Handmaid’s Tale season 3 is deeply enamored with lead character June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss). At the beginning of this story she was simply a steely book editor trying to survive in a dystopia that seemed just a little too possible for viewers. But, over the last few years, June has transformed past those fallible human roots. At this point, June is more unkillable handmaid Terminator than woman. In a world with as many rules at Gilead, it’s often jarring to watch June run around town obviously rebelling without any real consequences.
June’s longtime friend Janine (Madeline Brewer), on the other hand, has never had such freedom. Wednesday's Handmaid’s episode, “Witness,” only makes Janine’s story more tragic — and reminds us she may be the series’ most underrated character.
When we first meet Janine, we know she had one child before Gilead’s coup. His name is Caleb, and Janine’s dream is reuniting her family: herself, her son, and Angela, her baby daughter born through the abusive, human trafficking handmaid system. In “Witness,” June learns that Janine’s fantasy can never come true — Caleb is already dead. The little boy died four years before “Witness” from injuries sustained in a car accident. That means that when Janine had her emotional first conversation with Angela in second-ever episode “Birth Day” — where she reminisced about Caleb as infant and described the baby’s big brother — Caleb was already dead.
It’s a heartbreaking truth that makes sense in the Handmaid’s timeline. Considering how large Angela is in season 3’s “God Bless the Child,” “Birth Day” likely took place about a year before the present timeline. Caleb had died about three years prior to his sister’s birth. On a relentlessly punishing series, this twist at least reminds us that no matter Gilead’s obsession with kids, “children still die,” as June says in voice over.
From an emotional level, it’s difficult to accept yet another terrible thing happening to Janine. She is someone who has already lost an eye by the time we meet her in The Handmaid’s Tale. Over the course of season 1, we learn her commander, Warren Putnam (Stephen Kunken), had began a sexual relationship outside of their monthly “ceremonies,” or state-required sexual assaults. Warren told Janine they would be together — Warren lied. That heartbreak led to Janine kidnapping Angela, jumping off a bridge, and getting sent to the hellish Colonies.
Although Janine eventually returns to Gilead proper, her life doesn't get much better. At the beginning of season 3, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) beats Janine senseless with a cane at a party. Then Janine gets repeatedly hit by a can during Ofmatthew’s (Ashley LaThrop) “Unfit” meltdown. The assault results in Janine’s bare eye socket becoming dangerously infected, leaving her in need of a multiple procedures and an eye patch.
Now she has a dead son, too?
However, there is one way Janine’s onslaught of pain makes sense from a story perspective. June is a character who has run away from Gilead multiple times, talks back to authorities constantly, and slashed a powerful wife (Yvonne Strahovski) just last week. Even June’s close friend Alma (Nina Kiri) tells her in “Witness” she is “really conspicuous.” Still June persists and makes even more demands as she goes. This time, she's looking to smuggle children, Gilead's most valuable commodity, out of the country. It’s a wildly perilous scheme that Handmaid’s Tale wants us to believe can work (hence all the muffins at the end of “Witness”).
If we’re supposed to also believe Gilead is as dire a situation as it is, there has to be evidence that handmaids like June are actually in grave danger. It’s not like June’s storyline is keeping that threat alive. In this episode alone, June defiantly looks commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) in the eye during an “inspection” while her fellow handmaid's stare at the ground in fear. That indiscretion should be an offense punishable by death or maiming. Instead, Fred offers June a favor in his mind.
So, there is Janine, June’s tragic foil. They’re both J names. They both had one young child before the events of the series. They both give birth to healthy daughters. They both have captivating green eyes that the Handmaid’s camera loves to settle on for long stretches of time. To keep Handmaid’s Tale from totally falling apart from incredulity, Janine takes all the lumps June cannot if she’s meant to keep her resistance superhero status.
There’s a reason it’s Janine who reminds June in “Heroic” that she has become unrecognizably selfish. It's because they're forever connected as mirror images of each other.
At least Handmaid’s Tale gives Janine a single gift in “Witness.” Although viewers know Caleb is dead, the increasingly fragile Janine isn’t forced learn such horrific news. Towards the end of the episode, Janine asks June if she has found any information on Caleb in the Red Center files hidden in the basement of the Lawrence household. June says yes, but mercifully lies. “His family was transferred to California. His mom seems super nice,” June assures her friend. “He lives on the beach.” Janine is so happy she could cry.
No one ruin the one nice thing in Janine's life, okay?