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[This story contains spoilers for the season two finale of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “The Word.”]
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and a finger for some words.
That last one is the cost Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) pays in the season two finale of The Handmaid’s Tale, as Gilead’s leadership orders the severing of one of her fingers for the simple act of reading a Bible verse aloud. Serena’s reading punctuates her public plea to allow the women of Gilead to be able to read and study the Bible, a move that’s inspired in part by Eden’s execution, as well as a means of creating a better future for her newborn daughter, Nicole — the biological child of Offred (Elisabeth Moss) in reality, but Serena’s child under the rule of law in Gilead.
At least, Nicole was Serena’s child, though that fact changes in the final act of the season when Serena allows Offred to escape with the baby. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Strahovski defines the scene as “a moment of complete loss and brokenness and despair,” leaving Serena without the only thing that she ever truly cared about.
With her baby gone from her life, and with the reality of the monstrous civilization she helped build finally dawning on her, Serena stands at the edge of an incredibly tumultuous third season. Read on for Strahovski’s thoughts on what that future might entail, why she doesn’t envision any redemption for the character, her take on Serena’s season two arc and more.
With the finale under your belt, what do you think Serena’s arc was ultimately about this season?
I definitely think it was about motherhood and about her learning the lessons of what it truly means to be a good mother. Both as the ideal that she had in her head where she thought she was a good person and that she thought she could make the ultimate sacrifices for her child, but not really fully understanding what it truly means to fully sacrifice for the greater good of your child. Ultimately in the end, she makes that sacrifice, which is the biggest lesson of all. I think it’s been this amazing sort of up and down roller coaster ride of her moral beliefs and her ideals being challenged constantly, and her crumbling, and then fighting back and crumbling and fighting back until finally she can no longer turn her back on the truth — and that [truth] is Offred saying to her, “She cannot grow up in this place, in Gilead, and you know this.” She cannot turn her back on that anymore.
Was that the other major theme for you this year, Serena realizing Gilead isn’t a safe place?
I think that may be not as hard-core as the motherhood realization. I think that there’s still probably a lot of denial about that, or a lack of acceptance, even though I think she’s quite perceptive to the world that she’s been part of crafting and how it affects other people. I think that perhaps now where she’s at in the finale or the last two episodes that maybe she is starting to [understand] that breakdown of what she’s really been a part of creating, and is that going to create guilt and self-loathing? It would, if you did fully realize what you were a part of creating in that circumstance.
How transformative was Eden’s death for Serena’s actions in the finale?
I think that’s one of the most pivotal moments. I think probably starting with the beating where Serena’s punished for going above and beyond to help baby Angela, Naomi’s daughter, in the hospital…I think that’s the beginning of all of these moments that really impact her. And definitely Eden’s death is one of those moments because I think she sees Eden as everybody does, as someone who’s very pure and pious who follows the rules and has a pure heart and believes in the society that we’re living in.
And if that person can’t make it in Gilead…
Yeah, exactly. I think she imagines her daughter to be similar in a lot of ways, that similar attitude of this belief in this world, and to see that and see Eden be treated and punished in that way, and then reflect back on if someone like Eden can be treated that way and if someone like Serena, who’s at the top of the hierarchy in where women stand in the society…if Serena can be treated that way and be punished and be beaten and lose a finger, then what is in store for my daughter? Those [realizations] are so impactful, I think, in her journey of what we lead up to in the finale.
You mentioned how Serena loses a finger, which is such a shocking scene in the finale…
It’s intense, it is really intense. It was definitely a surprise for me, I didn’t see that one coming. I’ve been calling it a beautiful moment, because you see her kind of have this redeeming moment, but it’s also kind of pathetic because it’s a little too late in a lot of ways of her trying to change something. Even though she still holds out hope that maybe someone on that male panel of commanders will hear her, they ultimately don’t, but also maybe it’s not so much about anyone on that panel hearing her words, but more about her actually standing up and making that sacrifice and knowing that she can live with herself because she actually truly tried to do something that was really the right thing for her daughter. And she obviously paid the price, but she was willing to pay the price and that is something noble and honest that she can live with now.
What was it like to play out your final scene with Elisabeth Moss, and saying goodbye to the baby?
It’s a fine line of being in that moment and making that choice in that moment, but also knowing that that choice was sort of really hovering above her this whole time as we built up to it with all the confrontations and lessons she’s learned and places that she’s crumbled along the way. For me, it needed to be such a broken space, you know? Where after losing the finger and after trying and really losing more faith in her relationship with her husband, that there really is nothing left for her but to truly understand that Gilead is not a safe place for her child.
I think it’s a moment of complete loss and brokenness and despair. I mean, it’s so sad. I was sobbing when I read the script and it’s a very moving moment and it’s ultimately the most redeeming thing that Serena’s done this entire time, out of the two seasons. She pays the ultimate price and she’s now lost the one thing that was holding it all together for her.
What do you think the future looks like without that, without her child, going into season three? It must feel like a very compelling place to be with your character.
It really is such a raw place to be left in when you’re standing in your life and you no longer have anything to hold onto. What do you do? It kind of forces you to look inside yourself and perhaps face other realities and truths that you haven’t faced you know. It would be nice to see her continue on this sort of breakdown path of maybe come to more realization about the society that she’s helped create and what that means and where she goes from there. But ultimately it’s a negotiation with where she’s stuck, because we see all these characters at the end and they’re still in Gilead, they’re still right there in that household. Whatever they’re truly feeling at the time is going to be a negotiation against the society as we’ve seen in the last two seasons, because they can’t get out. It’s a very tricky position to be in. I’m supposed to be seeing the writers in the next week or two, and I’ll be really curious to see where they’ve landed with that and where they’re going to go.
How do you imagine Serena will react if she runs into Offred in season three? Knowing that Offred took Nicole and she chose to stay, I can’t imagine Serena will be thrilled about Offred giving her baby to a stranger…
Yeah, I don’t know. At the same time, would she think that it was for the best? I mean, sure, of course that would create a fight: “I thought you were going with her!” It’s such a weird thing to try and comprehend. Which is why I really truly take my hat off to the writers who come up with these incredible things. The writing, the bar of work, it’s incredible how they come up with these nuanced themes and we get to play with them. I leave that in their very capable hands.
You mentioned before that Serena does the right thing in speaking out, but it’s too little too late when she finally makes that stand. Do you think redemption is something that is possible for Serena? What do you think is the happiest outcome for this character? Is there a happy outcome for her, ultimately?
I don’t know. I mean, at this point? I don’t think so. I think the happiest outcome is realizing what she has truly done. The end of the road is realizing what she’s truly done and forgiving herself for it. But when you see someone like Serena, who if she were to realize what she’s actually done, truly, then that road to recovery of forgiving yourself for what you know you’ve done…I mean, it’s unimaginable. I don’t know if there is forgiveness at the end of that road for oneself.
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