This post contains spoilers for The Handmaids Tale Season 2, Episode 9, “Smart Power.”
Offred, née June, is unquestionably the hero of The Handmaids Tale. But in its second season, another character has emerged as, perhaps, the seriess most poignant puzzle: Serena Joy.
In the Hulu dramas first season, Commander Waterfords wife, played with exceptional nuance by Yvonne Strahovski, displayed glimmers of humanity—but none that overshadowed her overt villainy. It was Serena Joy who wrote the polemic that inspired a puritanical movement, the one that gave us Gilead—a society that forces fertile women into sexual servitude. Serena Joy, the series argued, was the engine behind a society that paradoxically granted her power as a Commanders Wife even as it repressed her as a woman, banning her from reading or writing. In its second season, the Hulu drama makes even clearer that Serena Joy is more than complicit in an oppressive system—but it also complicates that narrative, emphasizing her own vulnerability. How to feel about Serena Joy is a thorny question that echoes a real-world dilemma: according to an oft-repeated statistic, 52 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump, a candidate whose policies have largely hurt women—to say nothing of his personal history of sexist behavior. Like Serena, none of those women likely see themselves as villains—even if they are the villains in some other womens stories.
This season has opened up Serena Joy in intriguing ways, laying bare both her isolation and her complicity. Though sometimes she displays a rigid regard for the rules, at other times shes been more than happy to bend them in order to achieve her own ends. Through flashbacks, weve seen how she was apparently rendered unable to have children: Serena Joy was shot in the abdomen moments after giving a rousing, controversial speech on a college campus—one that, it seems, might have turned the tides in favor of the revolution that brought forth Gilead.
That sequence might rouse sympathy for Serena Joy—as could what happened after the Commander was injured in a terrorist attack weeks ago. As he languished in the hospital, Serena and June seemed to warm to each other again, working together to ghostwrite memos for Waterford. They were accomplices in a crime for which Serena Joy would soon pay: when the Commander returned home and found out what they had done, he beat Serena with his belt and forced June to watch. This week, he forced Serena Joy to accompany him on a disastrous diplomatic trip—one that may have pushed Serena closer to turning on the regime she helped install.
One could argue that Handmaids Tale seems to be softening Serena Joy, making her pitiable enough to earn our sympathy—a figure who deserves absolution for all the harm shes done. That sympathy may not be entirely externally motivated, either. Serena herself seems to be increasingly aware of the horrors of the world she helped create—most recently in this weeks episode as she sat in a car beside the Commander, being expelled from Canada amid riots that seemed just a heartbeat away from getting violent. There, still healing from her own physical abuse by the Commanders hand, she was forced to listen to the cries of women her husband had victimized—and, perhaps, to consider how responsible she is for their pain.
In an interview last month, Strahovski told V.F. that she does think her character understands what shes done—but that shes too buried in her own ideology to see things very clearly. “If she ever were to crack, it would crack big time—but shes not gonna do that just yet,” Strahovski said. “And I think the reason behind that is because she still has hope to hold onto, which is the baby. . . . Shes got blinders on, basically, with that.”
Those blinders indicate that Serena is still more than a victim—and that despite the trauma shes endured, the show isnt ultimately interested in making us forget the ways in which Serena herself has abused and isolated other women. Even as this season has humanized her, it has also painstakingly pointed out, at almost every turn, the ways in which she has reinforced an oppressive system that counts Serena itself among its victims. Her abuse of June is repeated and violent; friendly as their relationship has seemed at times, its still clear that Serena Joy is always using her handmaid for something—a baby, validation, and, occasionally, her own sadistic entertainment. Many domestic-abuse survivors can become isolated, but Serenas choice not to confide in June after her husband beats her also speaks to her refusal to connect with June in any real way—the blinders that prevent Serenas softer side from redeeming her. Her humanity does not nullify her crimes; instead, it simply complicates them.
In fact, Serena Joy might be the most complex character in the entire series. June and Moira are clear-cut heroes; Commander Waterford is a soft-spoken megalomaniac; Aunt Lydia is a pathological enforcer of order. But Serena Joy is a volatile combination of power, oppression, and pain. In some rooms, she has all the power—in others, none. Sometimes she is the oppressed, and sometimes, she is the oppressor. Sometimes, she inflicts pain, and sometimes, others inflict it on her. And all of these things are also capable of happening simultaneously. Im not sure what Im supposed to make of Serena Joy—and I dont think The Handmaids Tale necessarily is, either. Perhaps the answer, in the end, is a simple one: Serena Joy is human. And whether you love her or hate her, it appears that above all, this series wants you to understand her.
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