The Handmaid's Tale: Why It's Hard to Empathize With Serena Joy
Serena Joy is an exhausting villain because just as soon as you hate her guts (or, in June's words, want to see her get run over by a truck), The Handmaid's Tale will try to make you pity her. She's a complicated character, one who's realized with Yvonne Strahovski's committed performance. It's hard not to feel for her because she endures abuses from Fred, occasionally helps June, and cares for baby Nichole. But given her wild-card tendency to turn on June, we're not quite saying "praise be" whenever Serena Joy pops up. Soon after helping Nichole escape, she devises a convoluted ruse to get the baby back. Though The Handmaid's Tale's third season has been pushing us to empathize with her, it's hard to do so meaningfully — here are the biggest reasons we can never truly be Team Serena Joy.
Serena Is Complicit in All the Bad Things Happening in Gilead
Serena's involvement with Gilead's creation makes it impossible to completely absolve her of her sins. Her book A Woman's Place was the bread and butter for the guiding principles of Gilead's society, justifying reduced rights for women. Serena also actively supported Fred's terrorist plan as a means of displacing democracy for Gilead. As they say, she can't have her cake and eat it too. The fact that she got shot and was unable to have children is sad, but she's still responsible for building a nefarious society where men abduct, rape, and torment women. And while she's expressed anger in her limited role, she's never shown remorse, an emotion that even Commander Lawrence and Aunt Lydia have externalized.
She Rejects Her Chances to Escape
Yes, it's probably lonely to be a ball of contradictions like Serena Joy. She is strong-willed and opinionated but also fundamentally believes that women shouldn't step out of place. It's not a stretch to say that she suffers from a little bit of Stockholm syndrome. Still, as a Commander's Wife, she possesses much more agency and resources than Marthas and Handmaids. You'd think that she'd seize the chance to start anew. During her visits to Canada, Mark Tuello has even offered to help her escape twice. But she's rejected him both times, citing her loyalty to Gilead. It's understandable, even if frustrating, to see June stay for Hannah. That Serena would rather remain in Gilead to get her finger chopped off then set her house on fire in a passive-aggressive rage is her prerogative.
Serena Abuses June
There are more than a few fleeting moments where Serena Joy isn't a total monster. She tells June about Hannah's whereabouts. Convinced that it's the best for her so-called child, she even helps Nichole escape with Emily. Still, the problem with Serena Joy's rebellious side is that it's never brave — it's consistently self-serving. We see her threaten to hurt Hannah if anything happens to June's baby. And as soon as she sets Nichole free, she works through Gilead's apparatus to get her back.
Having a child was all that Serena ever wanted. But the fact that she condones other women being raped as a means of doing so isn't something that strikes sympathy. And getting Nichole back wouldn't be a realization of her motherly love; it'd be abduction. No matter how much she's bonded with her, Nichole isn't Serena's child to begin with, not according to June. That's the hard truth that the show keeps trying to skirt around.
Serena Joy will never not be frustrating, which is why it's easy to see another Emmy nomination for Strahovski in the near future. For now, we'll have to wait and see if Serena has a bigger endgame in mind in trying to get back baby Nichole. We doubt that she does, though.