SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “After,” the seventh episode of the second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Yvonne Strahovski’s character in “The Handmaid’s Tale” might be named Serena Joy, but there is very little in her Gilead life that is actually joyful.
Although the actress admits that Serena has it better than most women in the new, dystopian society, she has still been stripped of the voice, passion, and power she had in her regular life, years before. With her husband Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) stuck in the hospital, being treated for injuries sustained post-handmaid suicide bombing, Serena is reclaiming a little bit of her past self — though in secret.
Acting as Fred, she drafted new security orders — and even enlisted June/Offred’s (Elisabeth Moss) help in the project. On the one hand, her actions cement his strength by looking to the rest of the world like he’s still capable of doing his job, but on the other, they exemplify her own ability to make tough decisions in a time of need. And what at first glance seemed like it may have just been a test for her handmaid turned out to be a genuine olive branch.
“She really does need somebody,” Strahovski tells Variety of Serena. “Any human, when you’re in such isolation from humanity, [would]. Ultimately the goal is to get the household back together because without Fred, God knows what would happen to Serena…but she is trying to be a bit more friendly with Offred.”
Here, Strahovski talks with Variety about Serena and Fred’s pre-Gilead relationship, Serena’s new power play, and whether or not she personally finds hope in the story the way Serena finds hope in June’s baby.
How did learning Serena and Fred’s backstory — that he was once very supportive of her work and at times even the driving force for her to use her voice — affect what you had previously worked out in your mind about their relationship?
It’s always weird to get their backstory. It almost feels like we’re shooting a completely different [project] in a way when we go back in time and we wear normal clothes. I think their relationship was far more normal. I think there was a genuine sense of love between them — and passion and respect. I think Fred recognized in Serena that she was a very capable, incredible woman who was passionate about something and able to be a spokeswoman and able to articulate herself. And she was smart, so I think he encouraged her and pushed her out into the limelight to be that spokeswoman that he recognized — and admired — in her. There was much more of a back and forth between them. Serena could run the show and could talk back to him and shut him down when he was suggesting things. Obviously that’s incredibly different now, which is partly why you see such bitterness and misery in the character of Serena now. Her relationship has continued to diminish throughout the time that we’ve seen in season 1 and throughout season 2.
How much of their old relationship do you think Fred and Serena allowed to creep into Gilead, behind closed doors?
When they first moved in, I think they broke the rules. I think they totally hung out in her bedroom and did stuff they shouldn’t have been doing in Gilead. They did have fun. But slowly that corruption, that power, that greed took over the Commander, and Gilead started to do what it does best — and that is pit everyone against everyone. You can’t really have an ally.
Speaking of allies, where does her relationship with June stand now after she entrusts her with the documents?
I do think it’s genuine at the moment. I do think she needs somebody. God knows what’s going to happen between her and Fred — she’s still really isolated — and that slowly gets to you after awhile. But it’s hard with Offred because although she does try to be a little more friendly with her, then Offred goes and asks to see her kid, which is like a slap in the face.
How dangerous is what Serena is doing right now — signing Fred’s name onto something which he may not approve of or with which he may not agree?
I think there still is an element of feeling safe at that point — just because they do have somewhat of an alliance, just in terms of you know how it’s kind of implied they set up the marriage of Nick and Eden. It’s those little secrets that they do hold together — there’s still an element of an alliance between them. So there’s still a little bit of “I’m going to have your back; you have my back” — even though there’s plenty of other ways they don’t do that for each other. So I don’t think it’s super, super dangerous at this point. In a lot of ways, she has to protect him by doing this [and] in a lot of ways she does need him back in the household for her to really be fulfilled in her goal, which is the child. That child is really going to make her happiness come alive. But I think there is definitely a line where that would not be OK anymore, depending on how involved Serena gets in his work.
What do you think it took for her to turn off the woman from years earlier to become the woman she is in Gilead today?
I think there’s this big idea of what one has to do for the greater good, and I do think that she, initially, did have a passion and a desire to inspire women to focus on their biology and produce babies. That was a good, positive thing that she was doing. She understood the state of the world and that the human race may become extinct, seeing the rate that the world was going. She wanted to do something about it. She planted those seeds and started that ball rolling and then at some point she lost her voice.
In your mind, does that other version of her still exist?
She was involved in the original discussions of the architecture of Gilead [so] it’s this weird, twisted set of conflicting dialogue in her brain about how ultimately this will be for the greater good because we will improve the world and we will improve the human race and we will make babies in Gilead. So part of what we have to do is sacrifice. And my sacrifice will be giving up part of who I am for the sake of this new world. And I think she’s always been a woman of faith — that’s a very strong element of that character — and that’s a huge driving force behind the rest of it.
Will she come to regret any of her decisions this season, even as far back as decisions made that helped usher in Gilead?
I think there probably are a lot of regrets, but I also think those are just not winning right now in her brain, and they haven’t been for awhile. I think what’s winning is that overriding notion that ‘I’m doing this for the greater good and all will be well in the end and we are the generation that has to tough it out because the next generation won’t know it like we knew it — they won’t know the “before” world. I think Serena still has a lot of hope, and that hope lies in the future child. I don’t know what would happen if she lost that hope. I expect change for her, but until she loses ultimate hope in Gilead I don’t know that she’s going to acknowledge all of her regrets.
Do you personally find anything hopeful about the show?
It’s hard to have hope! Ultimately, I think, as an actor I don’t know that I want that. I enjoy so much this dark world that we explore that’s full of despair and tragedy and things you’re not allowed to say. It’s just so riveting to be able to come to work and play in that world. For me, I don’t know that I want things to get better for Serena. In fact, it would probably be more fun if they got worse. Bring it on!
New episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” stream on Wednesdays on Hulu.