The season 2 finale of the Handmaids Tale has left many of us in a state of emotional paralysis. There were moments of supreme triumph, tears, utter astonishment and bitter disappointment. I didn’t know I was capable of feeling such joy at the sight of someone getting stabbed in the back nor so delighted by the phrase ‘Go fuck yourself Fred’.
Over the last several weeks, I like many others, have been somewhat masochistically looking forward to my weekly hit of the incredibly disturbing, yet completely addictive dystopian series. What I have found most fascinating is the evolution and some would argue redemption of the character Serena Joy. The audience is positioned to feel both intense loathing for this character and a kind of sympathy for the brutality in which she too falls victim. Serena was one of the architects behind the ruthless subjugation of her own sex, she is an accomplice in the rape, torture and murder of countless human beings, worse still she justifies these crimes under the guise of her religiosity. She adopts the arrogance of all fundamentalists by claiming her actions are those willed by God. Her heinous crimes compounded by her grotesque righteousness render her a figure of the utmost contempt.
However, in season 2 it’s clear Serena experiences moments of doubt, in such moments we are positioned to believe that her sense of dogmatic fundamentalism is waning. From the very beginning it’s obvious that Serena doesn’t consider herself intellectually nor spiritually inferior to her husband or indeed any man. Rather she accepts her subjugation as the necessary price she must pay to achieve her ultimate dream, motherhood.
However, she only appears to openly question the laws of Gilead when she herself becomes the object of physical brutality. After Fred is injured in the explosion, instigated by one of the handmaids, Serena with the help of June, quickly steps in to prevent any potential backlash on their household. The pair go as far as to forge documents arresting a commander who they suspected was a threat to their own safety. However rather than praise her for her pragmatism and quick thinking, once recovered, Fred punishes Serena by striking her with his belt. He demeans her for daring to act on his behalf in a ritual that is as degrading as it is uncomfortable to watch.
We could consider Serena to be a self-loathing character, filled with a sense of inadequacy and extreme frustration at being unable to bear a child. She projects this frustration by abusing the women around her. She slaps Reida in the face at the baby shower after June absent-mindedly reminisces out loud about her own shower when she was pregnant with Hannah. It’s clear that Serena resents this ‘adulteress’ this ungodly, underserving woman who so easily had been given that which Serena craves most, a child and the love of a husband. Serena further manifests this resentment through degrading June in front of Eden. After she is abused by Fred she seems to have made the belatedly sobering realisation that she is essentially powerless and thus rather desperately seeks to assert her power in the only way she can, by further subjugating the other women around her. In this context Serena manifests a trend commonly identified by sociologists within oppressed minority groups. When a group of people face severe discrimination they often project their frustration by mistreating the only people deemed less powerful then they are, which are often the women of their own community. This is a dynamic that has often been associated with African American men and women.
Serena’s doubt in Gilead seems to be further amplified after the visit to Canada. To see herself through the eyes of others as the object of derision and scorn is something she clearly finds difficult to stomach. When she and Fred first arrive, the commander is quickly whisked away to discuss important manly things whist she is given a picture-based itinerary of ‘cultural activities.’
It is clear that she resents this patronisation. These feelings are compounded by the fact that she is clearly more intelligent, articulate and far more competent then her husband but is treated, even by those outside of Gilead as little more than an invalid. Her conversation with her female host reminds her of the life that she has given up and the intellectual pursuits that she has forfeited. Her meeting with the American envoy further exacerbate the seeds of doubt. However, it is of course her confrontation with Luke that is the most rattling. How can one be expected to react when ones husband is called out as a rapist?
The catalyst to what may be considered Serena’s quest for redemption comes after the death of Eden. A pious and devout child’s life is extinguished in an utterly senseless fashion. There is a supreme irony in the logic of a society which puts fertility and childrearing at its foundation and yet kills people with impunity and shows such a callous disregard for the value of life itself. It is after the death of Eden that Serena has her metaphoric ‘come to Jesus moment,’ finally realising that no man, woman or child is truly safe in the world she helped create. After the urging of June, and the wellbeing and future of her daughter in mind, she thus seeks to incrementally change Gilead by asking the commanders to allow women and girls to read the bible.
In Gilead, as in medieval Europe, reading the bible is a privilege reserved for the elite. Indeed, for much of European history leading up to the 16th century it was illegal to possess a bible in one’s own language. Those who occupied the upper echelons of society considered the idea of the common man reading the bible to be an affront to the status quo. Much better for him to rely on the interpretation of his betters and not disrupt the delicate balance of power, a sentiment shared by the commanders of Gilead. By asking for girls and women to be permitted to read the bible Serena is literally asking permission for the acquisition of knowledge. This notion is abhorrent to the commanders. In this society only men have the right to knowledge and the power it bestows.
Serena is punished for reading the bible by having her ring finger removed, in accordance with the laws of Gilead. The fact that Fred allows this to happen is extremely telling. The flashbacks reveal that Fred once respected and supported Serena and encouraged her to pursue her ambitions. His allowance of this abuse reveals that all relationships, including that between a man and a wife become warped and distorted in Gilead.
However, in the closing minutes of the season, Serena proves that she is not wholly without a soul. By allowing June to escape with the baby she willingly forfeits her right to motherhood, the thing she desired above all else. She realizes that this world of her making is no place for a child, especially not a daughter. Her love for Nicole transcends her own religious dogma. To her credit, it takes no small degree of heroism and humility to realise that your child would be better off elsewhere. June’s decision to honour Serena’s choice of name shows if not a belief in redemption, than at least gratitude for Serena’s selfless gesture.