Way back in the show’s very first season, we learned exactly how Gilead was formed. More importantly, though, we learned that Serena 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 (based on the real-life Phyllis Schlafly), who campaigned for women to stay in the domestic sphere and focus on supporting their husbands and children.
As June/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.”
Watch the trailer for the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale below:
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?
It was a plot point that was explored in series two – particularly with regards to Junes’s mother Holly (Cherry Jones), who is such a huge driving force in the book.
In flashbacks, we learned (just as is detailed in the book) that Holly was a doctor at an abortion clinic, and a staunch activist for women’s rights. So much so that she took a very young June to a Take Back the Night rally, where women burned papers scribbled with the names of their rapists. As June grew up, though, she began to tire of Holly’s feminist crusade and, as such, Holly began to tire of her in turn.
“You really want to take all that energy and passion and give it to a man?” she asked her daughter. Then, seeing the expression on June’s face, she hastily added: “Luke is fine, but this country is going down the f**king tubes. It’s time to get out in the street and fight, not play house.”
She was right about the country, but June assumed her mother was being over-dramatic. That the country was fine. That everything would work out for the best.
The best, however, turned out to be Gilead. And, while June was assigned to the role of Handmaid, her mother – like so many other women her age – was banished to a life in the radioactive Colonies. And a very short, violent and unhappy life, at that.
Back to Serena, though. In season two, we saw her dabbling in small rebellions: she read aloud from a book in front of Gilead’s Commanders, resulting in her having a finger sliced off as punishment.
But it wasn’t until Nicole was born that Serena was able to see Gilead for what it really was. Indeed, when she came face-to-face with June as she fled Gilead with the baby bundled up under her cape, she did nothing to stop her: indeed, instead of insisting June hand her baby back to her, Serena tearfully wished Holly/Nicole goodbye, and let June disappear into the night.
So what does this mean for Serena’s role in season three? Will she be instrumental in helping June lead the resistance from within Gilead?
Well, as Miller himself notes: “Her identity as a mother was established last year by her sacrifice, but you get a lot of baggage when you have that blessing of being a mother. And in this case she’s really feeling like she’s been separated by her child, and we know from June you don’t get over that. And so I think that that driver is really interesting for Serena because Serena made the decision that she thought was going to be right to be a real mother and put her kid first, and then she sees how hard it is.
“It was a two-second decision. She spends a lot of the decision trying to come to terms with and, then perhaps undo, her decision. And Fred (Joseph Fiennes) recognises that he pushed her to the edge of sanity. He respects Serena and he loves Serena and he would very, very, very much like to find a way to be something to her that’s not awful, so he spends the whole season trying to do something for her. It’s beautiful and it’s very selfless and it’s creepy and awful because of what he’s doing and because of what Gilead’s doing. But he really sees after the last two seasons that he’s fucked it up with Serena and changed into something he doesn’t want to be.
“He’s a man who’s trying his hardest, honestly, to try to turn over a new leaf. And it works itself out in interesting ways because how does someone we think has an immoral compass [change], and do we believe him?”
Strahovski adds: “That [baby] was really the one thing that was holding her to Gilead in the end, was having her own child, and the hope of that.
“Now that that’s gone, I don’t know where Serena goes.
“If she did finally come to the realisation that Gilead wasn’t exactly the best place for anybody, as someone who was an architect of it, you’d have so much guilt and you’d have to work through so many feelings.
“It’d be interesting to see her try to redeem herself, but maybe not succeed so much, and keep trying anyway.”
It remains to be seen exactly what Serena will do in the third season. The trailer certainly implies, though, that she and June will forge an alliance.
“If I’m going to change things, I’m going to need allies,” June says. “Allies with power.”
“As Mrs Waterford, you have influence,” June says to Serena.
“Up to a point,” Serena replies.
“So move the point.”
We can’t wait to see what Serena and June can achieve together in season three.
A UK release date on Channel 4 is yet to be announced, but season three debuts in the US on 5 June on Hulu and should drop in the UK soon afterwards. Blessed be.
Images: Hulu/Channel 4