By Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
There’s been a lot of buzz about The Handmaid’s Tale Season Two, and for good reason: unlike Game of Thrones, which took five years to run out of source material, The Handmaid’s Tale has done it in just one season. Now that the show is finished with the plot of Margaret Atwood’s book, we’re left to wonder what the writers are going to do with the world they’ve been given, and what kind of middle and end they’re going to write to the beginning that was Season One.
As far as Offred/ June’s story is concerned, her meeting up with Moira and Luke in Canada and continuing the resistance sounds like a good bet, and a potential love triangle between Luke and Nick is likely. But one piece of season one that doesn’t readily seem to fit into the next stage of the story, is Commander Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy. After all, now that Offred is out of their clutches and can return to her pre-Gilead identity as June, her captors don’t seem to have a place in the narrative anymore. But perhaps Serena Joy can serve a more compelling purpose than is obvious.
In Handmaid’s Tale episode six, “A Woman’s Place,” we get flashbacks into Serena Joy’s past, revealing her part as an architect of Gilead, as well as showing us the happier early days of her marriage. We also get to watch her squirm as the pantsuited female president of Mexico asks her if she’s actually happy with the world she helped create. As President Castillo points out, Serena Joy once instigated riots and gave impassioned speeches, and now she lives in a world where she can’t even read her own book.
Serena Joy’s later flashbacks show her shut out of post-coup government meetings and growing distant from the Commander. We see years of bitterness begin to warp her from a happy young wife and political firebrand, to the stiff and passive-aggressive woman we meet in episode one. “A Woman’s Place” ends with her throwing a copy of her book in the trash, apparently accepting her choices and resigning herself to her fate.
So where does Serena Joy go from here? Will she continue to find ways to live the life she’s chosen? Will she eventually snap from the strain? Or is there a third path she could take through the rest of The Handmaid’s Tale?
Let me talk about this TV show, by talking about another TV show. About halfway through Season One of Avatar: The Last Airbender, there’s an episode called “The Storm.” It features intermittent flashbacks to the past of the show’s main villain, Prince Zuko, revealing why he does what he does and how he came to be where he is today. Sound familiar?
For those who don’t already know, Zuko is a prince of the Fire Nation, which has been conquering the rest of the world of Avatar for the past one hundred years. When Zuko was 14, he questioned his father’s military tactics in front of his generals, and was exiled for it. His only path to returning home and regaining his father’s love is to capture our hero, Aang, so he has dedicated his life to hunting Aang down.
Looking deeper, Prince Zuko’s characterization actually looks a lot like Serena Joy’s, when you think about it: they’re both in the elite classes of dogmatic, imperialist regimes, and at the beginning of their shows they’re both true believers of their nations’ ideologies. They both benefit from the regimes they uphold, but they also both struggle to fit into the roles they need to play in order to get those benefits.
They both have a male authority figure in their lives whose love they try to win, but who withholds that love from them. They terrorize our heroes Aang and Offred, but are thrown into little moments of cooperation and friendship with them during their respective season ones, which hint at their potential for redemption in the future.
Over the course of the second and third seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko embarks on a redemption arc that takes him from hunting Aang to win his father’s love, to helping Aang overthrow his father. See what I’m getting at here?
A redemption arc for Serena Joy, one that ends with her working with June and Moira to bring down Gilead, could be a way for the show’s creators to depart from Atwood’s novel in a bold and decisive way. It could be what makes this show more than just an adaptation.
How could this work?
Early in the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, we are introduced to Commander Zhao, a Fire Nation officer in favor with Zuko’s father and on the rise in his career. Zuko, remember, is very out of favor with his father, and on a joke mission to capture Aang, the Avatar, who everyone believes is dead. “Avatar Hunter” is basically the lowest rank possible in the Fire Nation military, and Zuko is even failing at that.
While Zuko represents the formidable Fire Nation in his scenes with Aang, he becomes the underdog when he’s in conflict with Zhao. Zhao has many more resources than Zuko, so when he decides to hunt Aang too, he quickly gains the advantage, making us sympathize with, even root for, Zuko. Even though we don’t want Zuko to capture Aang, we double don’t want Zhao to capture Aang. It’s an enemy-of-my-enemy dynamic.
Zhao doesn’t make Zuko a good person, but he certainly makes Zuko look better by being an even worse person. If only there were someone like Commander Zhao in Serena Joy’s life—but alas, I don’t remember there being any Commanders in The Handmaid’s Tale.
If Serena Joy goes up against her husband in a major way in season two, Waterford could provide Serena Joy with what I’ll call the Zhao Effect. That could involve Offred’s escape and how to recapture her, or something closer to home, but as long as Waterford’s ample potential for being a terrible person is being put to use to make us sympathize with Serena Joy, that’s all we need to get the redemption arc show on the road.
My pet idea is that Serena Joy could try to sabotage Waterford’s attempts to track down Offred because she doesn’t want Offred to come back. She could even enlist Nick’s help with this, since he also has a reason not to want Offred to be caught! She gets involved with the Eyes, and probably also the Resistance because Nick seems to have ties to them too, while growing disillusioned with her marriage, her country, and her ideology.
Eventually, she realizes that it’s pointless to try to keep Waterford away from Offred if he’s already made the choice to cheat on her, and gives up faith entirely. But that’s just me.
To close: later on in “The Storm,” Zuko actually saves Aang from Zhao. Zuko’s motivations are less than noble—he wants to keep Aang out of Zhao’s clutches so he can capture Aang himself. But for just a moment, they’re working together, and when Zuko is knocked out during their escape, instead of leaving him for dead, Aang rescue him too.
As Zuko is recovering, Aang talks about a friend of his from the Fire Nation from before the war. He turns to Zuko and says, “if there weren’t a war, do you think we could have been friends?” Zuko kind of ruins the moment by blasting a bunch of fire at Aang in response. But you get the picture. Imagine Offred asking Serena Joy if they would have been friends before. Handmaid’s Tale does moments like that all the time! Anything with the word “before” in it is gold as far as The Handmaid’s Tale is concerned.
Serena Joy could certainly also do a Lady Macbeth-style slide into madness, or grab for power within the framework of Gilead like Cersei, without realizing how it limits her—or she could be dropped from the show entirely, quickly killed off or simply never mentioned again. But Lady Macbeth and Cersei would be less interesting paths for Serena Joy to go down, than a path a woman villain has never taken would be. As far as breaking new ground in season two goes, The Handmaid’s Tale couldn’t do better than my idea, if I do say so myself.