*WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS*
‘You are a victim of your own mind’ goes the saying and for Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) from Bruce Miller’s series The Handmaid’s Tale this is a bit too literal. After all, it was her beliefs that co-created the fundamentalist theocratic regime of Gilead, where the solution for a fertility crisis is the enslavement of fertile women. Ruled by conservative men, the Republic of Gilead is a patriarchal society that oppresses women. Whether Wife, Aunt, Martha, or Handmaid every woman has lost her identity, but undoubtedly the Handmaid, at the bottom of the chain, suffers the most.
Due to Serena’s status as co-creator of this system, many argue that she isn’t a victim; many support that she is evil. Considering, however, that throughout the show’s two seasons Serena moves between two polar opposites- specifically cruelty and kindness, calling her merely evil is quite superficial.
Serena doesn’t fit in the good/bad binary because she is neither. Believing that children are a gift from God, and should be the priority of any society, is a benevolent goal. Yet, her thoughts about how that goal should be actualized, namely the establishment of sexual slavery as a norm, is the immoral aspect of her plans. In fact Serena, as a supporter of domestic feminism, believes that women should pull back from social matters and embrace their domesticity. Abandoning the women’s sphere was the fertility crisis’ cause in the first place. As Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) claims in the pilot episode, infertility is a plague sent by God as a punishment. In the same line of thinking, it’s the fertile woman’s biological duty to reproduce because God has deemed her worthy to save mankind. Serena’s adherence to these views is evident during the episode “A Woman’s Place,” when she says to her husband Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes): “We are saving them. We are doing God’s work.” Her religious devotion has led her to believe that women have to sacrifice the position that their predecessors fought for, so that they may save humanity. She is not the one making the hardest sacrifice of all though is she? Serena keeps her name, and as a Commander’s wife is one of the elite. She is not sexually abused every month, and she doesn’t have her children taken away from her.
It is safe to say, therefore, that Serena’s piousness brings forth the doom of women in Gilead; a reality that is a great misfortune no matter how many times everyone says “Praise be His mercy,” (that is to say God’s) every time a Handmaid is pregnant. No it certainly isn’t mercy when June (Elizabeth Moss) is pregnant because her daughter, like all the others, will grow up in a brutal place. But, blinded by her wish to become a mother, Serena refuses to understand the reality of the situation. In fact, Serena’s wish becomes an obsession, which makes her so bitter and cruel that she asks Fred to induce labor by sexually abusing June one last time. The child’s birth is followed by her separation from her biological mother, and when we think that Serena is now satisfied and will leave June in peace, she names the baby Nicole; nothing more but a taunt to point out that even though she is named after her father Nick Blaine, (Max Minghella) they will never be a real family.
There is no doubt that Serena’s actions have caused a lot of pain. Yet, one cannot deny that this is only one side of the coin. Living in a gilded cage she forged with her own words, Serena leads a life of loneliness. Doors are always slammed in her face, as the once loyal Fred no longer cares for her. While Serena has given everything for the cause, Fred breaks every rule on a whim, and forms secret relationships with his Handmaids during which both play pretend that they share his bed by choice.
Still, this isn’t the highest form of betrayal for Serena. It is later on that we see the difference between her and Fred. In the second season’s episode “Women’s Work” when a baby falls sick, Serena is willing to bend the rules and allow a female doctor to practice medicine once again to save the child. Fred, on the other hand, doesn’t wish to allow such a shift in the power dynamics between the two genders even if it means sacrificing a baby’s life. “We cannot question the will of God” Fred says even though he has questioned it time and again with his affairs. Feeling that he has lost control after Serena’s disobedience, Fred beats his wife in front June knowing very well that this is utter humiliation for Serena. In this way, Fred not only reestablishes his dominance in the male/female binary, he also divides the two women and destroys the brief alliance that they had formed while he was recovering from the bombing.
Despite all that, Serena still remains faithful to the cause. Even if she wavered for a few moments during her stay in Canada, she cannot admit that her creation is a prison. When Nick’s child bride Eden Blaine (Sydney Sweeney) is sentenced to death for adultery, however, Serena cannot linger in denial anymore. Eden’s death is a blow that the already formed cracks in Serena’s faith cannot withhold; taken symbolically, it shatters Serena’s view of her creation as an ideal place to raise children especially since this event is preceded by baby Nicole’s birth. Serena, now a mother, no longer thinks of herself alone. She understands that her own daughter could face the same fate a few years down the road, and therefore realizes that her generation is the blueprint for the female generations to come. Instead of a small paradise, Serena knows that she helped build a place where every woman will have a life of misery or find an early death.
In an attempt to persuade the Commanders to revoke the no-reading law of Gilead for women, Serena reads: “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” It goes without saying that the Commanders are not the least bit affected by her bravery. After all, uneducated women are easier to control, and a future Gilead will have fewer upheavals. Serena, therefore, fails and ends up having one of her fingers cut off (the standard punishment of reading as a first offense). This final punishment is the final awakening for Serena since she realizes that gender will always overrule class, and therefore her daughter will never be safe in Gilead. It is only then that Serena can make the ultimate sacrifice, and let June take baby Nicole out of the Waterford household. Giving up her dream of motherhood, however, doesn’t redeem Serena; it merely shows her in a better light.
Notably, it is Strahovski’s performance that brings to the fore Serena’s more humane side. Unlike Serena Joy from Margaret Atwood’s novel, Miller’s Serena is young, so her infertility hits a more sensitive nerve. Unable to have a baby of her own, she takes up gardening to appease her pain. Flowers, like children, need care and Serena spends hours nurturing them. But, as we witness Strahovski’s expressions and specifically her eyes, we know that gardening can never be enough.
Overall, Serena begins this journey of creation with hopes of having a family of her own that she never fulfills, and a husband that later on abandons her emotionally. As she says to Fred in episode “Holy” when pregnant June disappears: “You have left me with nothing.” Serena might have kept her name, but she too has lost her identity, and even if she is a victim by choice, she is a victim nonetheless.
By Ioanna Micha
Ioanna is an English and American literature graduate from Greece. Other than her love of cats, Ioanna discovered her love of films around the age of 12 and has been using people’s taste in film to see if they’re cool ever since. Torn between her fascination with intellectually stimulating films/TV shows, and her love of all geeky and/or fantasy things, she finds it hard to pinpoint her favorite entertainment media. What follows is a semi-successful (?) attempt: Donnie Darko, anything Harry Potter related, Black Mirror, Lord of the Rings, True Detective, Freaks and Geeks etc.