In its second season, Hulu's Emmy-winning drama The Handmaid's Tale expanded its world and deepened its characters, but it also reinforced the brutal and unforgiving nature of Gilead, often to frustrating effect. After a stellar first half, the show gave into its worst tendencies in "The Last Ceremony," when Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) held down an openly resisting June (Elisabeth Moss) so Fred (Joseph Fiennes) could rape her, ostensibly as a way to help the labor process along naturally. As if this event wasn't horrifying enough, the show followed it up by executing a young teen (Sydney Sweeney) for infidelity by drowning her in a swimming pool, eventually revealing her own family had turned her in.
Everywhere viewers looked this season, the harrowing torture of women was relentless. It would have been difficult to watch even in the best of times (we are certainly not living in the best of times), but something mildly interesting also happened in between the excessive horrors inflicted upon June, upon Emily (Alexis Bledel), and upon the all the women deemed lesser in the eyes of this misogynistic society: we saw Serena appear to grow ever so slightly, and it made the journey of of watching The Handmaid's Tale's second season somewhat more bearable.
It should be noted, of course, that developing one character at the heartbreaking expense of another is problematic, especially if the character being fleshed out is as seemingly irredeemable as Serena. But while it's true that she is guilty of doing unspeakable acts, and while it's true she is also an accomplice to her husband's crimes — there is no coming back from aiding in the repeated rape of any number of women — Serena is also a complex character offering viewers a chance to understand how educated, intelligent women might find themselves living under and even accepting the laws of Gilead. She's necessary to understanding this world, not just in the role she played prior to its creation, but because Serena doesn't actually see herself as someone with evil motives. In her mind she's a woman who's had her dreams — first of running a country and then of serving God — snatched away one by one until she was left with just one single thing she's allowed to want: a child.
It seems downright crazy to feel bad for Serena — as the beautiful wife of a commander, her problems are minuscule in comparison to those of handmaids or unwomen — but by peeling back the character's layers to showcase that there's no class or race of women unaffected by Gilead's patriarchy The Handmaid's Tale becomes more complex.
It obviously doesn't erase what Serena did to June in "The Last Ceremony" and elsewhere. It doesn't erase what anyone, man or woman, has done in this bleak landscape that seems to exist solely to horrify the viewers who've yet to abandon the show in the wake of its excessive violence against women. But when Serena allows June to escape with her young daughter in the finale, it's clear that somewhere beneath the beautiful teal clothes and obedient attitude is someone with a heart and a brain, even if she's not always used them the way we wished she would.
While the pure triumph experienced as a result of Serena's actions may be short-lived — who's to say Serena won't come to regret her decision and revert back to her single-minded pursuit of having a child in the light of day? — it wouldn't have worked at all if we hadn't also been given insight into Serena's mental and emotional states this season. She was whipped by her husband and still chose to stay with him even when the offer to escape to Hawaii fell into her lap. She was mutilated by the state after reading aloud from the Bible and her husband did nothing to try to stop it. From an outsider's perspective, it's easy to understand why someone would choose to let June escape — it's the decent and right thing to do — but in the context of Serena, and Serena and June's fraught relationship, this could only happen if she was finally forced to confront her place in this world and the fact that Gilead isn't a place to raise a child. It could only happen if she was forced to confront that eventually the state will come for the people she loves too. It's not much in the frustrating grand scheme of things, but it's something.
Of course absolutely none of this would have been remotely possible if it weren't for Strahovski, who's given what might be the best performance of her career this season. As Serena, she added a rich complexity to a character who could have easily been one note. Watching her somewhat soften and then expertly turn on a dime reminded viewers that Serena is not so easily swayed or changed. And seeing the character's cold mask slide into place with shocking ease when June tries to comfort her in the wake of being whipped is so good that it will be a crime if Strahovski's name isn't called during Thursday's Emmy nominations.
So while The Handmaid's Tale's brutal and excessive second season might have been a major step down from its first, Strahovski's portrayal of Serena kept us riveted across 13 difficult-to-watch episodes. Although it's unclear what will happen in the already ordered third season — will Serena be bereft but remain with Fred? Will she join the resistance and actively work against him (and Gilead)? Will she change her mind about her daughter and go after her? — the prospect of seeing how her character might change from this experience is enough to have us at least considering tuning in for the show's next chapter.
The complete second season of The Handmaid's Tale is now streaming on Hulu.