What Happened to Emily Malek? The Answers We Need and the Tribute She Deserves

What Happened to Emily Malek? The Answers We Need and the Tribute She Deserves

Paul Hunter
September 14 2022 - 08:55pm

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for season 5 of 'The Handmaid's Tale.' 

Blessed be the fruit! 

'The Handmaid's Tale' season 5 is back with an emotional appeal like none other. The first two episodes dropped Wednesday, and viewers across the world are already begging for more. 

Unfortunately, there's one cast member missing, and her absence is sorely felt. In May we learned that Alexis Bledel would be leaving 'The Handmaid's Tale'. There was no real explanation for why she was making her departure, just a prepared statement expressing her gratitude:

'After much thought, I felt I had to step away from The Handmaid’s Tale at this time. I am forever grateful to [showrunner] Bruce Miller for writing such truthful and resonant scenes for Emily, and to Hulu, MGM, the cast and crew for their support.'

The news left many viewers puzzled as to what would happen to her character Emily Malek, a series regular, who was expected to play a larger part with June now living in Canada. Instead, the show was forced to come up with a way to explain Emily's absence.

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Alexis Bledel as Emily, Photo Courtesy of Hulu

Emily's Character Was Going Through Changes

In the season 4 finale, Emily is present at the murder of Commander Fred Waterford. We can see her holding a flashlight in the woods, running after him, and helping the other handmaids tear him apart. It seemed as though she had changed. 

Before June's escape into Canada, Emily was starting to settle down. Things were quiet, and she was trying to heal. Then she was confronted by Aunt Irene, who turned Emily's former lover, a Martha, into the Eyes. Many fans may remember that in season one, Emily was forced to watch the Martha's execution while muzzled and chained, before being taken to the hospital where she was given a clitorectomy. 

Irene showed up at their handmaid support group, unable to cope with her guilt. She got down on her knees and begged for forgiveness. But Emily refused. She said there was nothing Irene could do to make things right.

June looking on while Aunt Irene Begs for Forgiveness, Photo Courtesy of Hulu

When Emily went to talk to Aunt Irene afterward, she found her hanging in a tree surrounded by medics. She discussed this in the handmaid support group later, saying that she was glad that Aunt Irene was dead, and she hoped the woman suffered for what she did. 

She seemed rejuvenated. She locked eyes with June, who was nodding and smiling. They shared a silent exchange, which seemed to represent an understanding between them. 

In Gilead, Emily was a killer. There was a palpable bitterness that you could feel coming off the screen whenever she walked by. She would say that anyone who supports Gilead didn't deserve to live. 

June wanted Emily to stop being the complacent wife, who focused on healing and moving forward. There was a world of atrocities just a few miles away, and they needed to fight. That's why Emily went into the woods with the other handmaids to kill Fred. She remembered who she once was.

Emily in Handmaids Support Group, Photo Courtesy of Hulu

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How Emily's Character Arc Led To The Events in Season 5

Warning: We're going to talk about that explosive premiere. 

When the first episode of season 5 begins, we find June in a euphoric state. She just killed Fred, and she's loving it. She actually did it. She runs out of the house, past Moira and Luke after telling them what happened. It's an emotional moment. Luke and Moira are frantic, but June is in a daze. She either doesn't realize or she doesn't care.

She meets with the other handmaids who helped her in the woods, like a loyal leader returning to her followers. There's respect. They care about this person, and they seem to feel like she brought something out in them as well. She scarfs down a giant breakfast, happy as can be, and even slurps down a vanilla milkshake. Things take a turn when one of the handmaids gives her a gun. They want her to go back into Gilead or get Nick to bring their mistress to the woods. June won't let that happen. 

There's an argument between them. June asks where Emily is, but they don't know. One of the handmaids fires shots into the air, and they all drive off as fast as they can to avoid getting into trouble. June makes her way back to the house Emily shares with her wife, Sylvia (Clea Duvall).

Sylvia and Emily, Photo Courtesy of Hulu

June bangs down the door, still reeling from the night's events. But nobody answers so she starts walking back to her car. She stops when Sylvia comes outside and calls out to her.

She asks where Emily is and Sylvia tells her, 'She went back to fight, I think. To find Aunt Lydia if she can. It's what she needed to do.' She says Emily called to tell her she was leaving, and that Emily didn't want her to wake up their son to say goodbye. They had their final moments on the phone, and that was it. 

June insists that it's her fault. She'll make things right, find Emily, and bring her back. But Sylvia tells her no. She's not going to blame anyone or hate anyone. It wouldn't do any good. Instead, she's going to cherish the time that she had with Emily, even though she knows she's never going to see her again. 

It's an extraordinary outlook. Any normal person would find someone to blame. They would hate June, lash out, or shut down. She just lost the love of her life, and instead of falling into the stages of grief, she gets back up and she deals with it. 

Before June leaves, she asks Sylvia to tell her if she hears from Emily, and Sylvia refuses. She just says goodbye. It's scathing. Emily meant something, not just to June, but also to readers, viewers, and filmgoers, and all we got was an angry goodbye.

Photo Courtesy of Hulu

The Loss of Emily Strikes a Cord

In the books and the 1990 film, Emily, who was only referred to as Ofglen, represented June's only source of hope. They were two slaves living in a world where body language or a glance in the wrong direction could get them killed. They were suffocating in this horrific dystopia, and they needed to survive. So they found one another, and Emily gave her a gift, something that June never expected. She told her about Mayday. 

She introduced June to the fight and let her know that someone still cared. People could come, save them, and end this hell. Fans needed that relief too. Gilead is bleak, whether you're there or on the outside looking in, and Emily was the only confirmed member of the movement. She was the sole light of goodness in that world. 

That was even more significant in the film and book. For forty years, all we had was that moment when Ofglen tells June about Mayday. The rest was dread, oppression, and the certainty that June's life could end at any moment. We didn't even find out what happened to June until the second season premiered, just that Emily offered us hope that Mayday could save her from the Eyes.

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Emily in the Colonies, Photo Courtesy of Hulu

Emily's Story Was Incredible

It's been five years since the debut of 'The Handmaid's Tale' in 2017. So much has happened, so it might be easy to forget Emily's struggle. But her bravery, her grief, and her strength are an inspiration. She watched her former lover die. Her body was mutilated, and still she had the courage to steal a car, run over a guard, and brave a radioactive wasteland. 

People don't come back from the colonies. Millions of women were sent there to rot and die. But Emily thrived. She was resourceful. She kept herself safe and looked after the others, and when she was brought back as a handmaid--a miracle to be sure--she poisoned her commander and stabbed Aunt Lydia. That is true power, a refusal to quit, and a refusal to be defeated.

Gilead mastered the process of grinding a person down--dominating their body, heart, and soul--until they believed that obedience was the right thing to do. Everyone eventually succumbed to that mindset, but not Emily. She was free. 

How could we not love her, especially after she finally got to safety? Who didn't get chills when the hospital staff in Toronto applauded the escaped Handmaid carrying a child in their arms? She doesn't deserve to be forgotten. She deserves to be loved. That's how we'll remember Emily, just like Sylvia. We'll relish the time we had with her onscreen, even if she is gone.

Emily Can Be Written Back Into the Plot

In the final trailer for season 5, we see June and Luke vowing to go back into Gilead for their daughter, Hannah. If Emily is in Gilead, they could still meet her. There is a chance. Alexis Bledel could come back, maybe on a temporary basis. It might sound like a longshot, but there's still roughly two years left, and a lot could happen during that time. Alexis could agree to another 24 hours in the studio. We don't know what the future will bring. 

Tune into 'The Handmaid's Tale' on HuluNew episodes will be premiering Wednesdays. 

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