For the majority of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, one of the biggest audience questions was whether the drama series, adapted from Margaret Atwood's novel of the same title, would ever allow its titular handmaid June (Elisabeth Moss) to ever get out of Gilead. The show answered that question in the fourth season, so heading into and early on in the fifth season, one of the biggest questions shifted to, Who are the Wheelers?
Even though the show is now in the back half of that fifth season, that question is still very much on the forefront of audience members' minds. Both Mr. (Ryan, played by Lucas Neff) and Mrs. (Alanis, played by Genevieve Angelson) Wheeler have been seen on screen in quite a few scenarios already, but those scenarios don't reveal everything about them.
Alanis was introduced first, as an acolyte of Serena Joy Waterford's (Yvonne Strahovski) — so much so that she prayed upon first meeting the woman whose book helped paved the way for their new way of life. Then Ryan followed, which appears to be deliberate subtext about the power dynamic in their marriage. The couple living a Gileadian life in Toronto took Serena in when she had nowhere else to go, but just because they are devoted to the lifestyle she helped start does not mean they are buckling under her celebrity.
So, what exactly is their deal? For example, are they true believers of Gileadian ways, or do they just see a way to carve out a small, powerful sect for themselves in an otherwise big city? If they are true believers, why?
Here, Angelson and Neff talk to Metacritic to get to the bottom of it all. And you can get to know them as performers a bit more, below, too.
Genevieve Angelson: All I got was that prayer that I say when I see Serena, so I knew nothing. I made a strong choice, and apropos of having no context I just decided to do it a particular way, and I guess doing it that way was enough for them to offer me the role, but I didn't know a thing. I think they use the word "acolyte," but I had absolutely no context.
Lucas Neff: There's a certain standard of acting that you see on the show, and the first thing was, if you're going to do this kind of project with these kinds of actors, you have to be very conscious, very thoughtful, and before you even get to the more specific character things, you have to really be like, "OK everything is so subtle on the show, there's so much stillness, there's so much silence." And so, immediately, you need to invoke those qualities. It's a lot of thinking about, "OK well, what's this guy not saying?" Serena is kind of a celebrity in that universe: She'd been on TV, she's this early figurehead leader of the cause, she wrote this book, and all of a sudden she's in his house. Plus, she's pregnant, and when's the last time he's seen a pregnant person in person? How does he handle that?
G.A.: She adores her husband, worships him, finds him deeply attractive. I think [they] have total behind-the-scenes kink. I think that that relationship is very alive. But I also think that she is wildly intelligent and two steps ahead of him when it comes to a woman and how she thinks about her child. The dynamic that Lucas and I played with was that concept of his being the still, solid, sturdy pillar, and my being that life force — the wild movement.
L.N.: Genevieve and I had discussions, and I was very much like, "I think he's terrified of you." And so, for me, as in a lot of relationships, there's the visible power and then there's real power, and often in couples, the real power is something that happens off stage.
There's all these parallels to the storyline in Season 1 and 2, and there's this interesting thing of, Fred had this power, but he's also always in battle with Serena and you see him get more and more like, "F--- you actually." He sort of flails a lot and tries to exert his masculine authority to horrifying effect, and so, I saw a similar dynamic here. There's this very strong woman who he's married to, who he may not even like like that much. You don't know how happy these marriages are or what brought them together and what keeps them together. Sometimes in these religious households, it's much harder to separate from a toxic circumstance in some ways because there's this pressure to make things work when you have these external parameters.
G.A.: It's sort of like one of those marriages where it might be the husband's money that we use this to invest in conservative politics, but it's the wife who has the free time to really get involved with real far right conspiracy theories, if that makes sense. And I'm just using that as an illustrative example. But he clearly has a full-time job, probably in weapons of mass destruction, and her hobby is studying Gilead and Gilead policies. She needs him to pull the trigger because that's how things work, but she's the juggernaut behind it.
L.N.: [Ryan] doesn't have faith in the human element of Gilead; he's like, "These guys don't know what they're doing." But he f---s up constantly, so he's another guy who's very susceptible to the same manipulations and traps. But I do think, from an ideological standpoint, it does seem that he's more approachable if you come to him through the ideology. All his activities seem to be to increase the ideology's position and stature within Canada, within his realm.
He is very religious and it might be perverted in how it manifests in the way that he treats people and the way that he interacts with the world and with women, but I do think it matters to him to be a believer and to live by those things. I see him as a zealot — a man of real f--ed up principles. He really does think this biblical version of society is the real deal. But then in his actions, he doesn't treat other people well. I think that's the interesting contradiction in his character: He disassociates the way he treats people.
G.A.: Because there is a fertility crisis that is threatening to extinct the human race, we have been driven to dire straits, and Gilead is the only place where people are succeeding. So, do I want to do this on a normal Thursday, no? But under these circumstances, we better suck it up and do it, and women's rights are all fair and good, but if there are no women, there are no people to fight for rights for, so that's how I justified her doing these things.
You know how converts to Judaism are often much more faithful than people who are born to it because they've done so much more studying and are by the book? I felt it was a combination of that, but then also, because my character is in another country — not in a Gilead society — I'm still a little bit fabulous. So, let's do all of the Gilead social things, but let's do away with those hideous uniforms and still have a statement belt or a really fantastic pair of earrings. Once I got to Toronto, I locked in with Leslie Kavanagh, who's the costume designer, and she and I really started getting creative about Alanis. I really enjoyed having all of the points of view that were informed by Gilead with also all of the lifestyle and luxury of like a modern woman in Toronto.
G.A.: In the beginning, I am an acolyte. In the beginning, this is my hero, I subscribe to everything she does, I think she is the second coming. In the beginning, she's a savior and then there are these little chinks in the armor, specifically when she asks if I would like to step into my husband's office and make a phone call. [Alanis is] putting together these tiny little pieces of evidence, where [Serena's] actually doing things that aren't really by the book, and I'm a little frustrated, being someone who just studied the book, or confused as to why she's getting sloppy. Then she's not going to get married, or she's pregnant but she wants to go outside and break the doctor's orders, and now she wants to get in a car with Ezra to go kill June!? I tried to choose onscreen moments to show the person that I really adored is so not practicing what she preaches, that it's unconscionable and dangerous. And so, it's not just about [Alanis'] personal taste, it's about how much [she] actually believes that we're responsible for the future of this world. And the way in which Serena is purporting to be the leader of a movement that she would not herself be a student of is so vile to Alanis — it's so heartbreaking and disappointing and also irresponsible.
L.N.: I think he does experience a desire for Serena and an infatuation, a fixation, which is why he can't take his eyes off her — or that's how I like to play him. I'm constantly focusing on her belly and then back to her a lot because being confronted with the miracle of this living, growing thing is very overwhelming and intoxicating, I think, for him. He's drawn to her, but the way he's drawn to her makes him want to be more correct in his execution of things because he wants to impress her — but he doesn't quite know how to thread the needle with obeying his very frightening wife.
G.A.: I think that he has a fondness for Serena Joy that is both threatening and also [naive]. He doesn't think that she's capable of doing all the things that she's capable of doing. I don't want her to get in that car with Ezra because I am absolutely certain that the worst of all circumstances will come true. And he is constantly talking me off of a ledge [but] women who are trying to protect her babies could flip Mack Trucks. I am beyond wildly frustrated that I am right, but then, I'm always right.
The Handmaid's Tale Season 5 streams new episodes Wednesdays
Get to know Genevieve Angelson:
Angelson's first regular TV role was on House of Lies (Metascore: 63), and from there she went on to star on Backstrom (51), Good Girls Revolt (65), Flack (58), The Afterparty (72), and New Amsterdam (47).
Get to know Lucas Neff:
Neff first broke out as the star of family sitcom Raising Hope (Metascore: 76), and he stayed true to those comedy roots and instincts with starring roles on Downward Dog (71), American Princess, and Carol's Second Act (61). He also does voice acting on animated series ranging from Big Hero 6: The Series, to Monsters at Work (55).