Fair warning: This article contains spoilers for episode six of The Handmaid’s Tale (and drops some heavy-handed hints about what’s to come in the second season, too).
Avid UK fans of The Handmaid’s Tale will know that the sixth episode of the show, which aired on Channel 4 on Sunday 2 July, finally revealed how Gilead was formed. More importantly, though, we learned that Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) was one of the primary driving forces behind the theocratic misogynist society.
In a series of flashbacks between Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy, we learn that the latter was once a famous ‘domestic feminist’ – and that her husband was one of her, for want of a better word, ‘groupies’.
During these flashbacks, we see the couple drawn ever closer to one another by their desire for a better future: their whispers of government conspiracy at the cinema have all the fervent, feverishness of dirty talk. And yet, despite their dark plans for the women of America, we can’t help but feel something like fondness for the Fred and Serena of the past. Contrasted with the Commander and blue-clad wife of Offred’s terrifying present, they seem a principled, happy, loving couple, with a strong and healthy relationship – one which has been founded upon mutual respect.
However, as we all well know, the formation of Gilead has all but destroyed all the best things about them both... particularly Serena.
Of course, fans of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book will already know that Serena was a homemaking advocate, who campaigned for women to stay in the domestic sphere and focus on supporting their husbands and children.
As Offred notes in the text: “Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn't do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all.”
Sure, her backstory is only hinted at – we learn of her past life as a gospel star in fleeting recollections – but the basic Serena Joy is there. She demanded that women’s rights be stripped away, and now her dreams have been realised in Gilead – although this means that she’s forced to stay home, as some sort of poetic justice.
However there is one huge glaring difference between Serena Joy of the book and Serena Joy of the critically-acclaimed 2017 TV show: in the former, she’s a greying, middle-aged or older woman, riddled with arthritis. In the latter, she is young, blonde, fertile, and beautiful. And, while it may seem like yet another example of Hollywood’s ageism problem (they seemingly hate to give any woman over the age of 45 a prominent film or TV role), the decision to make Serena Joy younger was a conscious one – and one made with Atwood’s full support.
Speaking with Insider for their new Showrunners podcast, director Bruce Miller explains: “In the book, they don't name the age of Serena Joy, but she's seemingly elderly. She has a cane, she's got arthritis, she’s got grey hair.
“I felt like in the novel there's only so much of the dynamic between Serena Joy and Offred that you're going to see, but in a TV show it's going to go on and on and on hopefully for years.”
Miller continues: “The element that was missing for me was the direct competition between the two women. Because with an older Serena Joy, she wants something so badly that she felt like she should have had in the past, but she’s past that point now. She’s older, and she’s using this young woman to try to get that. I felt that it was a more active dynamic if Serena Joy felt like this person was usurping her role not only as the reproductive object of the house but gradually taking away the wifely duties, the intimate duties, the romantic, sexual duties.”
The director adds: “At some point you find out Serena Joy is not sterile. If it’s the Commander [who is sterile] and Serena could be fertile, that opens up a whole lot of doors for us story-wise. When you work in TV, you're always trying to think of just filling up your bag with tennis balls because you don't know when you're going to have to play tennis with them. You always want all sorts of interesting stuff to be happening.”
Most importantly of all, Miller points out, is the fact that Strahovski and Elisabeth Moss (who, of course, plays Offred) are just one year apart in age, which creates a whole new potential for relationships between them.
“You get that little vibe once in a while that in another situation they could be friends,” he says. “It is the creepiest thing.”
This, of course, opens our eyes to another glaringly obvious point about The Handmaid’s Tale: there are zero elderly people in it. Not a single grey-head on the street, or in the shops, or living the high life as one of the high-status wives. In fact, we barely see anyone over the age of 40 in Gilead – which leads us to ask, where have they all gone?
Well, thankfully, it seems as if that plot point will be explored in series two – particularly with regards to Offred’s mother, who is such a huge driving force in the book.
In the novel, we meet Offred’s mother in flashbacks and, while we never learn her real name, we learn a lot about her: for starters, she’s a hardcore feminist and protester, someone who stood up for women's rights and participated in rabble-rousing events like the burning of porn.
We know that she had her daughter late in life and raised her as a single mum. And we know that, after Gilead, the Eyes soon moved in on her, too: at the Red Centre, June and Moira are forced to watch a documentary about the Colonies – and they soon recognise one of the people cleaning up nuclear waste as June’s mother.
In the show, though, Offred’s mother is only fleetingly mentioned – and it seems as if she helped to orchestrate her daughter’s failed escape from Gilead all those years ago.
So where is she now? What’s happened to her? And where are all the other middle-aged women of America?
“We've been thinking about her a lot,” Miller told The Hollywood Reporter.
“It's a story we want to tell — she was one of the most memorable characters.”
The director continued: “June’s mother is a big character in the book and representative of an interesting kind of feminism that was seemingly more of that time.
“June’s memories of her mother and her activism are very vibrant in the book, so we've been talking about her from day one of season one, and it just didn't seem like enough time to do her justice.
“In season two, we mention her a little bit, but we just don't want to short-shrift her story.”
Firstly, that’s a massive hint that a third series could be in the works. Secondly, we know that June’s mum actively protested against Gilead: could she, and the other post-menopausal women of America, be leading the Mayday Resistance from afar?
Thankfully, we don’t have too long to wait to find out: the second series (allegedly longer at 13 episodes) is thought to be winging its way to our screens sometime in April 2018.
The Handmaid's Tale is available to stream on Hulu in the US and airs on Channel 4 in the UK.
Images: Hulu/Channel 4