The Handmaid’s Tale season 5 premiere explains Emily’s absence after Alex Bledel’s exit, but it ultimately does her character a major disservice.
Warning: Contains SPOILERS for The Handmaid's Tale season 5, episode 1After Alexis Bledel's exit from the show, Emily's absence in The Handmaid's Tale season 5 is explained away, but it ultimately does a disservice to one of the show's most heartbreaking characters. Bledel has starred in the Hulu show since season 1, meeting Elisabeth Moss' June Osborne while posted as Handmaid after the fall of the US and the rise of Gilead. Emily's tragic backstory was eventually revealed and Bledel's character served as an emotional anchor for the series before she escaped Gilead in Handmaid's Tale season 2.
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Emily's story in The Handmaid's Tale seasons 3 and 4 served as a precursor to June's integration into Canada, as Bledel's character reunited with her wife and son and adjusted to living outside of Gilead. One of the main themes of The Handmaid's Tale has been an exploration of the different ways in which people process trauma and Emily has exemplified that as she processes the horrors she faced in the fundamentalist nation. It's not a linear process, and Emily has clashed with her wife Sylvia while trying to come to grips with her time as a Handmaid and in the Colonies. As Emily's anger bubbled over, though, she joined June in killing Commander Waterford at the end of The Handmaid's Tale season 4.
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With Emily's participation in Fred Waterford's death, it seemed like The Handmaid's Tale season 5 was poised to explore her character in even more depth. Prior to the season premiering, though, it was revealed that Bledel was exiting the show and, in season 5 episode 1, it is revealed that Emily has returned to Gilead to fight with the resistance from the inside. While Emily's growing anger was explored in season 4, The Handmaid's Tale season 5's explanation for Emily's absence rings hollow – while Emily is certainly angry, it doesn't make sense for her to abandon the family she only recently reunited with to fight with the resistance inside Gilead, a dangerous proposition that will likely lead to her death.
It's A Noble Cause, But Emily Deserved Better Than A Return To Gilead
While The Handmaid's Tale season 5 exploring the resistance is finally paying off a longtime thread that audiences have been eager to see, Emily's absence from these events as they play out onscreen makes the move ring hollow. The explanation leaves room for Bledel's eventual return, but given the nature of her exit, it's unclear if she would even be willing to. Writing Emily off in this way – in what is essentially a death sentence – removes one of The Handmaid's Tale's strongest characters with little more than a wave of the pen, especially considering that, until now, it seemed like Emily had no desire to return to the source of her trauma.
When June goes to find Emily at her house, Emily's wife reveals that she said goodbye over the phone before returning to Gilead without saying anything to her son Oliver. This goes against everything audiences have learned about Emily as a character. Even a scene between Emily, Sylvia, and Oliver could have partially rectified the decision to write off Emily in this way, but the show doesn't offer that. It remains to be seen if Emily returns in the future, and the show writing her off in this way feels like an attempt to leave that door open if Bledel ever wishes to, but The Handmaid's Tale season 5 fumbled in writing her off in this way. Emily, of all people, deserves a happy ending and this show is severely short on those.
New episodes of The Handmaid's Tale air Wednesdays on Hulu