Now that the second season of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale has ended, let's look back at how the Season 1 finale laid the groundwork for the show's most compelling relationship. In that episode, we saw a newly pregnant June (Elisabeth Moss) curse out Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) like she no longer gave a fuck.
In that pivotal scene — precipitated by Serena revealing to June that she knows where June's stolen daughter, Hannah, lives, and then delivering a veiled threat against her ("As long as my baby is safe, so is yours") — June called Serena "deranged" and "evil." From the backseat of the locked Waterford car, outside of Hannah's house, she screamed that Serena was a "goddamn motherfucking monster," and a "motherfucking evil cunt." And then, using the terminology Serena — a religious zealot — might care about the most, June said, "Fuck you, Serena, you are going to burn in goddamn motherfucking hell, you crazy, evil bitch." At that, Serena finally turned around, and coolly replied, "Don't get upset. It's not good for the baby."
It was a breathtaking clash, and in any place other than The Handmaid's Tale's Gilead, would surely signify an irreparable rupture between two characters. But as we've seen in the Emmy-winning show's second season, which drew to a close this week, it was just another battle in the conjoined lives of Serena, a Commander's wife, and June, her Handmaid (who is called Offred). Their increasingly complicated dynamic — which veers between loathing and friendship, abuse and kindness — has provided the show's narrative tension this season. As acting partners, Moss and Strahovski have played their high-stakes roles with exactness and poignancy.
With the real-life backdrop of United States current events that sometimes makes The Handmaid's Tale feel like it could be the country's nightmarish future, Serena and June are a will-they-or-won't-they pairing for the Trump years. That Strahovski's Serena looks (and sounds) like she could be one of the complicit blonde women of the Trump administration — say, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, or Ivanka Trump — is yet another accidental ripped-from-the-headlines parallel of The Handmaid's Tale.
But the question is not if Serena and June will date, but whether they will kill each other, or save each other. When asked about working with Moss, Strahovski told BuzzFeed News they try to find something new in each take. "It's astounding to be able to have a sparring partner like that," she said, calling the characters' close connection a "weird, tumultuous awkwardness."
Bruce Miller, the creator of The Handmaid's Tale, has adapted and expanded upon Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel of the same name. He described the life-and-death terms of Serena and June’s relationship by offering an example from Season 2's seventh episode, "After," in which Serena begins forging orders that appear to be coming from Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), who's actually incapacitated in the hospital. Serena has summoned June, a book editor in the time before Gilead, to the Commander's study. Is she about to punish Offred for some crime or slight? No: Serena needs help proofreading the orders. "If both of those things are possible truths in that moment, that shows you what a good job Yvonne does with the character," Miller told BuzzFeed News. "You don't know!"
In the Season 2 finale, "The Word," Serena allows June to escape with their baby. Nichole (ultimately, even June calls her Nichole, after first naming her Holly) has been hard-won by Serena — she's all Serena has ever wanted. That June ends up handing Nichole to Emily (Alexis Bledel) to take out of Gilead, but stays there herself, is something Serena would never imagine (and is surely a decision that will be debated by viewers from now until 2019, when the next season of The Handmaid's Tale premieres).
The Handmaid's Tale is June's story: It's about her survival, her self-preservation, and (one would imagine) will eventually be about her role in overthrowing Gilead and reuniting with Hannah (and possibly her husband and best friend, who are currently in Toronto). But Season 2 has also been about Serena's disillusionment with Gilead, which — as a right-wing activist and pundit — she helped build, only to be shut out of. She is treated like a freak during a diplomatic visit to Canada, and is even tempted when there to defect to Hawaii by a flirtatious stranger who turns out to be an agent of the (now tiny) US government. She is whipped by her husband in front of Offred in the show's eighth episode for continuing to issue orders in his name. And that beating was Serena's turning point, according to Strahovski. "I think that's sort of the first moment of that transition of realizing, Wow, I'm not safe, and I'm at the top of the food chain here," she said.
Nevertheless, Serena begins "The Word" thinking that Nichole will always be safe because she's her daughter. But the events that follow show her how wrong she is. Toward the beginning of the episode, June — frantic with worry about Nichole — comes to Serena's greenhouse to show her that Eden (Sydney Sweeney), who was brutally executed in the previous episode, had owned a Bible that she tried to study dutifully, despite it being illegal for women to read. As they parry back and forth, June finally shouts, "How are you going to keep her safe? How are you going to keep her safe? Are you going to lock her up here like an orchid?"
It was a scene, Strahovski said, that she struggled with in its original form, thinking that the "new Serena," as she calls her, would not be so harsh about Eden. "The old Serena would say, 'She sinned, and she deserved it.' But the new Serena, who's been deeply affected by things in the build-up to that scene, is not so sure anymore," Strahovski said. Strahovski said she "needed to soften it a little bit," and ended up "finessing a couple of the words."
Miller said he, Moss, and Strahovski talked for a long time about the scene, because Strahovski wanted to "stick the landing" for the finale. "One of the best things about Yvonne's performance is how deep she digs into each moment, and how precise she is as an actress," Miller said. "Although it all does seem fluid and integrated in her performance, it is thought through and incredibly, incredibly thoughtful."
Later in the episode, after Serena decides to argue in front of the Commanders' council that girls and women should be allowed to read the Bible, she is again punished. "I did this for Nichole. I did it to set an example for our daughter," she tells her husband. Waterford's response is sinister, and layered: "So you have," he says. Then the Guardians grab her to — as we see later — cut off her pinkie finger as a punishment.
"It doesn't even matter what they all think," Strahovski said. "She can now live with herself a little more knowing that she really, truly did try, and paid a really big price."
In Gilead, no one is ever protected. By the end of the finale, Serena now knows this truth in her bones — literally — and makes her decision to hand over Nichole accordingly. "I loved that it was a breakdown of her belief system, and of her character," Strahovski said. "I loved that she's challenged in such a way that really breaks her, and she experiences things that are really horrific that make her think differently about motherhood, and what it means to raise a child in Gilead, to ultimately make the biggest sacrifice she'll ever make in her life."
June is Nichole's biological mother, and Serena is her adoptive mother. Both women are powerful, intelligent, and stubborn to the point of being rebellious. In other words, Miller said, Nichole would be especially doomed in Gilead. "She's gonna be strong and smart and have a big mouth and be awesome!" he said. "And that's going to get her killed."
"People follow their heart, and terrible things happen," Miller continued. "It's not a safe place. That's what we're establishing: No matter how much you play by the rules, Gilead is cruel and unpredictable."
June and Serena have been able to put aside things that would be unforgivable in any other place or time. In Serena's mind, June has been obstinate, and has tried to escape twice. Serena has done innumerable cruel things to June, first and foremost participating in the Ceremony as she's being raped by the Commander — the final one at the end of June's pregnancy being so violent it shocks all three of them. "The rape scene — it was a lot," Strahovski said. "That was one of the more intense scenes to film."
To Miller, the difference in that scene is June's reaction: She puts up a fight. "I don't know that either one of them expected it to go this way, because it's never gone that way before," he said. "If you'll excuse how horrible this sounds, their rapes have always been neat and tidy and no complaints. Now, it's become what it is, which is: terrible."
"It's a difficult arc for Serena this year, a complicated arc," Miller continued. "The relationship between her and June is coming together and breaking apart, coming together and breaking apart. And it's breaking apart in horrible ways — so violent you never think they can come back together. But somehow these two women are so intertwined that it's impossible for them to extricate themselves from each other."