[This story contains spoilers to the eighth episode of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s fifth season, “Motherland.”]
Yvonne Strahovski had described the eighth episode of The Handmaid’s Tale as Serena’s “ultimate rock bottom,” a precarious warning given how the previous episode ended.
When “Motherland” opens, Serena indeed finds herself in her lowest moment yet of season five and, arguably, of the entire Hulu series. Now an immigration prisoner who is locked up in a Canadian detention center, Serena, who had newborn son Noah pulled from her arms to end episode seven, is forced to pump and hand over her breast milk to the woman who is now the legal guardian of her son, mrs. Wheeler (Genevieve Angelson). When Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) visits Serena and offers to help her by returning her to the Wheeler home, where she can help nurse her baby while the Wheelers continue to effectively raise him, Serena bristles at the thought.
“It’s the only way,” he insists.
“I’m not going to live in the same house as my child’s kidnappers,” says Serena, who seems to need reminding that she helped orchestrate Gilead’s handmaid way of life.
“Do you have an irony deficiency?” Lawrence asks.
“I don’t give a damn. I’m not a handmaid,” she replies.
Serena ultimately seeks out June for advice where, mother to mother, they run each of their predicaments by the other. Serena tells June it’s worth considering Lawrence’s offer of New Bethlehem as a way for June to be reunited with her oldest daughter, Hannah. But when Serena asks June to be her advocate, she’s shocked by her refusal. “I could never forgive you,” says June, who advises her to go back to the Wheelers. And then it happens again.
“How?” Serena asks. “How do you go and live in a house with a woman who is trying to steal your baby?”
June cocks her head: “Are you seriously asking me that?” Her advice: “You’re gonna go back in there, and you’re gonna act like a handmaid. But the entire time, you will be plotting against them and planning your revenge.”
And I know, she does. Serena returns to the Wheeler house, apologizes and acknowledges her place. She is allowed to nurse her baby, but is forced to admit she is unfit and gives up all other mothering duties. Whether she will have June’s quiet determination remains to be seen in the final two episodes.
Serena’s dedication to not confronting the hard truth of her situation was enticing for the writers to explore. And although they didn’t have the Serena-June handmaid flip-flop twist in their larger series plan from the start, it was “lovely when the plan came to be,” said creator and showrunner Bruce Miller.
“The best thing about the story is that Serena is not blind to what is happening, and she still doesn’t want it,” Miller told The Hollywood Reporter of the gradual realization throughout season five that Serena has, essentially, become a handmaid. “Ironic to the audience but not to her, she tells herself, ‘I will not be a handmaid.’ And that’s a combination of the way she sees herself and knowing what it’s like to be a handmaid, because she was the handmaid overseer. She doesn’t want to have to be at the mercy of someone like her, which is a really interesting character thing to explore. She’s the prison guard who doesn’t want to go to prison.”
Once the writers plotted Serena’s pregnancy in season four, the handmaid role reversal plot began to reveal itself. The goal is for the developments to “feel inevitable, but never predictable,” he explained.
“The storyline developed as we developed the story of Serena being pregnant and as she pivots — because she’s such a narcissist — from caring only about herself to caring about this baby. And you start to say, ‘OK, what does that mean in terms of Serena?’ At the end of last season, what we took away was her sense of security. Fred, for all his worthlessness, took a lot of the heat for her and tried to protect her, and made her situation more stable. Now I think the baby, plus the instability, is allowing her to seek stability — and that’s where you get that story. She’s seeking something that she really, really doesn’t want to find. I love that she’s like, ‘I don’t care. I’m not going to be a handmaid — no matter how ironic it is.’”
For Miller, witnessing what his leading women did with the scripts was a highlight. “To see them do that voodoo that they do that is so amazing and magic,” he said, noting the labor and post-labor scenes with Serena and June in the barn in episode seven (written by Rachel Shupert, “a fucking masterpiece, ” he added). But the flashbacks showing June and Serena at the beginning of their relationship were also revealing. “They overlap a ton,” he says of the two characters. “They are women who grew up in the same society who made certain choices; they were both working in the field of communications. The things that annoy the shit out of each other are the things they value in themselves: the stubbornness, their moral rectitude, their ability to weather any kind of argument and not change your opinions — Serena probably thinks that’s her best personality trait. So it’s a pleasure to write them because of the way the two actors work together and because of the way the two characters work together.”
Miller added that June’s decision to help Serena during her labor in episode seven, and to return to hear her out in the detention center in episode eight, is one born out of trauma.
“Mostly it’s June. It’s who June is; that she’s not going to walk away. She can’t,” he said. “She wishes she was the type of person who could walk away and never look back. There’s hopefully a base goodness underneath any of her trauma that is urging her to do these things, but I think her reaction is born of trauma in a way that she is recognizing.”
The broader theme tying the two women together also rings eerily timely, a feeling that the creator and his writers know, unfortunately, too well having worked on their prescient series for five seasons. “The story about what it’s like to be a refugee in the modern world, I don’t think is going away, especially in the time of climate change,” he says of the real-life relevance of both Serena and June finding themselves in no man’s land: Serena is undocumented after violating the terms of her stay, and June, along with her family, is unwelcome by Canadians as Gilead refugees. “Everybody who leaves America, all of the people in The Handmaid’s Tale, are either refugees or pre-refugees. Once they get out, they’re people without a country. America is there, off somewhere, but not necessarily a place you want to go. Serena can’t go to America. She’d have to put herself under their control, and I don’t know they’d be so happy to have Serena Joy. The idea of being both physically displaced from your nation, or feeling like your nation isn’t what it was — the way they feel about America turning into Gilead — is, unfortunately, a common, relatable emotion these days.”
The fifth season of The Handmaid’s Tale releases Wednesdays on Hulu. Head here to read Yvonne Strahovski talk about Serena’s “juicy” twist of fate.