The Handmaid’s Tale’s Yvonne Strahovski On Her Villainous Character And The Show’s Enduring Relevance

·6-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

*Warning: This article contains The Handmaid’s Tale season four spoilers*

‘I'm excited for this one,’ actor Yvonne Strahovski reveals. ‘It’s a little nerve-wracking, but I’m more excited that than anything, because it's a juicy one.’ For those that aren’t au fait with the symbolism behind white wings, red cloaks and the meaning of 'under His eye', the ‘one’ the actor is referring to is the long-awaited and dramatic fifth season of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Today we’re speaking to Australian-born Strahovski via Zoom from a hotel room in Melbourne, Australia ahead of the release of the new season of the 15 time Emmy Award-winning show, which aired its first two episodes on Hulu on Monday, September 12. While the actor may have swapped her character Serena Joy Waterford’s signature teal Gilead dresses and white rollnecks for a monochrome checked blazer, a hint of Serena’s now character-defining slicked back bun prevails. Fortunately, for fans and Strahovski alike, that’s where the similarities end.

‘I hope not!’ she says when asked whether she sees any of herself in Serena, the fierce and villainous wife of Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), who is guilty of abusing June Osborne (Elizabeth Moss) with the goal of obtaining a child. ‘It’s weird to play her and justify all of her, including all the bad stuff [she’s done]. I’ve tried to humanise her as much as possible - she's a human being, after all – and it's not like she's sitting there thinking, “Oh, I'm going to be evil”, even though it often doesn’t look that way.’

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

At the end of season four, June and several other expats from Gilead chase Fred Waterford through the woods and brutally murder him, with June tearing off a piece of his face with her teeth. The group hang Fred on the Wall underneath the words ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’ — the show’s memorable phrase meaning ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’. As a parting token, June sends Serena an anonymous package: Fred’s finger and a wedding ring.

Reflecting on Fred Waterford’s gruesome murder, Strahovski says it was ‘the justice that everyone wanted to see’. ‘I'm sad that Joe [Fiennes] isn't with us anymore’ she continues. ‘But I thought [his ending] was an amazing move and important to have, even though it's obviously complicated,’ she adds referring to June’s enjoyment in asking Fred to choose death by gun or a whistle (the latter involves being chased).

Before Fred's death in season’s four’s final episode ‘The Wilderness’, fans will remember the poignant scene when June visits him in prison, and he tells her that he holds no ‘ill will’ toward her, before seemingly apologising and acknowledging the pain he’s caused. The series' showrunner Bruce Miller previously revealed that during research for the season, his team spoke to victims of systematic rape, misogyny, and abuse to find out the impact of such an apology. On exploring how Fred’s remorse was the venom June needed to kill him, Strahovski explains: ‘It's obviously important, and an incredibly complex situation and reaction that one could have to an apology like that. It’s an amazing thing to explore on TV - exploring complicated issues on television can hopefully help the real world, in some way, shape or form.'

Fast forward to season five and June is facing the consequences for killing Fred Waterford, while Serena, now widowed and pregnant, attempts to raise her profile in Canada as Gilead’s influence spreads. While many fans may expect Serena to be out for revenge for her late husband’s murder, despite their complicated relationship, in season five, Strahovski thinks otherwise. ‘She is trying to protect herself because she's terrified,’ she explains. ‘That’s always been the grounding [emotion] for her bad behaviour. Ultimately, she’s terrified to lose her baby because of something June might do.’ The actor continues, forewarning fans to expect the forthcoming season to explore the complexity of trauma and its isolation, as well as justice and the ‘deep, dark crevices of our minds, hearts and souls’.

Production for season five of The Handmaid's Tale began in February 2022, less than a year after the fourth season – which was filmed during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic – aired. While double masking and daily testing were still in play during season five’s filming, what was notably different between the two seasons was Strahovski and Moss’ screen time together. ‘I didn't see much of Lizzy (Moss) [in the fourth season], because we didn't work together so much as actors,' Strahovski explains, 'so it was fun to kind of get back into that mode, when we get to do the June and Serena explosive things'.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

In a bid to avoid sharing spoilers, Strahovski wouldn’t give examples of the 'explosive' scenes we can expect to see between the pair’s characters in season five, but if its trailer is anything to go by, it looks like June and Serena are out for blood. ‘I think there's an opportunity for [a truce] to happen,’ the actor notes, but she isn’t sure how long June and Serena’s alliance would last. ‘I don't think it could ever be forever, even though June is ultimately a better person. How do you forget [what the other has done]? Or, not even forget, forgive and move on?’

Since filming for the show began in September 2016, Strahovski has become a mother-of-two. She gave birth to her younger son in December 2021. With Serena now pregnant with her own child in season five (‘there I was lugging around another belly [during filming]’), the actor struggles to think of what qualities Serena has that’ll make her a good mother. ‘She’s definitely a strong survivor,’ she says of her controversial character. ‘She's also dealt with a lot of her own kind of abandonment trauma as well, but I think she’ll probably end up taking that out on her kid. [They] would probably have a very complicated relationship,’ she says of Serena and her offspring. ‘And [the child] would probably need a lot of therapy,’ she laughs.

Over the years, the subjects explored in The Handmaid’s Tale’s – sexism, misogyny, autonomy, female subjection – have landed on our screens at a time of great socio-political challenges for women across the world. Margaret Atwood's novel of the same title, which forms the basis of the show, became a symbol for modern feminism and the fight for gender equality during the Trump era (2016-2021), with fans of the series regularly wearing the show’s characters' white wings and red cloaks to political demonstrations. The symbolism reared its head on the streets again recently, following the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs Wade. On the timelessness of the show’s themes, which showrunner Miller has admitted is unintentional, Stahovski says of the writers: ‘It does seem like they write for the current politics… it’s strange when I see the alignment in the themes [and the world’s politics] in the seasons, as the years have gone by’.

Days after the of the show confirmed a sixth season of The Handmaid’s Tale during the Toronto International Film Festival, Stahovski reflects on what she hopes for her character’s future. ‘I’d love to see her have a redeeming moment in her life and realise that everything she’s done is horrible,’ she laughs, before adding, ‘… but then she wouldn’t be Serena Joy!’

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