In the Season 2 finale of The Handmaid’s Tale, Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) did a good thing. Two good things, technically — she argued in front of the Commanders that women in Gilead should learn how to read, and she allowed June an opportunity to escape with baby Nichole. On a hypothetical moral scoreboard those are two points in Serena Joy’s favor, stacked up against the eight trillion negative points she accumulated when she masterminded, supported, and benefited from a hyper-religious new world order that ritualizes rape, slavery, family separation, sexism, and compulsory color-based class uniforms that don’t suit everyone’s skin tone equally.
While her actions towards the end of Season 2 can be read as the start of a redemptive arc it’s almost guaranteed to be a tiresome and unsatisfying slog. This is the woman who let Nichole go but takes comfort in being told she’s still a mother, a title no co-rapist deserves. And yet Season 3 Episode 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale ends on a note that expects its audience to hold their breath once more for her to be anything more than the monster she is. Just like it did in Season 2. And for good measure, Season 1 as well.
It would be so much easier, faster, and more interesting at this point if everyone just admitted that Serena Joy suuucks; the longer the show focuses on Serena waffling between remembering she’s a woman and remembering she’s a huge asshole (not mutually exclusive), the less effective her character becomes.
In that fourth episode, June once again turns to Serena as a source of hope and support in the fight against Gilead’s regime. While it’s clear that June doesn’t completely trust Serena, their shared moment smoking poolside cigarettes is one of those trademark Handmaid’s Tale girl-power moments that only makes sense as far as the viewer assumes that female solidarity is the end goal of the revolution.
The setting for June reaching out to Serena is about as ominous as Gilead’s everyday parade of horrors gets, at a fancy party celebrating the religious dedication of babies taken from their enslaved mothers and regifted to the elite. The dedication scene is torturous unto itself, as the Handmaids who were “lucky” enough to bear children in recent months receive seats of honor to watch the people who stole their babies promise to raise them in the tenets of Gilead. The afterparty is yet another slight against the Handmaids, as they are invited to sit separately in the kitchen and drink water while the Commanders and Wives schmooze in the next room over.
It’s at this party where Commander Fred Waterford asks June to help him get his marriage to Serena Joy back on track, as if that one time he allowed his fellow Commanders to maim his wife is just one of those marital spats Serena needs to get over. Without much room to refuse him, June suggests that he offer Serena more power and control over what happens to her, and she then sneaks off to tell Serena that Fred is ready to let her exercise some undetermined power. The smug poolside smoking commences.
Through this series of events, the facts of what exactly Fred will give Serena and what she’ll make of it are vague. What’s he willing to do? Cede power. Power to do what? Wield power. The ambiguity is maddening, and after last episode’s debacle with Commander Lawrence and the dying Martha, not something June should be willing to bank on. The only constant about Serena Joy is her unpredictability; any further opportunities for her to manipulate events could just as easily wreck June as it could help her.
The longer the show focuses on Serena waffling between remembering she’s a woman and remembering she’s a huge asshole (not mutually exclusive), the less effective her character becomes.
The Handmaid’s Tale often falls into this trap when it comes to Serena Joy. She has the benefit of being a three-dimensional character played to perfection by the excellent Strahovski, but more often than not her inclusion in the plot hedges on whether or not the story wants to pump the breaks while viewers wait for Serena to decide what kind of person she wants to be.
Last season Serena allowed June to see Hannah and also pinned her to a bed while Fred raped her. This season she defended June’s attempted escape and burned her house down. Not knowing what she’ll do with more power is like not knowing what Aunt Lydia is going to do with her new taser — it’s genuinely unpredictable but put a dollar down on “something messed up, eventually.”
Going by that pattern (or lack thereof), it’s safe to assume that Serena isn’t going to go all in on the revolution now that June’s paved the way for her to return to Fred. There will be dramatic scenes near or far from the sea, a face journey or two, and many a frosty confrontation coming for Serena’s character, and in the meanwhile, the actual plot of The Handmaid’s Tale will drag as the audience waits for her redemption or descent.
This mistake is one of many that makes this season feel so unsatisfying. Serena’s is a symbol of Gilead’s dissonant ideology, but the time for symbolic anything needs to be over if this show is going to remain interesting. In the best case scenario, Season 3 moves forward without being hamstrung by her mental gymnastics, but going by the way Episode 4 ended it doesn’t look like there’s any intention to leave this awful person alone in the hell she created.