Well-groomed and well-mannered. Yet she is an antagonist.
A manipulator, hypocrite and devious. Yet she’s a player in a master game.
According to an interview in IndieWire Pre-Gilead, May 2017, Yvonne Strahovski said “It just feels like she was so much lighter pre-Gilead, I think she definitely had a pure intention to save the world.”
Joseph Fiennes added “The sad thing when you look at the flashbacks and when you look at them in real time, is that she had this voice. They’re both architects of their own unhappiness — they both believe in this totalitarian theocracy, this authority that is going to cleanse the world of its moral decay. But in stripping away people’s rights, she strips away her own voice and her own rights. It’s brilliant, that complexity.”
That complexity, when combined with Gilead, the words of Margaret Atwood, and the genius that is Yvonne Strahovski, bring us The Handmaids Tale.
Introduction to Gilead
In a world of declining fertility rates, increased sexually transmitted diseases and environmental pollution, Gilead rules in the former United States of America. Gilead is a theonomic and totalitarian government who has taken power following a civil war. Society has a militarised regime of social class and religious fanaticism, in which women are brutally subjugated. New laws in Gilead dictate the very limited roles the women have.
Worldwide infertility has led to Gilead enslaving fertile women. These women, called Handmaids, after having their own children taken from them, are assigned to the homes of Gileads elite. Their male ‘masters’ are “Commanders”, and it is their name the handmaid is known. The prefix ‘Of’ is added to symbolise that they are the property of a certain commander. The women of Gilead are divided into their social categories, each demonstrated by a different colour dress. Handmaids are red. Aunts are khaki/brown. Marthas are green. The wives have a blue colour, teal in shade.
Gilead: Serena Joy Waterford
Serena Joy Waterford is a wife. Wife of Commander Fred Waterford, high up in the echelons of Gilead society. Serena Joy is tall and thin with blue eyes and blonde hair worn tied back tightly in a bun. The handmaid she has assigned to the Waterford house is June Osborne. Now called Offred. The plan, as with all Handmaids of Gilead, is that June will conceive a child and hand it over to Serena to raise as her own.
Serena is portrayed as intelligent and strong willed but also incredibly calculating. She is able to ‘submit’ to the requirements of Gilead but still manage to achieve her needs. She has a determined and severe personality, which is made even more prominent by the angularity of her features caused by the uniform and her hair pulled tightly back. Serena’s personality displayed itself in several ways but none more in the way she treated her handmaid. Serena’s goal was to ensure a baby was born and it didn’t matter who got hurt in the process.
Serena has a complex personality displaying many needs and emotions. She is angry, filled with rage, sometimes at the tiniest thing. Serena is pathological and sociopathic and demonstrates this in how she treats her handmaid. Throwing her to the floor. Locking her in her room with windows boarded up for many days. Serena acts with little compassion, even when confronted with an apologetic handmaid who is begging to be released from her room. She has complete disregard for others, unless it encroaches on her needs. When the Guardians turned up for Offred, Serena did not care about the needs and potential safety of Offred. All she sees was her potential for a baby being removed from her home without her consent.
Serena is an expert actress, able to display her needs and affections to her husband. She can be manipulative, but usually for her own benefits. Serena will be deceitful if the occasion calls for it, blaming others for things that she may have said or done.
By Season 3, we start to see Serena show that enough is enough. The pre-Gilead Serena is making a re-appearance. Two incidences cause this rebellion in Serena. The first being that Baby Nichole (Junes baby that she considers her own) has been taken out of Gilead at the end of Season 2. The love that Serena had for Nichole is clearly evident and through the grief that we see, she misses Nichole, that is very evident . The second incident follows an episode where the Gilead wives, led by Serena, speak to the council about changes that could benefit the children of Gilead. For Serena’s crime of reading, her finger is cut off. Her husband stands by and allows this to happen.
Serena is arrested at the Canadian border with her husband after they have taken a clandestine trip. Mark Tuello takes them into custody and a new way of life starts for them. Serena then finds out she is pregnant and that it is a boy. Serena tries to use all her feminine wiles in order to secure the best deal her and her child, both with Mark Tuello and a face from the past. Serena asks to see Rita, explaining she will need help raising her child. Rita, bravely and calmly shuts her down and walks out. Serena and Fred are brought to the International Criminal court to face the charges. Following help from Nick and Commander Lawrence, Fred has a confrontation with June. A fatal confrontation.
Serena deals with Fred’s funeral, finding a way for Hannah to be included knowing full well that June and Luke will see this. Serena settles into Toronto life and is hosted by Mr and Mrs Wheeler. After finding a way to escape her oppressors, Serena finds herself back there again, having given birth to her son. But now, standing on a train heading away from Canada, where will Serena find herself next?
Before Gilead: Serena Joy Waterford
Before Gilead , Serena Joy Waterford was known for being an author. Her book entitled “A Woman’s Place” contained the line:
" Never mistake a woman’s meekness for weakness.” - Serena Waterford.
Serena spends time promoting her book and finds herself in front of a crowd on a college campus, where the audience is already expressing a dislike to both Serena and her ideals. Things begin to get thrown at the stage. While Fred protests that his wife has the right to speak, the organisers take Serena out. As they head to the car Serena is shot. Fred promises that he will find the person who did it, labelling them “a terrorist”. He catches the sniper along with the sniper’s wife and holds them at gunpoint. He mercilessly kills the wife first. Demonstrations that the changes are coming and no mercy will be given.
Serena is shown to be instrumental, alongside her husband in the formation of Gilead. We become privy to this in Season one, episode six. An unseen text message provokes this conversation.
“They issued the orders. It’s what we proposed. Three separate attacks.”
“Three weeks. Congress first, then the White House, then the Court,” Fred says.
“Blessed be,” Serena whispers.
Serena Joy, along with her husband receives this message in a cinema. They’re watching a film surrounded by all those people whose life is about to change. The text message, and Serena’s response, paints them instantly as bad guys. Serena and her husband have a religious belief that not only is the fertility rate declining, but that the morality of the world is also in question.
Serena believes with her work as an author, her book promotion and her assistance in getting Gilead started, that she has the answer. As far as she is concerned, the revolution is coming.
Before any characters make it to the screen, the right actress has to be in play. With Yvonne Strahovski, The Handmaids Tale struck gold
Yvonne Strahovski was born Yvonne Jaqueline Strzechowski on 30 July 1982, in Werrington Downs, New South Wales, Australia, to Bozena and Piotr. Her parents came to Australia after finding a need to change their lifestyle.
Yvonne has spoken of how she found solace in the arts, with dramas and plays at school being her comfort zone. At home, she had a handy-cam that she would walk around with, demonstrating to those around her how keen she was on the art of filmmaking. Roll forward a few years and Yvonne broke the news to her parents that acting was her career choice. In 2003, she founded her own theatre company.
Throughout her career, she has worked in-front and behind of the camera. Cameo roles would prove fantastic learning experiences for her.After setting foot in Los Angeles, she auditioned for roles in films and television series, one was ‘Chuck’. After sending in her audition tape for ‘Chuck’ and was contacted the very next day. Just one week later, she was called for a scene reading and was being cast for the role of ‘Sarah Walker.’ This was the first big break of her career and the role established her as an actress in the US.
Roll forward to 2017, and Yvonne joined the main cast of The Handmaids Tale. Based on the novel by Margaret Atwood, this was a dystopian tragedy that brought her together with Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes and Ann Dowd, amongst many others. The character she played, ‘Serena Joy Waterford’ was a cultural activist and wife of one of the highest ranking Gilead commanders, Fred Waterford.
For her work, Yvonne was nominated for the prestigious ‘Golden Globe Award’ and ‘Primetime Emmy’ under the ‘Best Actress in a Supporting Role’ categories for her role.
Through every aspect of the role in The Handmaids Tale, Yvonne has brought something special. The emotional range of this role is complexity at its highest range. From having to film scenes of violence towards a handmaid in whichever form it takes to having to be kind to your handmaid when diplomats are in the house. From portraying yourself as a widowed commanders wife now bordering on a handmaid to planning your escape. From having your child removed from you, to realising you have no-one in the world on your side. Yvonne has brought it all to the table.
Here’s to season 6.