The Handmaid’s Tale‘s Commander Lawrence has shown an extreme willingness to aid women rebelling against the show’s misogynistic central regime. Which is ironic, Bradley Whitford muses, because the architect of Gilead literally never sticks his neck out for anyone.
The character wears a scarf wrapped up to his chin in nearly every scene, a concept Whitford recalls bubbled up during costume fittings. “I wanted a brazenness about him, but I wanted it to be protected,” he tells TVLine, adding that he’d just watched a piece about the language of necks in nature (“Human beings in bars, when they’re signaling each other, expose their necks to each other,” he explains, demonstrating the gesture) and thought the idea could apply to his eccentric alter ego.
“I’d never had a more interesting costume fitting in my life, where it was all about the character, where the character could go,” says Whitford, who joined Hulu’s dystopian drama as a series regular ahead of Season 3. When we met Lawrence at the end of Season 2, he seemed like an offbeat hero: After Emily attacked Aunt Lydia in his home, he put the handmaid in a car and facilitated her escape to Canada. In this season’s premiere, he tried to do the same for June. (Read a full recap.)
But three episodes into Season 3, Waterford’s moves have thrown his motives into question. He turned a blind eye to the marthas’ use of his home as a stop on their network to freedom, yet seemed to hold June personally accountable when an injured escapee died in his basement. He mocked June in front of an assemblage of commanders, later deeming her “useless,” but then gave her an opportunity to save several women from certain death in The Colonies.
If Lawrence’s confusing behavior is in service of some endgame, Whitford says, even he doesn’t know what that might be.
“I don’t know where this guy lands,” he says, adding that the character’s complete arc was not discussed when the show’s producers pitched him. “They might know. I don’t think they know, and I kind of hope they don’t. One of the most fascinating, wonderful things about doing a TV show is you really discover as you go.”
Here’s what Whitford does know: His on-screen alter ego is reminiscent of former United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, “who was a brilliant thinker who revolutionized the auto industry at Ford and then applied all his brilliance to exterminating a couple million people in Southeast Asia,” he says. “It’s somebody whose massive, huge brain obliterates their humanity.”
But lately, “Lawrence’s humanity is peeking out,” Whitford adds, and June’s presence in his house complicates things. “It creates a lot of whipsaws. He’ll get very defensive. He’s also testing her. He’s out on a limb with her… He probably lives in fear that she’s not going to be able to handle this, whatever ‘this’ is going to be.”
Also unnerving? “It’s that [June] sees me. Nobody sees him. Nobody’s seen him for decades and is able to challenge him.” It helps, Whitford says, that he’s playing opposite his West Wing co-star Elisabeth Moss. “It’s really moving,” he says. “I’ve never been in a situation like this. Every part of the experience is in service of how we can show what it’s like for June to navigate this horrible situation.”