With its very premise mired in gendered violence, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale will likely never be accused of being lighthearted. Still, Season 4 brought some level of catharsis as central characters found asylum in Canada away from the horrors of Gilead. As many trauma survivors may relate, being physically safe doesn’t mean being psychologically sound, and we’re left to wonder if June will ever truly be able to move on from what she experienced there.
When it comes to dealing with the after effects of trauma, perhaps no character is quite as mired in the process as June’s friend, Emily Malek. Appearing in the original novel only briefly, her state-imposed title of Ofglen is her only known name, making her a Handmaid’s character built more by the series than the book. Even as we meet Emily in Season 1, we see someone who is dedicated to bringing Gilead down at all costs. As Emily’s portrayer Alexis Bledel stepped away from the role after season 4 for reasons unknown, her story appears to have drawn to a close, but there are plenty of questions left in its wake.
In the Season 5 premiere, we hear that Emily has gone back to Gilead from her wife, Sylvia (Clea DuVall). June is stunned, but Sylvia is resigned, saying that “hating the right people” would not bring Emily back. Their conversation is strained, with Sylvia pointing out the uselessness of worrying about someone who has actively chosen to throw herself back into the fire. June asks that if Emily contacts Sylvia she will tell her, to which Sylvia scoffs, “No.” This effectively ends Emily’s time on the show, but the impact of her departure leaves June reeling.
Margaret Atwood’s novel introduced Ofglen as a seemingly pious devotee to the oppressive system that has left her a handmaid, only to reveal herself as a revolutionary working to destroy the system from within. June never learns her name or anything about her, which left the door open for the series to create a fascinatingly layered character that still very much exhibited the traits of subterfuge and hidden resentment that defined Ofglen. Here, her loyalty to June increases tenfold, as does June’s to her, with their friendship established early on as one of the more interesting character dynamics of the series. In June, Emily sees an ally, but she also sees who she is fighting for, and who she is trying to protect.
In Season 1, Emily suffers one of the most violent attacks in a series known for its ruthlessness, with her lover hung in front of her and her body mutilated to stop her from experiencing sexual pleasure while leaving her reproductive system intact. She engages in increasing acts of rebellion thereafter, consistently placing herself in jeopardy and leaping into action when others seem unsure of what to do. When she is entrusted with the task of getting June’s daughter to safety, she quite literally swims to Canada. However, once there, we see that she struggles to overcome the years of abuse she has undergone. When offered a return to her family, she tragically finds that she is no longer the person she once was. Even as her wife Sylvia tries to reach out to her, Emily is unable to share with her. Struggling to find a way to move forward, her past hangs over her like a heavy cloud.
Much of Emily’s story is rooted in specifically anti-lesbian acts of violence. When we learn more of her, we see a once hopeful college professor whose circumstances turned her into a lifelong political subversive. This made her a crucial figure in a series centered around a society with a built-in hatred of nonconformist gender identities but with an overwhelming focus on white cisgender heterosexual women. Emily’s extra layers of trauma show both the tenacity and activism of the queer community as well as the disproportionate oppression bestowed on them by a system not so far removed from our own. There is no removing Emily from her queerness, and in some ways, even her departure enforces this.
In Season 4, Emily’s story trickled to only a few brief moments in which she mostly played a character facilitating the stories of others. We see that, despite living with Sylvia, attempting to readjust to a life as a wife and mother remains elusive for her. Seemingly setting up a greater exploration for her character in Season 5, the first episode instead kicks off with the explanation that she has left Sylvia and Oliver to get revenge on Aunt Lydia, the person she holds most accountable for the atrocities she underwent in Gilead.
Removing Emily from the series is not ideal, and it may seem at first glance to be unsatisfying; a move made quickly, necessitated by behind-the-scenes casting changes. However, Emily truly struggled upon leaving Gilead. Even as Sylvia forgave her, Emily could not quite forgive herself, nor could she forget the actions that necessitated her crimes. There are things that changed her intrinsically, and given the very real option to go back to how things were, she found herself unable to do so.
It’s a shame to lose Emily, one of the most interesting characters the series has given us, particularly with no other character to step up and fill her role. As such, the uniqueness of her circumstance and what she offered the show only shines that much brighter. Even in the novel, Emily posed a fascinating counterpart to June, a study of action versus inaction. Her departure may be abrupt, but even in her absence, she continues to serve a crucial narrative point for the show; that of the revolutionary.