Think Yvonne Strahovski’s character has the potential to be a good person? Think again, says Stylist’s Kayleigh Dray.
Fair warning: This article contains spoilers for episode eight of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale (and drops some heavy-handed hints about what’s to come later, too).
In the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) was a villain, pure and simple. She was vicious, and cruel, and thoroughly complicit in the horrible acts perpetrated in Gilead on a daily basis. She, worse still, was one of the people who helped bring the sexist theocratic state into being.
The second season, though, has muddied the waters somewhat. Serena has shown herself to be vulnerable, lonely and every bit as restricted by Gileadean law as the Handmaids. A prolific writer and campaigner in her past life, she has been banned from holding a pencil, let alone writing speeches and articles as she once did. And, when June (Elisabeth Moss) was taken suddenly ill, Serena demonstrated her maternal side: she broke all of Gilead’s rules and allowed June to look at her baby on the ultrasound monitor. She set up a cosy bed for her in her luxurious drawing room, and blithely promised to get her a pregnancy pillow. She even sat up with June, knitting and chatting about… well, about all sorts of things a Handmaid and Wife shouldn’t talk about.
And, in this week’s episode, Women’s Work (8 July), we saw an even bigger turning point in Serena’s relationship with June.
“We do our work in the evening: I write, she reads,” says June, as we see the two women sat together in the Commander (Joseph Fiennes)’s forbidden office. “This is the new normal, or an offence to God. In another life, maybe we could have been colleagues. In this one, we are heretics.”
It quickly becomes clear that June truly believes that she and Serena have become something more than Handmaid and Wife: in her mind, they are partners in crime, sinners in the eyes of Gilead, and something akin to friends. And, keen to confirm her theory, she makes a point of pushing boundaries further and further.
“Do you miss working?” she asks suddenly at one point.
Serena responds coolly: “It’s a small sacrifice to pay to be welcomed back into God’s grace.”
Then, after a pause, she lets her mask slip. “I do truly detest knitting, to be frank,” she says, causing June’s face to break into a shocked and delighted grin. It is an olive branch, she believes – and wholly indicative of the fact that she has forged a new and powerful alliance in the Waterford household.
Too bad, then, that she’s horribly mistaken.
Yes, Serena feels restricted by the regime. Yes, her husband viciously whipped her for breaking the rules. And, yes, she has been kind to June – but we must also remember that it is she who held June down as her husband raped her each month. That she ordered June be locked in her room for weeks on end, driving her to the brink of insanity in the process. That she convinced her husband to have Nick (Max Minghella) married off to Eden (Sydney Sweeney), solely so she could taunt June with the knowledge that the man she loves is in bed with a 15-year-old girl. That she helped secure a trading deal with Mexico, essentially selling them fertile women as slaves.
That she threatened to kill June’s daughter, Hannah, if the wilful Handmaid did anything to put her unborn baby at risk.
The fact that June has been willing to overlook all of these past transgressions and forge a friendship with Serena speaks far more about her own state of mind than it does that of Mrs Waterford: she is clearly a victim of Stockholm Syndrome.
A phrase cited time and time again in hostage situations, Stockholm Syndrome describes the psychiatric phenomenon which sees a prisoner forge a positive relationship with their captor.
“First people would experience something terrifying that just comes at them out of the blue,” Dr Frank Ochberg says in his definition of the syndrome for the FBI and Scotland Yard. . “They are certain they are going to die. [But] then they experience a type of infantilisation – where, like a child, they are unable to eat, speak or go to the toilet without permission.”
That definitely fits the bill with June: not only has her body been seized as property of the state, but she has been threatened with physical violence – and death – on countless occasions. Earlier this season, in fact, we saw her enter a catatonic state after being confronted with the dead body of a man who had attempted to help her escape across the border.
Ochberg adds that small acts of kindness, such as being given food, prompt a “primitive gratitude for the gift of life” – such as a bowl of nourishing soup, a cosy bed, or the chance to hold a pen once again.
“The hostages experience a powerful, primitive positive feeling towards their captor,” he says. “They are in denial that this is the person who put them in that situation. In their mind, they think this is the person who is going to let them live.”
June may believe that Serena has her best interests at heart, but we must remember that Serena is only ever kind to the Handmaid when she wants something from her. Bored and lonely, she has used June as a sounding board for her frustrations over recent weeks. In this week’s episode, it is June’s skills as an editor which made her useful. And, throughout the season, Serena has desperately attempted to bond with the unborn baby growing inside June – even slipping into the Handmaid’s bedroom late at night and speaking to her belly as she sleeps. At the moment, June has the potential to give Serena something she wants. That makes her valuable. However, this sense of value has an expiry date: as soon as those nine months are up, Serena will cast her aside – and undoubtedly send her off to be raped by another Commander somewhere, in a bid to create a baby for another barren Wife.
Confirming this theory, Strahovski explained to E! News: “She wants the child, she wants it now, she’s sick of the back and forth with Offred, she’s sick of her being cheeky and mischievous and she’s just sick of being her own lonely island and not having anybody.
“I think the only thing she thinks is going to make it better is having a baby and making the baby grow up to be someone who is on her team and on her side so she has someone that she can confide in and be a friend, you know? In that sense, it’s a very selfish thought process.”
Yes, Serena may eventually join the movement to overthrow Gilead – but that doesn’t make her a good person. She created this system, she has supported it, she has upheld its rules, and she has helped it to subjugate and enslave other women. If you think for one moment that she’s a good person, solely because she’s become tired of this prison of her own making, then…
Well, then you’re every bit as deluded as June is.
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