Yvonne Strahovski interview: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
By the time the fifth season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” rolls around, Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) is already in dire straits. Still stuck in a detention facility in Canada, she has lost most of her allies, as well as her power and status in Gilead. But it’s after she learns that her husband, Fred (Joseph Fiennes), has been murdered that her world truly comes crashing down, as she’s left to fend for herself and her unborn child, in a foreign country and with the lingering fear that her former handmaid June (Elisabeth Moss) — who, alongside a group of other erstwhile handmaids, is responsible for Fred’s murder — could come for her next. While the grieving, desperate widow summons June to the battlefield in an act of retaliation, her main goal going forward, Strahovski argues, is to keep her head above water.
“I always think that survival is kind of the key thing that’s driving her, no matter what or where she is. And I think in this past season, it seems to be the most heightened form of survival, because she, now, has lost Fred,” the Emmy nominee tells Gold Derby during a recent webchat (watch the exclusive video interview above). “I mean, even though [she and Fred] have a complicated relationship, I think she does rely on him heavily. And, in fact, you know, in that moment, when we go back into Season 5, I think he’s certainly given in to kind of supporting her. And he’s given into his fate that he’s not getting out of there — or he doesn’t think he is at some point. And so, I think she’s going to utilize that… And she kind of really seems to lose everybody in the season — like, [Sam Jaeger‘s] Mark Tuello kind of peaces out, Fred’s dead… Everyone kind of peaces out, and she’s really left to her own devices.”
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Matters further take a turn for the worse for Serena when she is forced to leave the Gilead Information Center — where she had been working and residing after being asked to serve as a diplomat for Gilead in Toronto — for her own safety. Her new escort, Ezra (Rossif Sutherland), evacuates her to the home of Gilead sympathizers Ryan and Alanis Wheeler (Lucas Neff and Genevieve Angelson) — a secure location that quickly turns into a house of horror for Serena as she becomes a quasi-handmaid to her new hosts. When asked at what point her character recognizes that she’s essentially a prisoner in her new residence, Strahovski asserts that it’s rather an early realization.
“I think the thought comes into her mind early, especially when Mrs. Wheeler kneels down,” she says, in reference to a scene in the fourth episode, “Dear Offred,” in which Alanis drops to her knees and looks starstruck as she puts her hands on Serena’s belly. “I think the real, true confirmation is when she tries to leave and go talk to the lady who’s outside with the flowers and Ezra stops her from leaving — I think that’s the moment where she realizes, ‘All my fears have come true. What am I going to do now?’ But I mean, there [are] obviously a lot of clues, [there is] a lot of stuff that is indicative of the fact that she is a prisoner. I’m just not sure how much she wants to actually believe that she truly cannot leave. So that moment where it’s literal, you know, ‘She cannot leave!’ — [that] slaps her in the face pretty hard, I think.”
When Ryan informs Serena in the sixth episode, “Together,” that June has been captured in No Man’s Land and he will send Ezra in to kill her, she pleads to witness the execution. But on the scene, after Serena asks Ezra to hand her the gun so she can pull the trigger herself, she ends up shooting Ezra instead and drives off with June as she suddenly goes into labor. After crashing the car in the following episode, “No Man’s Land,” the two seek refuge in an abandoned barn — one in which Serena is ultimately forced to give birth.
As Strahovski had given birth to her second child, at home, not long before shooting this episode, she drew on her own experience to lend verisimilitude to the birth scene. “It was really important to infuse a sense of reality in[to] the birth — like, not have it be just a typical, sort of unrealistic movie/TV birth,” the actor says. “So I spoke a lot to Elisabeth about our physicality… and what we could do. And I remember sharing with her how in the final moments, I was with my husband, and we were facing each other; I had my arms wrapped around him. And I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be so cool if we saw Serena with her arms over June and really physically leaning on her?’ And I just thought, ‘What an interesting dynamic that we may not have ever seen them in, actually!'”
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Indeed, over the course of the dystopian series, June and Serena have had a toxic, dysfunctional relationship, to say the least. But at the end of the day, Serena exchanged more honest emotions with her former handmaid than she did with most other people in Gilead and, Strahovski asserts, also wants June to, in a twisted way, be her “best friend” despite their history.
“I think that’s partly to do with the fact that she’s super lonely, and has been for a really long time, and she doesn’t trust anyone,” Strahovski elaborates. “I mean, of all people, she shouldn’t really trust June, but I do think they do have such a rich history. And with Serena being in the power position, for the most part, I think she still has this twisted view that they can come together and be friends in some weird way. I don’t think she fully understands that what she has done is really, truly unforgivable. So she, I think, does live in this sort of idealistic fantasy land [in which] they can really lean on each other… I mean, it’s hard, because they do in a lot of moments — they do end up relying on each other. But it’s all circumstantial, because [they’re just trying to survive].”