[This story contains spoilers for season two, episode eight of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “Women’s Work.”]
When it comes to Gilead, it’s not often that the audience finds sympathy for the people in power. But if The Handmaid’s Tale accomplished its mission this week, then several jaws dropped in horror on behalf of Serena Joy, emotionally and physically beaten in the aftermath of a grueling episode.
The hour, called “Women’s Work,” comes from director Kari Skogland and continues to expand the unexpected alliance between Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and Offred (Elisabeth Moss), who are working with one another on some matters of Gilead governance while Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) recovers from injuries sustained in the recent suicide bombing. Serena finds herself compelled to help Offred on a personal matter: Angela, the infant daughter of recently re-employed handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer), is inexplicably sick, with no apparent treatment available from Gilead’s top medical experts.
Serena calls in some favors and bends some major rules in order to recruit someone to the cause: a woman who was once a top doctor in her field, now serving as a Martha for another household. The doctor fails in her efforts to save the baby, leaving Serena reeling in sorrow as she watches Janine say goodbye to her daughter (whom she calls Charlotte, despite the young girl’s given Gilead name) one last time. Little does she know that the baby will ultimately survive the night, for as-yet unexplained reasons; regardless of the outcome, watching Serena pour so much of herself into the plight of an innocent provides an unexpected softness to one of the Hulu series’ most powerful and often bitterly abusive characters.
“There’s a huge motherhood arc in this season for Serena,” Strahovski tells The Hollywood Reporter about Serena’s story in “Women’s Work,” and the season at large. “Everything that happens this season challenges her idea of what she thought motherhood was about. Serena is the type of person where the only thing she actually has hope for in her life is the potential of having a child. I don’t know who she would be without that. It seems to me she would crumble without that last shred of hope. A baby — anyone’s baby — is everything to her. I think she really does believe in the welfare of the babies. She wants to help.”
Alas, not everyone shares Serena’s philosophy toward new life. Earlier in the episode, she tries to recruit her husband to the cause, and when she’s unable to yield his cooperation, she pushes forward with the plan to illegally recruit the former doctor behind his back. When Fred learns about what happened, he makes his displeasure known in certain and violent terms, removing his belt and repeatedly whipping Serena’s backside as punishment.
“For that particular scene, we had conversations before the rehearsal, because of the stunt involved with the beating,” Strahovski recalls of shooting the brutal beating. “I remember showing the crew what the blocking would be. We’re never fully involved in the scene at that point; we’re just showing everyone the movements, and going through it. I remember hearing audible reactions from the crew: ‘Oh, this is awful.’ I remember thinking: ‘Have we crossed the line?’ I’m sure that’s happened with many scenes, because it seems like we always cross a line in our show, which is what makes it so confronting and compelling. But in that one, it just felt so wrong, what was going on. It was kind of devastating to film. It was a real feeling of degradation that came over me as we shot that.”
In order to shoot the scene, Strahovski says she “was covered up in motorcycle gear, the stuff that’s inside leather jackets motorcyclists wear, if they have an accident. My lower back and the top of my butt was covered in all of that hard shell gear. We had made this fitted piece so he could really whack me with that belt. It wasn’t hurting me, but I could definitely feel the intensity.”
The intensity was felt emotionally as well, as Serena walks away from the harrowing physical encounter with visible and invisible scars alike. For one thing, Strahovski views it as a massive status quo shift within Serena’s view of her husband: “With Fred doing what he does at the end of the episode, she loses a big part of her that’s hopeful. It’s in large part because Fred has ultimately turned his back on a child in a way she could never, and didn’t, in that episode. It’s so devastating for her: A, for the child, and B, because her relationship with Fred has just hit even more of a rock bottom, if it even could have.”
There’s also the matter of Serena’s growing feelings of conflict toward Gilead, a nation she directly helped create.
“Everything that happens — including this — challenges her idea of what it’s going to be like to be a mother in Gilead,” says Strahovski. “‘Even I’m not safe. What does that mean for my child? What does that mean if I have a son — and what does it mean if I have a daughter? Are they going to be safe in Gilead?’ There are all these questions that come up and challenge her, and what it means to be a great mother, and put her child first. Even in the baby Angela storyline: putting that child first, and doing the best we can for that child. In Gilead, that means breaking the rules, apparently, because [the government] won’t do what’s best for the child.”
It also likely means a dissolution of the alliance with Offred, at least for now. Near the end of the episode, Offred comes to Serena’s room to provide consolation; Serena promptly orders Offred to leave, opting to suffer in silence. According to Strahovski: “That scene is so devastating. Deep down, you have raw human emotions, and all you want is for someone to hold you after something like that, and be with you. But in a way, she’s already learning the lesson Fred has imposed on her after the beating: to keep to your own domain, and do not become friendly with a handmaid, and keep yourself separate from that. She’s already doing what Fred wanted her to think: ‘Get back to your position and get back to where you belong. You’re a woman in my house and you’ll abide by my rules.’ There’s an element of fear and also embarrassment, of not wanting Offred to see her in that way. But as a raw human, you would want to let her in.”