Tightly wound and silently menacing, Serena Joy, the commander’s wife and de facto head of the house who terrorizes Elisabeth Moss’s imprisoned Offred in Hulu’s small-screen adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale, remained almost completely opaque for the first five episodes of the series. But the sixth episode, titled “A Woman’s Place” — also the title of a book Serena penned before the a conservative revolution that turned the United States into a totalitarian hellscape where religious greetings replace “hellos” and “goodbyes” — delved into the psychology of the woman played with exquisite ice and fire by Yvonne Strahovski.
A once self-made conservative writer and businesswoman with a passion for saving the world the only way she knew how — by promoting reproduction as a moral imperative in a world ravaged by environmental destruction that rendered huge swaths of the population sterile — Serena is not wholly unlike the 53 percent of white women who voted for Donald Trump. Those were the women who somehow convinced themselves that it was right and good to put a man who admitted to grabbing women without consent and his sidekick, Mike Pence, a God-fearing man to the point of destruction for women and LGBT people, in the White House.
“There are so many dualities about her,” Strahovski said of her character in a phone interview with The Advocate. “I think from day one, way back, pre-Gilead [the post-revolution republic of the novel and the series], I think she was genuinely invested in inspiring women to follow their biological destinies and to empower themselves with that. I think that was something that she really held on to and was joyous to her.”
In the episode “A Woman’s Place,” Serena, clad in her signature blue-and-green dress, descends the stairway of her stately, cavernous home as she catches a glimpse of her husband, Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), in his full Gilead regalia. Her fingers wrap firmly around the banister as she flashes back to a memory of happier times. She then appears in flashback looking light and free in a flowing floral blouse, her hair unfurled down her neck and back instead of in her usual tight bun, as she and her husband — the man she is no longer allowed to have sex with because she is barren — passionately quote scripture as they devour each other with deep kisses.
The episode soon reveals that Serena, who is banned from reading and writing under the laws of Gilead, had written A Woman’s Place on the subject of “domestic femininity,” a phrase reminiscent of statements Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway has actually made in defense of her brand of “pro-life, non-man-hating” feminism. As the episode unfolds it becomes clear that Serena was the driving force behind her husband pushing for the conservative revolution in which women of child-bearing age are valued solely for the viability of their reproductive organs and LGBT people are violently punished, if not hanged, as “gender traitors.”
Serena “was one of the architects of that society. She had a voice in making it the way it is. And it isn’t great for her or really anybody else,” Strahovski said. “But now she has to live in this cage that she devised herself. And how is she going to deal with that, and at which she point did she fall out of the conversation in the creation of this society?”
Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, and Hulu was well into production with the series long before it even became clear that Trump would become the Republican nominee, let alone win the Electoral College. As it has for viewers, the series’ eerie prescience resonated for the cast and crew, including Strahovski, who said it was extraordinary to be involved with the series after the inauguration when photos began to emerge of Trump and Mike Pence “surrounded by of men in a room deciding about women’s rights with their bodies.”
While other actors in the series, including Moss, Samira Wiley (who plays Offred's lesbian best friend, Moira), and Alexis Bledel (who portrays the rebel handmaid Ofglen, who is also a lesbian), were faced with delving into the psyches of deeply oppressed women, and just as Trump was embarking on his successful campaign of xenophobia, racism, and misogyny, Strahovski was tasked with portraying one of the oppressors, or at least a woman complicit in the oppression.
“It’s not like I was playing one of the likable characters,” Strahovski said. “I’m playing a character that’s basically a villain in this story, and I’m trying to humanize this woman, trying to humanize someone that I don’t relate to while the state of the world seems to be going into chaos mode because of what our current president has been saying.”
Throughout the most recent episode, which revolves around a “trade” deal with a female ambassador from Mexico, a country that has not adopted the draconian rules the former United States has put in place, more comes to light about Serena’s journey from being the voice in her husband’s ear to becoming the woman whose legs wrap around the handmaid Offred during the reproduction ceremony in which the commander ritually forces himself on Offred when she ovulates.
“When you find yourself looking at something like the ceremony scene where Serena has to watch her husband the commander have sex with another woman to procreate because her right to have sex with her husband has been taken away from her ... I think, Wow. That must just be awful,” Strahovski said. “When you strip away everything else and you think about that for a second, I don’t know any woman who would be comfortable with that. I really had to ask myself, How much did she agree to? At what point was she not part of that conversation anymore?”
Strahovski, who is best known for her role as government agent Sarah Walker on the NBC series Chuck, played a villain before when she portrayed the oddly free-spirited serial killer Hannah McKay on Showtime’s Dexter. But Strahovski said she thinks Serena’s brand of evil is more insidious than that character's.
“I feel like if there was anyone else that was close to Serena it would definitely have been Hannah McKay. Although, you know, somehow Serena seems worse,” Strahovski pondered. “There’s just this brutal strength that she holds on to and she does all these horrible things.”
Still, Strahovski dug deep into what makes Serena tick, a woman who in part crafted the rules of reproduction in Gilead, who by nature of her womanhood and on top of the cruel fact that she’s barren, and although a commander’s wife, is somehow less-than because she can only be a bystander in the attempt to repopulate the republic.
“I think she also values herself less because the very thing she was so behind in terms of women following their biological destinies, she couldn’t actually do,” Strahovski said. “And you couple that with a woman who has been stripped of her identity in a sense that she can’t have a baby, she can’t read and write and partake in the work that she used to be able to partake in. Now you’ve stripped that away and you’ve stripped away her ability to relate to her husband that she wants to be in a relationship with, and then what are you left with in a society where there’s nothing really else to fill those voids? And there’s no real way to connect with people in the way that you used to. So what do you do, do you become, and how monstrous do you become?”
By the close of the “A Woman’s Place” episode, Serena tacitly and with great calculation regains some of the power she lost in the conservative revolution she helped create. She even shares an intimate moment with her husband, a man who’s become content to take credit for his wife’s work, when he's reminded of the vibrant, although dangerously ideological, woman she once was.
Like those white women who walked into a voting booth November 8 and pulled the lever for a man with a history of demeaning and objectifying women and for one so fearful of the dynamic between men and women that he refuses to dine alone with a woman who is not his wife, Serena ceded power to the men to whom she would eventually become virtually invisible, who forced her into the shadows once they no longer needed her. Playing the role of Serena at this dangerous moment in history for women and for all marginalized people weighed on Strahovski in the creation of her character who is at once complicit and oppressed under the power structure she helped put into place.
“It made me think about the real world and people in power who are given power or put themselves in positions of power. How far do they take it at people’s expense? How badly will they treat people to survive in their own power?” Strahovski said. “And I think that’s a huge element of Serena’s journey is surviving within her limited power.”