer).
Ofglen, under the cover of her red hood and white wings, quietly asks Offred whether she believes God actually listens to the machines – a treasonous question, which Offred initially fears has been asked in order to catch her in a criminal act.
“No,” she eventually admits, taking the risk – and it is then, finally, that the women realise that they are able to trust one another.
Walking side by side and speaking out the corner of their mouths, the pair exchange information about one another. And, just as we see in the TV show, Ofglen soon whispers to Offred that she is a member of the May Day resistance group – although Offred often wonders whether her friend’s claims are true.
It isn’t long before Ofglen has recruited Offred to the cause, asking her to gather information on the regime during her secret, illicit meetings with Commander Fred.
However she inadvertently outs herself as a May Day member during a Particicution: instead of joining her fellow subversive Handmaids in clawing, scratching, and beating a supposed rapist to a bloody pulp, Ofglen dashes in first and kicks his head several times, causing him to lose consciousness.
When a disgusted Offred later asks Ofglen why she did this, the rebellious young woman replies that the so-called ‘rapist’ was part of the underground resistance, and she wanted to put him out of his misery quickly – and prevent him from spilling any secrets.
Her decision to spare her compatriot is enough to raise suspicions: the next time Offred goes to meet Ofglen for a scheduled shopping trip, Ofglen doesn’t show up.
Instead, there’s another Ofglen in her place – and, when Offred cautiously tests her for loyalty, it quickly becomes apparent that this interloper is most definitely not a member of May Day.
So, what happened to the original Ofglen?
Offred may be terrified, but she still attempts to prise some information from the new Ofglen about her friend. The usurper remains silent, refusing to comment on the subject – but, as Offred turns to go, the Handmaid seemingly relents.
“She hanged herself,” she whispers to a stunned Offred. “She saw the van coming for her.”
However, Atwood leaves Ofglen’s true fate deliberately ambiguous (just as the show does) – after all, the new Ofglen is hardly a trustworthy character.
Did she truly commit suicide rather than face torture and reveal the names of her co-conspirators? Was she (as we witness in the TV show) dragged away by the Eyes for a sham trial and sentenced to female genital mutilation? Or did she, as many fans of the book have already suggested, manage to escape into the underground, ready to lead the resistance from afar?
After all, it would make sense that the new Ofglen would not want to fill Offred with hope – and she most definitely would have been warned against sharing news of May Day’s growing powers. And we know (thanks to the book’s final Q&A’ section) that the theocratic Republic of Gilead is at some point overthrown in favour of a more equal society, with a restoration of full rights for women and freedom of religion.
Could Ofglen have been one of the key forces driving this societal change?
Well, quite possibly (in the TV show anyway): it has now been confirmed that Bledel will be reprising the role of Ofglen/Emily in the third season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale – and that, this time, she’s being bumped from guest star to series regular.
We guess this means that Emily will still, even from her new position in Canada, play a big role in the show’s upcoming storylines.
As Miller put it recently to Variety: “People are still leaving their children to go to school and trying to build a life, and Emily walks into [Canada] carrying Gilead with her. One of the things we’re exploring is that Gilead is within these people and it changes them forever, and a lot of the conversations we had with the UN in Season 1 about refugees was about how they resettle and what’s that like psychologically. To me, it doesn’t tell the brutality of the story of a place like Gilead if you get out of there and everything’s fine.
“That’s not the way it works. So for Emily, I loved the story of her in this season trying to figure out a way to be some version of herself again. We do it very measured. We’ve got Clea [DuVall] and Alexis, two astonishing actors, so we can really tell this story of this couple who doesn’t figure it all out. It takes a long, long time and there are hitches and starts, and you’re trying to tell a pretty intimate story and both of those characters are pretty private. You don’t want to feel like you’re butting in, but you want to feel like their story is progressing.”
Will Emily and Sylvia have a happy ending, though? Not necessarily.
“I’ve seen a lot of release reunions and they’re not always storybook endings,” says Moira to Emily in the third season previews. “But nobody’s talking about happily ever after, just after.”
Speaking about why she took on the role of Ofglen, Bledel told Entertainment Tonight: “More than anything, I just think about what roles I take on, and make sure that it’s really something that I feel passionate about if I’m going to leave home and go work.
“I just want to love what I’m doing.”
Images: Channel 4