When The Handmaid's Tale first introduced Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), we knew he'd be a dynamic new addition to the world of Gilead, we just didn't know how hard it would be to suss out whose side he was on and whether or not we could still like him after we found out. Neither did we anticipate how utterly electrifying he'd be on screen opposite this new, more rebellious June (Elisabeth Moss).

Now, three episodes into Season 3, the questions about his loyalty and questionable decency are even more impossible to answer. Here's a man who allows his Handmaid and a stolen baby girl to escape Gilead for a better life in Canada but then cruelly turns June into a bit of misogynistic amusement in front of a room full of commanders. He's the guy who looks the other way when his staff uses his house as a resistance base and then forces June to pick which female prisoners of Gilead are "useful" enough to save and which to send to the colonies to die.

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If you're confused about Commander Lawrence's motives, you are absolutely not the only one. That mystery is part of his allure, says Whitford, and it would be a mistake to try to figure out whose side he's on other than his own.

Commander Lawrence is really hard to nail down. As one of the creators of Gilead, how much does he actually believe in this regime and its tenets?
Bradley Whitford: My basic way I approach this was [...] that he reminded me of Robert McNamara, who prosecuted the war in Vietnam for President Kennedy. He was a brilliant guy whose big brain obliterated his humanity, and so he took his brilliant economic ideas, which revolutionized the auto industry, and applied them to the systematic extermination of 3 million human beings in Southeast Asia. I think that what is going on with Lawrence is that his humanity is peeking out and coming into play. There's a lot of slings back and forth. It's not a linear trajectory. I think he gets very defensive about what he did. When June really presses him on it, I think his point of view is, "Yeah, I'm not unaware of the brutality of this, but I would say to the world, 'This is chemo, and it's brutal, and you're welcome.'" That's where he goes, I think, when he gets defensive, but he says, "I liked Emily; that's the reason I helped her." And I don't think it's conscious, but I think, subconsciously, he is interested in these women in this vulnerable position, expressing their strength and bravery... In the first scene of the year I have with her, she says, "I can put you up on the wall. I could have you killed, even though you're a Commander." I think I admire that strength, but I don't trust it completely. I think, in my condescending, patriarchal way, I'm a little worried -- is her bravery actual bravery or is it sentimental, maternal thinking?

There's a tendency to see him as this sort of heroic or sympathetic character. Is that an accurate way to view him, or is it sort of misleading? Should we trust him?
Whitford: I honestly don't know. I mean, everything is complicated with him. On the one hand, it's wonderful that he has developed...through his genuine love and connection with his wife, who is broken because of him and what he has created. I think that was a window, was a way into him sort of questioning everything he's done. It's a little pathetic that somebody who has caused so much horror and so much brutality for so many women, it only lands on him when it touches someone in his home. I think it's still in play. She pushes back on me in a very interesting way that I think is culturally relevant. ... Designing this state, I think I'm able to sort of assuage my guilt. I think I don't know why I'm helping them get out, frankly... I think she is trying to lead me to my better angels.

Elisabeth Moss and Bradley Whitford, The Handmaid's Tale

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At this point, how do you think he does view the resistance and their efforts to undermine Gilead?
Whitford: I think there's something going on with him. The way he is with the other commanders, the way he is with Aunt Lydia. On the one hand, he is a privileged guy with a sort of unique, untouchable position in the hierarchy, but there's something about sticking his fingers in the fan that he's beginning to act out. Again, it's not a linear path, and he is constantly in play, which really makes it interesting.

Interesting, but also frustrating.
Whitford: I think that's what we want the audience to feel. It would be really nice to wrap up a problem like totalitarian misogyny with an unconflicted hero, but I think the whole point of this show, and something that we all feel some urgency about, is how do we share the full experience of June's journey through this brutal totalitarian state? I think realistically when people are in those situations, they're very difficult to read... When I would read these things, I'd go, "F---, is this just cruel?" The scene with the book, that's such an interesting piece of writing because there is a conflict that I am having in a discussion, a disagreement with the other commanders, and on the one hand, in that scene, I'm just uniting us, changing the subject and uniting us in a little entertaining misogyny... I think the other thing I'm saying with her is, "How much can you take, in general, and how much can you take without blowing?" Which is a skill I think she's going to need to have if this is going to proceed somewhere. I need to put her through this. I need to put her through choosing women in cages who are going to survive. From my point of view, again, I think he's clearly patriarchal, sexist, instinctively, and I think he doesn't trust that she's going to be able to do what is the next unspoken thing that I think we're beginning to understand about each other. I'm not sure what that is. He's totally frustrating.

We're seeing him play both sides a little bit, but will we ever see him actually choose a side?
Whitford: The short answer is I don't know. I mean, I really don't know. I don't know where it's going to go. I don't think Bruce [Miller, the series' showrunner] knows. It's one of the interesting and terrifying things about doing television, is you actually discover the character and what the character is capable of while you're doing it. It's a fascinating thing to play because instead of sort of narrowing your definition of the character down -- in terms of acting, you're often paring away and narrowing down in order to present a clear view of what you've decided about the character -- the exercise in playing this guy is opening up to the intense contradictions, which is, I think, what makes him frustrating and what I think is realistic, in terms of the kind of people, the problems June would be struggling with.

The Handmaid's Tale's Elisabeth Moss Previews June and Serena's Tentative Alliance in Season 3

Bradley Whitford, The Handmaid's Tale

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One of the clearer things about him is how he feels about his wife. How would you describe his relationship with her, and is she maybe the only thing he cares about at this point?
Whitford: I think he truly loves his wife, and I think that is real, and I think he is well aware of the fact that he broke her, emotionally and physically, to a certain extent. One of the most interesting things, in playing this, is doing scenes with Lizzie. It hits you. Something I didn't anticipate when I was thinking about this character, and it's very moving from the inside of this weirdo, is nobody has seen him in decades. She sees him and challenges him. Nobody in Gilead does that. His wife is so emotionally vulnerable that I think he's able to dismiss it, but he sees that she sees him. With her, it's not remotely sexual or romantic or anything, but it's shockingly kind of intimate and challenging for this guy to be seen. Nothing in this totalitarian state challenges him anymore. There's also just an intellectual's restlessness and impatience about him, and he has used these right-wing, religious zealot wackos, which I think he feels pretty condescending about, as a delivery system for his ideas.

How do you think he feels about Gilead's cruel methods?
Whitford: I think in a horrific miscalculation and sort of brainiac arrogance, he felt like he could save the world with his brilliant ideas, and it's very similar to the way Trump uses the religious right. They're an effective delivery system for a mindset that I think, actually, deep down, he doesn't respect at all.

New episodes of The Handmaid's Tale release Wednesdays on Hulu.

Additional reporting by Keisha Hatchett.

Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid's Tale

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