Spoiler alert: This article contains details the first nine episodes of the current season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
In Season 2 of Hulu’s dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale, each character is going through their own version of hell—and Serena Joy is certainly no exception. Establishing this remarkable villainess in Season 1, for all her rage and cruelty, Yvonne Strahovski has masterfully developed the character in the series’ second run through a challenging, nuanced arc, as life as Serena knows it falls apart.
As Serena grows and changes in the midst of deep emotional turmoil, her dominating husband, Commander Waterford, remains very much the same. Indeed, there is no room for emotional evolution in Gilead. Seeing her strict religious ideals bend and break as she distances herself from her husband and the world she has helped to create, Serena must ask herself, who am I now? And what would be left for me if Offred’s child were stripped away?
Introducing some visceral moments from Serena’s past—where she is castigated by the public, before the dawn of a new world—Strahovski’s demanding season was complicated further by the fact that she had her own child on the way.
“Filming from [Episode] 9 onwards, I was in my first trimester, so it was super full on,” the actress shares. “That was a whole other thing that added an element for me this season of weirdness and craziness.”
Serena has an extraordinary arc this season. What has the year been like for you?
I’ve loved the theme this year. Serena’s learning what it actually means to be a mother, and how complicated that is for her, given that she despises Offred so much. Along with a lot of other feelings that she feels towards Offred, she loves the being that’s growing inside of her. It’s so complicated, along with the continuous destruction of her relationship with the Commander.
The pieces are starting to fall apart a little bit for her and her world, while the greatest thing is happening to her, too—the thing that she’s been holding onto this whole time. There’s a lot that they’ve given me this season, and I’m really pleased with it.
Serena is gardening a lot this year. That seems symbolic of a burgeoning maternity within her. Like Offred, she is finding her own patches of beauty within the darkness.
I think so. I think it’s also her opportunity for true solitude, for her to think and have time with herself, because still, Serena is someone who is so isolated. Unlike the handmaids, who you see band together, Serena doesn’t have that. She doesn’t really have a confidante, and it’s sad to watch her, in a very weird way, trying with Offred.
They’ve come together in the most powerful way that we’ve ever seen in the show, and it just sort of seems like they can only ever go so far, even though maybe there is a desire for both of them to go further. But they just can never do that. I always see Serena thinking, “Why can’t Offred just be my friend in the way that I need her to be? Why can’t she just not ever mention Hannah to me again?” I always feel like I’m used by Offred. It’s all those kinds of things, and she always ends up back on her own lonely island with her own thoughts.
Even as Serena seems to evolve, she returns to the vicious behavior we knew her for in Season 1. Do you think this has to do with her sense of impotency—physical and existential—within Gilead?
I think it’s definitely that, although perhaps she’s unaware of that. I think what she might be more aware of is the fact that she has no outlet. So anything that bubbles up inside of her, all those real thoughts and real human emotions that she tries to suppress end up getting taken out on anyone around her, including Offred—and Rita this season, as well, when she couldn’t direct it at Offred because Offred was carrying her baby.
There’s a lot of that, and Offred is always testing Serena. As much as we despise Serena and what she stands for in the show, Offred is always being very cheeky and knows how to push Serena’s buttons, and Serena reacts. [laughs]
What was it like fleshing out Serena’s backstory this season? The scenes we see are quite intense.
That was really full on, particularly the crowd at the university. They were so loud and amazing, and having to try and get Serena’s point across made me go back and think about where this whole thing started. She’s now such a despicable person, but where did that come from? I didn’t ever think that it started in that sort of despicable way. It felt like she was always trying to focus on an issue: Humanity is at stake. Our human race is going to be extinct if we keep going down this path, so what can we do about it?
I think she was incredibly passionate about inspiring women to keep with their biology and focus purely on that. Of course, it’s all embedded in her religious faith that she holds on to still. So if I can say that she had a pure, innocent thought to begin with, as hard as it may be to believe, I think it was that. I think in those flashbacks you get to see elements of that at various stages.
Serena’s ideology seems so fundamental to her identity, and yet we see her belief system breaking down in significant ways this season.
I think it’s all inspired by the idea of a child, bending the rules around baby Angela and learning that perhaps she can’t be the mother that she really wants to be within the bounds of Gilead, and therefore she must break those rules. I think there’s so many things that confront her this season, so many challenges. Is she going to stick with the formal, rigid rules of Gilead, or is she going to break them and do something else? I think right now, what we’re seeing is her giving in to breaking the rules and going against the life that she’s accepted for herself for the sake of another life. And I think that it’s great because it’s so challenging to go up against the box that you live in with the pretty bow around it. It’s not very pretty, but she’s accepted it and she’s gone along with it for the greater good.
But here we are seeing the pretty box crumble, and the bow is coming undone. I think really it’s all about that life inside of Offred that she so yearns for, and so wishes that she could have herself.
Do you think the child growing within Offred is the only reason Serena tries at connecting with her? It seems like her thinking about the treatment of women in Gilead may be evolving.
I think you’re definitely hitting on something. Everything traces back to a life force that was created inside of a woman, and there’s got to be those kinds of unconscious leaks happening right now, where it is affecting the way that she’s treating other people, especially other women. At this point, Serena would’ve had to pose the question, “What if I have a girl? How is my little boy or little girl going to be treated, growing up in Gilead? Is anybody safe in Gilead?”
Clearly, she’s not even safe. She’s a woman of power at the top of the food chain in Gilead, but look at what happens to her. I think all of these questions are floating around in her mind right now, influencing the way that she’s treating Offred and anyone else.
It’s fascinating to examine the episodes in Canada, where the social hierarchy of Gilead doesn’t apply. Here, Serena is viewed as an alien—‘the other’.
That was another set of really interesting circumstances that confront her ideology and the little box that she’s accepted. Canada’s such a huge deal. You’ve got that alien world that she feels completely not a part of, that she once was a part of. She once did wear normal clothing. She once could’ve walked the streets of Canada and totally fit in, and she’s made a choice to not do that anymore.
Then, you’ve got the confronting scene with the guy who sits down with her at the restaurant. There’s a whole other element there that I think sparks something in Serena when you have a male speaking to her, an attractive male, someone who is curious about her and is paying her some level of attention.
Then, you have the moment in the car, when Moira bangs on the window, and Serena realizes that there’s yet another woman involved in the Commander’s secret life. I think it’s just one slap after another, and there is so much to process from that trip. It’s unlike anything she’s experienced in a very long time.
As we’ve seen, Serena has been offered a way out of Gilead. Is there a world in which she would take that opportunity?
I think [that moment] did make a mark on her, and as we go along, we’ll continue to see Serena challenged, and unraveling, to whichever extent we see that happen—without giving things away.
Serena and Commander Waterford are on totally different wavelengths this season. That beating scene can’t have been easy to shoot.
I think that is the ultimate separation right there, for her feelings towards the Commander. Ultimately, he ended up doing that because she went behind his back and she technically did something wrong, but why was she doing something wrong? She was doing something for the sake of a child, and to see the Commander punish that and turn his back on her and ultimately turn his back on a child, I think really sealed the deal for her. I think that’s part of the devastation.
It’s not just the degradation and the shame of the moment. It’s the ultimate loss of how he turned his back on a child, and the despair that she feels in that moment for her own coming child, and what that means for her as a mother, married to somebody who is going to be the father of this child. I think it’s absolutely devastating.
On the day, the scene was really intense, and even in the rehearsal when we just walked it through without much feeling to it, I remember hearing the crew members kind of audibly react—like, “Oh god, this is a lot”.
At one point in Season 2, June says—in voiceover—“I thought she could be decent.” Do you see a road to redemption for Serena?
There is always that potential. I think the things that hold her back, ultimately, is the very thing that is keeping her going. She’s holding on to this idea of the baby and the idealism around that. But if that were to be taken away from her, then what is she left with? Especially now that we see the ultimate demise of her and the Commander’s relationship. What does she really have left if the idea of having a baby was completely taken away from her? Where does she stand?
She would have her faith left, which seems to be the one remaining thing that she holds on to, but even that has to be questioned within these circumstances at this point. So I think it’s a very complicated time for her.