Warning: "Handmaid’s Tale" season 3 spoilers ahead.
If you ask actor Bradley Whitford to unravel the mind of his complex "Handmaid’s Tale" character Commander Lawrence, he’ll compare him to former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
McNamara, who helped escalate the Vietnam War, was "interesting and cultured," yet he took his "brilliant ideas and systematically exterminated a couple million human beings in Southeast Asia," Whitford says. In 1995, The New York Times published an article detailing McNamara’s "regrets" regarding "McNamara’s War."
Lawrence, Whitford explains, has followed a similar route in the dystopian Hulu series. As one of the minds behind the creation of Gilead, he’s sharp, intriguing and slipping into a path of deep regret which may come to a head in the upcoming season finale.
"A lesser writer on a lesser show would you give you a much clearer trajectory and have their architect of Gilead have an epiphany and dedicate himself to the dismantling of the horror he brought," the actor explains, referencing the work of series creator Bruce Miller.
But in typical "Handmaid’s" fashion, Lawrence has been a challenge for fans to figure out.
Once a man who seemingly lived above the strict rules the regime enforces, the second half of season 3 has brought the world of Lawrence’s own creation crashing down around him. Targeted by Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), Lawrence has been forced to participate in the "Ceremony" (ritualized rape); he’s lost his mentally unstable wife to suicide; and he’s seemingly willing to leave it all behind to help June (Elisabeth Moss) and dozens of children escape.
Ahead of the season’s final episode, airing Aug. 14, Whitford helps bring us inside his character’s psyche. He sat down with us for the following conversation in preparation for the third season’s premiere.
Bruce Miller has said you can passionately, and endlessly debate Lawrence’s morality. How can we try to understand his motives?
Well, I could go on forever. This guy is absolutely fascinating to play. I think the whole point of his endeavor is to share with the world what it’s like for him to navigate a horrible, unfortunately, almost too possible, situation that women are navigating in parts of the world that we don’t have access to or care about. To do justice to [June’s] experience, it’s more complex than being a powerful savior. The most interesting thing that is most striking to me and that I didn’t expect is — it feels very moving and challenging when you’re doing it with her, on a personal level.
You’re this guy, nobody knows you, nobody sees you. She’s this handmaid and she sees me. She challenges me. It’s a phenomenal level of nonsexual, nonromantic intimacy. It’s almost I’m so in love with my wife in a real way, but I’ve disabled her. I’ve broken her with what I have done. I think there’s something hypnotic to me about this kind of bravery from these women which I think resonates with something going on with me I don’t understand. The way I am with Lydia and the other commanders, there’s a recklessness.
A recklessness like allowing the Resistance to operate out of his own basement? Why is he letting this happen?
He is in play. There’s a horrible shallowness to somebody who has created such a horror and unspeakable misery for so many people to be celebrated as a hero for getting one person out. I think it may be a way for him to slash his guilt. What happened specifically with the Marthas, Lizzie goes right into it, right away. He’s willing to indulge a little bit but it quickly got out of control and dangerous. As he says, this is a mistake, early on. He’s aware of it, and I think it’s really a sort of pathetic way for him to feel better about himself.
How trustworthy is Lawrence in terms of helping June navigate within this space?
There is an egotistical challenge going on that I don’t think I’m conscious of where it’s going to go. But I know I’m out on a limb with her and if we’re out on that limb, the biggest danger to me and my condescending patriarchal … way is, am I dealing with a sentimental woman who cannot make difficult decisions and is going to f— everything up by trying to get back her daughter? I’m not saying that’s legitimate. But, I’m challenging her in not an entirely unhealthy way, preparing her for what it seems she wants to do. If she wants to do this, she has to take the humiliation from men. She has to make these horrific choices. At the same time, there’s always something else going on because I’m just a defensive guy being challenged by a woman.