Why We Should Be Talking About Serena Joy's Storyline in The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid's Tale is my new favorite TV obsession.
Yes, it's hard to watch. It deals with some heavy and controversial topics, to be sure. But it speaks to such a truth for women that it's hard not to relate on every level to every character in this series.
While Offred, the lead of the show, is clearly our heroine in the first three episodes, I have found myself undeniably identifying with Serena Joy the more episodes I see. Her character strikes a deep chord because initially, she seems like the villain of the show. She isn't nice to Offred. She is clearly threatened by Offred. She seems to have no semblance of womanly empathy for Offred or any of the handmaids. But we quickly discover all of this is wrong. Serena Joy, just like Offred, is a prisoner in Gilead. She is a prisoner in her body because she can't bear children. She is a prisoner to her husband because her value in this new society seems to have been compromised. And she is a prisoner to societal expectations because she must seemingly suffer through all of this silently on her own. She has been hardened by the turmoil of the new society, and it's a society that she helped to build.
Actress Yvonne Strahovski, who plays Serena Joy, is clearly a master. We can see all of these deep and personal emotions play in Serena Joy's eyes in a simple camera pan. We see her struggle with her desire for more when she lashes out at Offred in the most recent episode. It's not anger at Offred, but anger at things she can't control. Anger in the subconscious regret she harbors.
In a recent interview with Cosmopolitan, Strahovski explained, "There’s a duality of Serena Joy. We see in flashbacks [in Episode 6] who she was prior to Gilead, and I think there was an essence of her that was pure and good, and her intention was really to contribute to saving the world, where birthrates have fallen and children are a rarity and the human race will no longer exist if we don’t fix this now. And I do think that she was truly, joyously trying to inspire women to follow their biological destinies and find power in that — initially. Then you go through this whole journey, and something went wrong — well, not something; a whole lot of things went wrong. Now we find Serena Joy living in this cage that she spent a lot of time constructing herself; now she’s realizing it wasn’t the best decision. Actually, I take that back: She’s not realizing it wasn’t the best decision, she’s feeling it wasn’t the best decision. I don’t think she’s consciously ready to admit to herself that it wasn’t the best decision."
Of course, that doesn't make her decision to villainize Offred OK. I'm not trying to excuse some of the poor decisions Serena Joy has made. But like all women, she complicated, and in her complication we see truth. It's a truth we can all sympathize with.
To me, Serena Joy is the true encapsulation of the turmoil in The Handmaid's Tale. Not to say she has it worse than Offred, just that Offred has a more worldly view because of how she was raised. Serena Joy's vision of the world is clouded, and I think after Episode 3, we may have witnessed Serena Joy's perfect world truly snapping as she realizes the Gilead she wanted does not exist.
But that seems to be what this new society does to women. It breaks them.
The show challenges those of us watching by making us wonder if we would break in the same way. If Serena Joy would band with Offred instead of making an enemy out of her, Offred would probably willingly try to conceive a baby for her.
But watching Serena Joy's storyline unfold, I can't say I would behave any differently. In a society like this, as Ofglen said, the government is very good at making the women turn against one another and distrust one another just as in today's society we all seem to be so quick to judge. So how do we fight? How do we take this series and rebel against the ideas that would lead to an America that no longer stands for freedom?
In my opinion, we turn against the demonization of one another. Because if the women in The Handmaid's Tale could find a way to connect and see their similarities, they could recreate the government into some semblance of a democracy.
I hope we see that understanding between Offred and Serena Joy develop and deepen as the series continues. If they band together, well, look out, Gilead.