The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about women in an eerily plausible dystopia where men have taken total control. While the struggles of the Handmaids are obviously still the main focus, Serena Joy, Commander Fred Waterford’s wife, has emerged as one of season two’s most fascinating characters: She’s someone we loathe for her support of Gilead and its oppression of women, but someone we can’t help but sympathize with as she grapples with the monster she helped create.
That’s not to say Serena Joy—played by Yvonne Strahovski—wasn’t a key part of season one. Through flashbacks, we saw how she played an instrumental role in the planning of Gilead, even as her voice became more and more suppressed as the misogynist regime came to power. We also learned she’d written a best-selling book about her conservative beliefs, with the unsubtle title A Woman’s Place. (That was also the name of a season one episode which included a shot of said book being dumped in the trash as America transitioned into Gilead... where, by law, woman aren’t allowed to read or write.) We also got well-acquainted with Serena Joy’s dangerous temper—she’s not above physically lashing out at her Handmaid, Offred (Elisabeth Moss)—as well as her capacity for cruelty, threatening to harm Offred’s young daughter as a way to keep her pregnant servant in line.
Season one of The Handmaid’s Tale spent a lot of time bringing Offred—and the viewer along with her—up to speed on the general rules and customs of Gilead. Season two has had a little more breathing room, which has allowed a bit more time to deepen the show’s supporting characters. Handmaid handler Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) served as season one’s most prominent female adversary for Offred, and make no mistake, she’s still a wildly confusing presence that’s somehow both menacing and comforting. But season two has really brought Serena Joy to the forefront. Some of what we’ve learned about her has, again, come courtesy of flashbacks; her pre-Gilead notoriety as a polarizing conservative activist is explored in vivid detail. We see her gravely injured by a disgruntled gunman after one of her speaking engagements explodes into a near-riot. But her actions in the show’s present day have also shown what a complex, conflicted person she really is.
Serena Joy’s prominence in the story makes sense for season two’s plot, since Offred is nearing the end of her pregnancy—a baby that Serena has long been anticipating with surprising tenderness. Her desire for a child is so strong that, in season one, she broke some of Gilead’s most sacred, fundamental rules to engineer the baby’s existence, instructing Offred to sleep with Waterford’s driver, Nick, knowing that Fred is infertile. Her desire to protect the baby is impressively fierce, and it plays into the difficult position she’s forced herself into, which is that she’s a control freak who has very little to control beyond her immediate environment. And even that can be difficult, with a Handmaid who’s so strong-willed and obviously highly intelligent.
When Serena can’t control a situation, she exerts what tiny influence she has to get what she wants—like nudging the Commander into seeking a new position for Nick, who has obviously taken a romantic interest in Offred. When that failed, she fully embraced the idea of Nick’s arranged marriage, bringing Offred with her to the mass wedding, knowing it would devastate her servant. Then, because Serena loves a good knife-twist, she makes a remark to Offred about how handsome Nick looks up on stage. In truth, we could all tell that Nick looked like he was going to barf, which is the go-to expression for anyone who’s in over their head in Gilead, but the moment was one of Serena Joy’s greatest gloats ever.
Serena’s relationship with Offred is highly fraught, but—in a place like Gilead, where the balance of power is very delicate, and even benign social interactions tend to be filled with veiled threats—her relationships with other women are also quite tense. Aunt Lydia, the only woman who has anything resembling clout in Gilead, has the same goal as Serena: to make sure Offred has a healthy baby. But Aunt Lydia is also well aware that the Waterford mansion is a high-stress environment; after all, the Handmaid before Offred committed suicide. Her digs at Serena can seem small, or sometimes even helpful, like when she insists the “expectant mother” quit smoking. But they wound the small shreds of pride that Serena clings to, and you can tell that Serena dreads Aunt Lydia’s visits, which are just as much a check-up on Serena’s attitude as they are on the health of Offred and the baby. Serena Joy’s face when she sees Aunt Lydia using a pencil, a special privilege for certain Aunts, is a classic Serena reaction. We don’t need an Offred-style voice-over for Serena to reveal her inner thoughts; there’s no mistaking that exquisite blend of utter disgust and raging envy. We see it over and over every time, for instance, she encounters her “friend” Naomi, a fellow Commander’s wife who, to Serena’s consternation, clearly loathes every minute of motherhood.
And yet, despite all the terrible things we’ve seen Serena do, The Handmaid’s Tale is careful to show that she’s not a complete monster. The powerful men on the show, especially Commander Waterford, are by and large irredeemable asshats. But Serena’s not a one-note villain. She’s got some tricky layers. Though she sometimes takes risks you wouldn’t expect, they all make a certain kind of sense when you think about her priorities. She forges documents so that the Gilead’s top baby doctor (a woman who’s been forced into a career change, and is now a housekeeper) can try and help Naomi Putnam’s seriously ill infant. When her husband is recovering from the injuries he sustained in the terrorist bombing, Serena taps into her long-repressed brain juice and helps keep his work going, knowing that his rivals will strike at the first sign of weakness. Then, she gets really bold, and starts drafting new policies, with the help of Offred... who used to be an accomplished editor named June.
As Offred herself marvels, the two women work well together. In a parallel universe, they could have been co-workers. (As we awkwardly learned in an earlier episode, in the time before Gilead, they both liked going for brunch at the same trendy restaurant.) But the clandestine new partnership crumbles as soon as Fred hobbles home, realizes what’s been going on, and decides beating his wife (in front of the Handmaid) is the kind of punishment this transgression requires. Even though Offred’s come to anticipate that every nice or kind thing that Serena does will be swiftly followed by something severe and mean just to be mean, seeing Serena pummeled by the Commander makes an already-fucked up situation even worse.
However, it would be a disservice to Strahovski’s expressive acting to say that Serena’s beating is the only thing that makes this fundamentally unlikable character actually sympathetic from time to time. Serena is undoubtedly sadistic in her own way—but you get the sense that even though she is pro-Gilead and all the repugnant things it stands for, she maybe didn’t consider that her own feelings might betray her strict political ideals from time to time. Her small taste of intellectual freedom, and her horror at her husband’s increasingly awful treatment of her (as Offred points out to Aunt Lydia, and Serena surely knows, he’s absolutely going to be a crappy father), made the recent episode in which the Waterfords traveled to Canada such a clever tease.
There, we saw Serena not only reacquaint herself with what normal life looks like, we also saw her absorb stares and glares (and be handed a schedule with pictures instead of words, because NO READING) from people who abhor what she stands for. When she’s approached by an American operative dangling offers of “treason and coconuts,” as she puts it, you really just want her to jump on the first plane to Hawaii. Alas, she doesn’t take the bait, and she returns home to Gilead, resolute in her order that Offred will leave the Waterford mansion as soon as she gives birth. She’s also still determined to stand by her jerk of a husband and bring up her baby, who isn’t really her baby, in the oppressive world she helped create.
This week, we saw her double down on that commitment, in a particularly heinous way. When Offred went into labor, Serena’s relief that she’d soon be done with the Handmaid once and for all very nearly equaled her excitement over the baby’s imminent arrival. But when it turned out to be false labor—after Serena’d already gotten into her birthing costume, and Fred had started handing out cigars to the menfolk—Serena’s fury and disappointment made her a willing participant in an unorthodox staging of “the ceremony,” roughly pinning Offred down so that Fred could get rapey one more time. Ostensibly, it was to encourage the heavily pregnant Handmaid to go into labor. But it was really all about power, like so many things in Gilead—as well as a reminder of just how corrupted Serena’s soul really is.
The Handmaid’s Tale has accomplished a lot over two seasons, expanding the story of Margaret Atwood’s source material, continuously making us take a hard look at our own world. The parallels the show points out with brutal honesty, and exploring realistic characters who’re forced to grapple with a ghastly new reality. The fact that the Canada episode made us root for the odious Serena Joy is kind of a miracle—explainable perhaps by the fact that our hatred of Gilead has gotten so huge, any sign of rebellion from someone who could help rip out its foundation is someone we want to encourage. Of course, she seems pretty unlikely to do an about-face at this point, but there are still three episodes left this season for her to do something amazingly decent, or amazingly horrifying. Or, knowing Serena, potentially both.