How Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy Waterford embodies the works of karma in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
The Emmy-winning Hulu original series The Handmaid’s Tale came back with its long-awaited fourth season and premiered with three episodes last Wednesday. With the third episode, “The Crossing,” directed by Elisabeth Moss, the fans could not stop talking about the show or the episode’s shocking finale.
The series, created by Bruce Miller and based on a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, possesses many complex characters. Its brutal narrative forces the audience to truly reflect on the subjects of female body autonomy, abortion, and women’s treatment in this society. The Handmaid’s Tale is an essentially feminist story, where the creators and writers turn women’s biggest fears and nightmares regarding their rights, or rather lack thereof into a never-ending, cruel reality.
Even though Moss’ character is at the forefront of the series, there is one character that wakes highly ambivalent feelings and messes with the audience’s minds. It’s Serena Joy Waterford.
Serena’s character, portrayed by Yvonne Strahovski, sowed terror and utter fear in June’s life as well as others living in her household. As Commander Fred Waterford’s (Joseph Fiennes) Wife, the woman, always dressed in teal, is more dangerous than she appears. When we first meet her, she’s quiet but stern. “If I get any trouble, believe me, I will give trouble back,” is one of the first things that Serena tells Offred (the name is one of many other ways to humiliate women, going as far as taking their own name – June is “Of Fred” Waterford). She’s extremely cruel, often verbally and mentally abusing the Handmaid. When she doesn’t yell at the staff, she spends time gardening, hate-knitting, or chain-smoking.
However, the truth about this character is far more complicated and sinister. Serena Joy made significant contributions to the creation of Gilead, essentially being the brains behind the concept of a hellish place where women are raped, brutalized, and forced to carry children who are then taken away from them. Before the misogynistic leaders took over the country, Serena published a book, “A Woman’s Place,” that defined “domestic feminism.” Domestic feminism believes that women should accept their “biological destiny” as mothers and child-bearers rather than pursuing anything else such as a meaningful career or a full-time job. The idea created by Serena greatly interested Fred, who appropriated it to what we see in the series.
Even after realizing that Serena’s idea was essentially stolen and she had no say in what happened next, we can’t help but think that if it hadn’t been for her, Gilead and its haunting nightmare would never have happened. In her selfish desire, she committed unforgivable crimes, rape amongst them. When one considers Serena, who could have been a great ally to women but chose to oppose them in every way possible, the thought becomes particularly bothersome.
The character embodies every toxic trait of a dangerous kind of woman – a white woman who despises others and seeks control over their choices and body autonomy because she believes the world owes her something. The desire to have a child of her own blinds her common sense, leading her to the extreme. She uses her privilege and position to harm, although she could have used it to empower. The idea of a character such as Serena translates into the real world. Although The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, it appears to be much more realistic to our society than one might expect. We’ve heard about many women who share very similar views and who exist on the pages of our history – Phyllis Schlafly, to name one.
To fully understand Strahovski’s character in the new season, we must consider her relationship with Offred. Serena’s treatment of June is entirely atrocious to begin with. The woman tortures her, taunts her mentally by allowing June to see her daughter, Hannah, but not talk to her, and does other heinous things. Most importantly, she is completely complicit in Fred’s rape of June while Serena holds her wrists. It’s possibly one of the most raw, difficult-to-watch scenes in the series.
The breakthrough in the relationship between June and Serena comes later when June gets pregnant, and both begin to work on fighting against Fred and other commanders. There are several factors for Serena’s unforeseen change. One is the murder of Eden, a young woman who was sentenced to death for falling in love with the wrong person. Another is Nichole, June’s child that Serena claims as hers: “How are you going to keep her safe?! What are you going to do? Are you going to lock her up here, like an orchid?,” June raises her voice in one of the scenes when she confronts Serena about the safety of Nichole. “My daughter will be raised properly. She will understand the word of God and she will obey His word,” Serena replies. “She cannot read His word!,” June exclaims. Both have one of the most interesting, complex dynamics in the entire series. Both, Moss and Strahovski, give this relationship everything; the commitment pours out of the screen every single time the audience see their interactions.
Serena and June’s conversations and exchanges only intensify, as it appears that the Handmaid has made the other woman realize that her daughter’s future in Gilead is bleak. As we follow them standing up against the brutality of the new order that one of them helped to create, our hope grows. However, everything has its ramifications. Even if you’re a Wife, breaking Gilead’s rules is a serious offense. Serena’s finger is severed as a result of her actions – the price for a woman who attempts to read when she shouldn’t and speaks out against Gilead’s male leadership. But the punishment isn’t over. Fred proceeds to beat her severely while June is forced to watch Serena cry out when the whip meets her body. The scene proposes a realization. Strahovski’s character may have more rights than her Handmaid, but she is neither happy nor truly free.
Strahovski does an outstanding job. She makes us despise her character and wish she was dead. We then feel sorry for her and hope for atonement when she helps June escape and gives the child to her, allowing her to live a better life outside Gilead’s impenetrable walls. But we hate her again after Serena accuses June of kidnapping baby Nichole and giving her to Emily, who flees to Canada while June remains behind. We understand that Serena will always be a villain. Her character will never be redeemable.
Serena and Fred are in Canada when the third season concludes. He’s being held captive for the crimes he committed in Gilead, while she pretends to be a victim, but she isn’t. But Fred isn’t about to let her forget. Nichole is taken away from her during visitation hours in the season 3 finale, and Serena is imprisoned for forcing Nick to get June pregnant and conceive a child (it’s good to remember that she did so because Fred is sterile. It’s a great offense to speak about it, however. Only women can be barren, according to Gilead’s laws).
Nevertheless, the beginning of the long-awaited fourth season begs many questions, especially after a big reveal that was not expected. Serena is pregnant. It would be nice to call it “a poetic justice” because it partially is. There are many outcomes for Serena Joy Waterford. One of them, of course, is that her privileged position may help her win, and she will walk free while finally having her yearned child. The bombshell revealed by the creators, first in a trailer, then explored in the episode, feels like the irony of the century. Nobody, neither the audience nor the characters were prepared for such an event to occur in Serena’s life.
There is another outcome, however, much fairer and much more satisfying. Serena finds herself in a very similar situation that she put all women, including her Handmaid, in the first place. As she discovers she’s pregnant, the former Wife is already imprisoned for the crimes she committed back in Gilead and may never come out of the prison if the trial decides this way.
In short, she may end up in almost the same position as June was when being in the Waterford household. She would be forced to be pregnant in the confined space, and then her child would be taken away from her while she stays imprisoned. Now, just like she and Fred Waterford did, the survivors will decide about her life and will have a huge say regarding her future.
Serena already suspects that she will have to work with Fred because the survivors, those who escaped Gilead, won’t mince words. She even goes as far as trying to manipulate Rita (Amanda Brugel) and sway her judgement in the newest episode titled “Milk.” The possible outcome for Serena’s character is still not as horrific as what the women in Gilead went through; however, taking her long-awaited child from her while she serves time will surely hurt Serena the most. This outcome would perfectly capture the works of karma and the fact that each action we take has its consequences and, sooner or later, they catch us by surprise.
We develop an eternal hatred for Serena as we get to know her from season to season, but we still try to understand her actions. It’s difficult to say what’s going through Serena’s head as she meets with lawyers and prepares for the trial. One of the things on her mind is undoubtedly survival. We hope that she will realize the brutal consequences of her actions, but there is no sense of guilt whenever she throws another Praise Be.
Yvonne Strahovski was born to play this part. The actress, known from Dexter and Chuck, contributed to creating one of the most complex, difficult, evil characters. Strahovski was nominated for her role of Serena before; for the Primetime Emmy in the Supporting Actress category in 2018 and for Golden Globe in 2019 in the same category. We had to wait quite a long time for the new season as the global pandemic affected the entertainment industry, but here’s hoping for another nomination and possible win in this year’s Emmy Awards.
Photo: Sophie Giraud/Hulu