Warning: This post contains spoilers for the “Faithful” episode of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Despite their puritanical leanings, the Founding Fathers of Gilead haven’t been able to completely eliminate sex from their evolving society. The ongoing fertility crisis makes procreation a necessary practice. What they have achieved is successfully removing the concept of romance, of pleasure — for men, and especially for women — from sex. Every bedroom encounter we’ve witnessed in The Handmaid’s Tale to date deliberately resembles, in the words of series star Elisabeth Moss, a sexual assault rather than a passionate coupling.
That changes in the final scene of the show’s fifth episode, “Faithful.” Leaving her attic room under the cover of night, Offred (Moss) heads directly to the apartment above the garage where the Waterfords’ driver Nick (Max Minghella) sleeps. No words pass between them as she removes his shirt and pants, followed by her own Handmaid habit. And then, they’re on top of each other, caught in the grip of a physical longing that’s been too long suppressed. Director Mike Barker makes the conscious choice to keep the camera on Offred throughout; Nick’s present in the room, but he’s almost incidental to her emotional (and erotic) experience.
“That scene, to me, is really about release for June,” Minghella tells Yahoo TV, referring — as he will throughout our interview — to Offred by her pre-Gilead name. “I felt like I was the least important factor. This society is so terrified of female pleasure specifically, so these moments of reprieve are important. That scene was simple to shoot [because] it was more primal than anything else I worked on. Mike is uniquely gifted to shoot such scenes — he’s a man with no filter. And Lizzie and I are very close and trust and respect each other. It’s was a very effective combination of people to tackle a scene like that.” (Fun fact: Barker has directed multiple episodes of Outlander, another show famous for its energizing sex scenes.)
That Offred chooses Nick as the person to release herself with is a decision that, for her at least, seems based more on proximity than affection. While the enigmatic chauffeur has been a source of fascination for her since entering the Waterford residence, she’s more attracted to figuring out his deal than his personality. (She’s also clinging to memories of her husband, Luke, who we see in the flashbacks that are sprinkled throughout “Faithful” revealing how they fell in love. It’s a storyline that also gives the episode it’s semi-ironic title: Luke was married when he and June met, and he left his wife for her.) That fascination doubles after Ofglen warns her that there’s an Eye living in her household — and process of elimination makes Nick the most likely suspect.
Sure enough, he discloses his status as a member of the secret police to Offred midway through “Faithful,” getting a jump on a revelation that’s saved for the final pages of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. As Minghella explains, the fact that he confesses this early in the series signals that Nick is far more into Offred than the other way around. “There was a lot of discussion about how easy that confession should be,” he says. “I like the notion that June has this power over Nick that causes him to make decisions that aren’t necessarily [ideal] for his self-preservation. The power of love is a strong thing.”
Nick’s intense attraction to Offred, as well as his equally intense survival instinct, are both motivating factors behind his decision to agree to Serena Joy’s (Yvonne Strahovski) proposal that he be the one to father the Handmaid’s child in place of Fred (Joseph Fiennes). So with his boss’s wife standing guard, alternately watching them and looking out the window lest any of the household staff wander into this illegal arrangement, Nick has his own “breeding ceremony” with Offred, and it’s about as awkward and unpleasant as her evenings with the Commander — a direct contrast to the wild, unobserved sex they both enjoy later. “It’s sort of a miracle she forgives me after that,” Minghella says, chuckling. “I don’t think that Nick is delighted by that scenario; he has real feelings for this woman, and it’s an awful way for that to be expressed for the first time.”
The exact nature of Nick’s feelings for Offred remains more opaque in the novel — a side effect of the fact that he withholds key pieces of information from her until the narrative rushes to its conclusion. With the expanded timeline, and shifting points of view, that have accompanied translating the book to television, Minghella had to make specific performance choices that bring the character into sharper focus. Early on, for example, he decided that Nick should have a very “militant” physicality that complements his status as a secret government agent, and hints at a larger backstory that Minghella says will be disclosed in a future episode. “It felt a bit like doing Kabuki theater,” he says of the character’s deliberate movements. He relies on them to keep his face expressionless, avoiding any flashes of emotion that could leave him emotionally or physically vulnerable.
Now that Nick’s Kabuki mask has slipped, somewhat, in “Faithful,” Minghella teases that more of his true feelings may escape as The Handmaid’s Tale passes the halfway point in its 10-episode run and looks ahead to the just-announced second season. “What’s amazing is that you get to the end of this season and you really feel how rich [the show] is. It’s full of discovery and revelation, and yet we’re just getting started,” he says. Being able to grow with a character over the course of these 10 episodes has been a new experience for the 31-year-old actor, who — apart from a recurring role on The Mindy Project — has primarily appeared in feature films, including The Social Network and The Ideas of March. (Minghella is the son of Oscar-winning English Patient director Anthony Minghella, who passed away in 2008.)
“I found it fascinating to be behind the story,” Minghella says of his first brush with serialized television. “I was really learning about the person I was playing with the audience, week by week.” In fact, he signed onto the series not even aware of the prominence Nick would come to have in the story. “I think Nick had only three lines of dialogue in the pilot script,” he says. “It was interesting to discover that Nick would become such an intrinsic part of the story, and a pleasant surprise to be given a lot of challenging stuff to do.”
New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale premiere Wednesdays on Hulu.
Read more from Yahoo TV:
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Postmortem: Ann Dowd on Aunt Lydia’s Mind-Set
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Postmortem: Alexis Bledel on Ofglen’s Plight
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Postmortem: Elisabeth Moss on That Breeding Scene and Offred’s Real Name