Spoilers below for The Handmaid’s Tale season three.
Yvonne Strahovski had been getting roles as silly spies (she played CIA Agent Sarah Walker on Chuck for five seasons) and serious agents (Hannah McKay on Dexter in 2013 and Kate Morgan on 24: Live Another Day the following year), when the chance to play “the woman behind the man” with 2015’s The Astronaut Wives Club came along. While the ABC show didn’t take off and was canceled after one season, perhaps it was a glimmer into the role of 1950s-housewife-on-steroids Serena Joy that Strahovski would land less than two years later for The Handmaid’s Tale.
Now, three seasons complete, Serena Joy has strayed as far from the path of Good Wife as is possible, betraying her husband and her country in order to be the mother she’s always dreamed of being, and possibly going down in the aftermath for the crime of forcing June and Nick to have sex to give her a baby. And Strahovski thinks that punishment would be 100 percent fair.
“Serena doesn’t think it’s fair, but I do, for sure,” says the actress who garnered her first Golden Globe and Emmy nominations in 2018 for the role. “She was in a position of power and authority and she took advantage of that. She essentially made Nick rape June and she was there to see it.”
While Serena has gone through a lot this season and audiences still love to hate her and hate to love her, Strahovski has been on her own personal roller coaster, albeit a much happier one. She was giving birth the week before they went into production on season three and had just under six weeks to get back to set, where her husband, Tim Loden, brought their baby boy so that she could feed him in between takes. “I knew it was going to be the biggest shitshow of my life,” she says, referring to playing Serena and becoming a new mom herself.
Strahovski talked with Vulture on the eve of The Handmaid’s Tale season finale about Serena’s fate, where she thinks the story might go in season four, and exploring a more psychoanalytic approach to her character’s faults.
Every season, Hulu does a red-carpet screening of the finale. How was that experience this time, considering Serena’s fate lies in the hands of Tuello, the guy who we thought would be her ticket out of Gilead?
It’s amazing to see [the audience’s] reaction, and it was pretty funny to see the mixed response when Serena got arrested because people were like, Oh, yay, she’s getting what she deserves! But wait a second, I kind of still like Serena. People hate her, but they still can’t help loving her a little bit.
It’s always a struggle when she does evil things. It’s weird to talk to journalists [and] justify her actions because I have to go back and play her, but at the same time, I feel bad whenever I do it because there really isn’t any excuse and I feel like I give so many excuses for her behavior. At the end of the day, I think all of us as humans are rooted in our past and our emotions, and all of that triggers the inner child that we each carry around with us at all times. And anytime Serena acts out, this is her inner child acting out. The beauty of playing Serena and what makes it completely worth it — despite the horrible set of circumstances that everyone is living under in Gilead that she herself has contributed to — is that she’s so complicated. There really isn’t ever one clear answer to anything, and there isn’t ever a clear answer to why she does what she does. It’s like an amalgamation of a ton of different emotions boiling underneath her.
In episode 11, where Serena and Fred are on their road trip to get baby Nichole back, we see a lighter side of the Waterfords. What was it like performing and filming that side of their relationship?
That’s really only been touched on in the flashback episodes, so it was weird to have that with Serena and Fred in present day. I also think it was warranted. If you’re in Serena’s position and you know what’s coming — you know what you’ve done and you’re about to throw [your husband] under the bus — it’s like the final hurrah. It’s almost like you don’t care. Well, you care, but your actions have no consequences anymore because something so powerful is happening at the end of it all anyway. That’s how I felt when Serena and Fred walk through the forest and she brings up her book and speaks to him about the past. She would have never had the courage to bring it up before that moment, but what else is there left to talk about at this point in her mind? She knows that it’s over, so she may as well get it all out now, including a final intimate moment. It doesn’t matter how much she hates him. The fact that she loved him once, and probably a part of her still does, she’s honoring that part of herself.
Serena went through a lot of hot and cold phases with Fred this season, and she was almost on and then definitely off with helping June fight the resistance. What were the clues as to whose side she would end up on?
The biggest clue for me is the end of episode five, when she sees Nichole at the airport with Luke and it triggers a whole new set of emotions and a whole new set of manipulation. I think she probably decides on the plane back to Gilead that she wants Nichole back no matter what. She lets Fred come up with that idea when he meets her after the plane touches down and she says, “It’s finally over,” to which he replies, “It doesn’t have to be.” Once she knew that she had him in her court — because he wanted their relationship to work again and he’d do anything for that to happen — that’s when she started plotting.
Serena is thoughtful; she marinates and comes up with her own narratives of how things are going to go down. Though, if the audience had been in on that journey of hers, they would have seen her be more conflicted about it. The episodes in between, before they go to D.C., it seems like maybe Fred is genuinely remorseful, but then he shows that he was never really going to change and that politics will always come first, family second, and love last.
Speaking of family and babies, you were a brand-new mother while filming season three. In light of whom you were playing, how did you mentally prepare for that?
I knew it was going to be the biggest shitshow of my life, knowing how tough the role would be [and] not knowing what to expect as a first-time mom. I remember reading this book called The Motherhood when I was in Australia, six months pregnant, shooting Angel of Mine. It’s a book about all of these women’s accounts of being first-time moms. Everyone’s experience was so different. This one essay said it might not be peachy and it might not be easy, and you might go through some horrible things, so I basically decided to be happy no matter what. No matter what comes my way, no matter how bad it gets and how challenging it is, even if I’m crying, I’m just going to enjoy the moment because everything is temporary. I’ll get through it and I will learn something from it. So that’s how I went into the season.
As a new mother yourself, does Serena’s line in the finale — “I didn’t surrender my rights; I traded them for my daughter” — take on new meaning?
When you become a mom — or a dad — you really do suddenly understand the true meaning of the concept of doing anything for your child. I did use a lot of those new emotions that I was experiencing through motherhood, and they really did inspire me with Serena’s emotions and the potency of her need to be a mother and her claim to the baby.
Many are looking at Serena as delusional, though, in thinking that she has any claim at all to Nichole.
It is delusional. It’s not her baby. The only reason she’s sticking to that is, by law in Gilead, not thinking about how the baby actually really did come along, that is her baby. But when we look at what she did with June and Nick and how she forced them to have a baby, it really isn’t her baby. She’s totally obsessing over being a mom. It’s awful. It’s so sad.
When we see Serena holding Nichole, it might also call to mind the picture of Melania Trump holding the El Paso baby who was orphaned in the recent shooting.
I don’t blame you for seeing similarities there. Anyone who feels the same way about the presidency and everything that brings up, they’re going to look at that picture and think of Serena immediately. I totally get it.
Do you think that Serena isn’t leaving Gilead because she inherently disagrees with it, but because she’s leaving for a man who can metaphorically give her a child?
It’s all about the child for her. The fact that Fred was so shitty to Serena, it’s like, Well, this makes it easier to make that decision, but she’s not thinking too much about the politics of Gilead at all.
I don’t know what the writers would say, but I really do feel like this whole season has been purely about this massive emotional turmoil that has taken over her body and her brain. The true ramifications of Gilead, what it’s done politically and socially, and the effect that it has had on her or June or anybody else, I hope we see more of that in season four. I don’t know where they’re going with the next season, but now that she has been arrested, I’m assuming that she is going to face a lot of those [consequences].