'The Handmaid's Tale' Star Bradley Whitford Dissects Directing Season 5's Absurd Marriage Proposal and Memorial Shooting

Plus, the actor talks about how New Bethlehem is penance for Lawrence's part in Gilead and his wife's death.
by Danielle Turchiano — 

Bradley Whitford (center) on the set of 'The Handmaid's Tale' Season 5 Episode 9 with Elisabeth Moss and Max Minghella


Warning: This story contains spoilers for the ninth episode of The Handmaid's Tale Season 5, titled "Allegiance," . Read at your own risk!

It's been 15 years since Bradley Whitford directed an episode of television, but he sure made a mark with his comeback.

Whitford pulled double duty on the penultimate episode of The Handmaid's Tale Season 5, titled "Allegiance," by stepping behind the camera in addition to starring in the episode as Commander Joseph Lawrence. And it was a very heavy Lawrence episode to boot, with the Commander making major moves not only in working with Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) to propose an opportunistic union between himself and Naomi Putnam (Ever Carradine), but also with him trying to sell June (Elisabeth Moss) on his idea of society's future (New Bethlehem) after a devastating failure to get her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) out of Gilead.

"The most bizarre thing about this is when I got this opportunity to direct, which I was thrilled about, I assumed it'd be what we call a bottle episode — something that basically takes place in the studio — and that I probably wouldn't be in it. So, the biggest shock for me when I got the outline was, 'Wow, I'm in a lot of this,'" Whitford tells Metacritic with a laugh.

The Handmaid's Tale is known for its darkness — and the aforementioned situations Lawrence found himself in in "Allegiance," not to mention other events that took place within the hour, from Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) making a run for it with her baby, to Gilead shooting down the troops trying to get the girls out of the wives' school and a shooting at the memorial for those troops, certainly were dark. But in Whitford's hands, the episode also featured some surprising pops of humor. Perhaps most notably, the interaction between Lawrence, Naomi, and Lydia came with an absurd air.

"I was thrilled when I saw that scene because I know it's edging into a tone that maybe we've seen with Lawrence more than with anyone else, but it's the situation, not Lawrence, that's driving the humor," Whitford recalls.

"I don't think we've ever seen a scene like the proposal scene, and it's very fine line, which is a very subjective one. You never want to play comedy, but I know it's comic — and that clearly intentionally comes from the writer — because you're basically seeing this titanically arrogant, misogynist man be put off by being in this position," he continues.

As a director, Whitford shares that it was really important to him to include the "grace note at the end of Lawrence in the doorway" to ground him and his situation after spending the proceeding moments with Lawrence being "flip" about remarriage.

"He's rationalizing what he's doing, in terms of penance for Eleanor," Whitford says of Lawrence being motivated by his first wife.

That penance is also a big part of why he is pushing so hard to have New Bethlehem become a reality. He was one of the architects of Gilead, and he saw how it destroyed humanity in general, but more personally, his wife. Although he doesn't believe free society works — because of how it fell in their world before — he wants to take where they are now "from North Korea to China." But it's not solely a selfless act to fix what he helped break.

"If he is not using his position to rein in the horror that he created, I think Lawrence would have killed himself," Whitford says. "There was a recklessness to him in the previous years — those things that [June] got him got to do are incredible. She's been leading him, which I think is interesting, before he even knew it. But now — and unfortunately it's an interesting discussion to have right now — we're in this world, we're not going to go back, so let's see if we can stop the rape, let's get rid of the wall, let's connect ourselves. Coming from an economic point of view, let's show Gilead what economic power can do and not being as isolated, and then maybe we can rein this in a little."

Lawrence has another opportunity to try to convince June to see things from that side in "Allegiance." After the mission to get the girls out of Gilead fails, he calls her and seems genuinely apologetic. But he also uses the call as an opportunity to show her why she needs to ascribe to his way of thinking about the future of society. 

The tense conversation includes her breaking down and telling him she wants her daughter with her in Canada where they are free, but it also includes her getting angry and admitting to him that she watched his wife die and did nothing about it.

"My direction to Lizzie on that take — I think I screamed it across the set — was, 'Pretend I just said something brilliant and do whatever the f--- you want.' I was joking, but that take was very interesting to me because we had it, but then Lizzie's approach on that specific section, which, if you're reading it is an attack, is in a completely original way — a surgical gentleness that was amazing to me," Whitford says of the quiet calm, rather than raised voice, she goes for.

"We all need direction, but it's very interesting to me, as an actor and as a director, that if I had told her any conventional direction — 'Hit him a little harder' or anything I would have said to her — she would have been playing one piano. And instead, I think she's playing around with five," he continues.

Production on Season 5 of The Handmaid's Tale featured a lot of block shooting, with most directors coming in for two episodes in a row and shooting scenes from both episodes concurrently. But Whitford only directed this one episode, and because of the logistics of filming, which also included COVID-19 safety precautions, the phone call scene between Lawrence and June was shot in two pieces (his side and hers) with about a month in between. 

Yet, it wasn't just that 30 days that they had to think back to to find the right emotions when delivering dialogue. They actually mentally traveled back to the third season, when Eleanor died and Lawrence already had a feeling June was somehow involved.

"At one point I went off the script at the monitor and said, 'No, I remember that moment in the kitchen,'" Whitford reveals. "It's not in the episode, but it's one of the wonderful things about doing really good series television: We didn't have to act; it was non-performative method acting. We just remembered, three years ago, that moment. Lawrence, in that moment in the kitchen, wondered what happened but blamed himself for Eleanor's death."

Although Whitford left his adlibbed dialogue out of the final cut of "Allegiance," one element that was not originally in the script that he felt adamant needed to be a lasting image in the final scene was the American flag at the memorial.

"It sounds pretentious, but it felt to me like it summed up the show [and] it summed up the destructive farce of nationalism that dissolves in violence," he explains. "In our show, America's gone  — except for a tiny bit of it. There was something interesting to me about that profaned desecrated nationalism."

June attends the memorial and ends up taking an active role first in helping a young girl who lost her father when Gilead shot down the troops get through the Pledge of Allegiance that she is struggling to remember and recite. (The pledge, Whitford confirms, was always scripted. "I was raised Quaker, and Quakers don't take pledges, so I was always the kid who never said that," he shares.) June then, unfortunately, has to be even more active when shots ring out, and she dives on top of the girl to shield her from gunfire.

Those final moments had to be extremely poignant, but they also were extremely challenging. For one thing, Whitford is politically active around the issue of gun violence and counts Fred Guttenberg, who lost his daughter in the Parkland shooting, as a friend. In addition to the sensitivity with which the material needed to be handled, safety on set was also paramount.

You are not allowed to have any explosives, which squibs (used to trigger fake blood pouches) are, around children on set, Whitford explains. So, they had to bring in a green screen for the actors to work in front of. And when the children were off set and they were able to detonate the squibs, "there was a lot of math because you're shooting at 200 frames, and that means the whole thing lasted about 3.3 seconds, so you have to time the squibs at 1.7 seconds," Whitford says. "I was terrified it wasn't going to work."

On top of that, once he was in the editing room, he needed to perfectly time Janelle Monáe's "Americans" onto the sequence.

"I knew I wanted that song desperately. I hope people are aware of the words of the song: 'Hold on, don't fight your war alone,'" he says. 

The Handmaid's Tale Season 5 streams new episodes Wednesdays 


Get to know Bradley Whitford:
Undoubtedly, Whitford is best known for his role of Josh Lyman, the Deputy White House Chief of Staff on Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing (Metascore: 78). But he has had a storied career that spans genres and mediums and also includes memorable roles on Transparent (85), Trophy Wife (64), The Mentalist (65), and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (73) on TV, and in Get Out (85), Billy Madison (16), The Post (83), and tick...tick...BOOM! (74) in film. As a director, Whitford also did an episode of Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (75), on which he also starred.