[This story contains spoilers from the two-episode premiere of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.]
A smirk and a growl.
Those were the dueling images The Handmaid’s Tale left for viewers when it returned.
The smirk came from Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski), with the once-reigning Gilead wife enjoying her winning moment when, during a global broadcast of her late husband’s funeral, she brings Hannah (Jordana Blake) into her televised appearance. And the growl came from June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss), who was on the receiving end of that message, as she watched her pre-teen daughter being used as a pawn.
But the actresses who play the starring women on Hulu’s Emmy-winning dystopian series say those physical reactions are just the tip of the iceberg as the show begins its penultimate season.
“The June v. Serena concept is not going to be as simple as you may think,” Elisabeth Moss, who also directed the first two episodes, “Morning” and “Ballet,” tells The Hollywood Reporter of their evolving dynamic, once again being brought into focus for the fifth season. “We set it up in a really big way — in the biggest way you possibly could on that jumbotron. Where it goes is actually really personal, intimate and complex.”
The history between June and Serena — with June being Serena’s former handmaid — is already complicated and intimate. Not only did Serena have an active hand in helping to create Gilead, the totalitarian society that serves as a backdrop to The Handmaid’s Tale, she also played an active role in her husband Fred’s (Joseph Fiennes) systemic raping of June (leading to his violent murder at the end of season four) in hopes of her bearing a child for them, as is the Gilead order.
Throughout June and Serena’s tumultuous history, there have also been quiet moments of cooperation, like when June became pregnant by Nick (Max Minghella) instead of Fred, and Serena helped June and Nick’s baby, Nichole, ultimately escape to safety. But all of that appears to be wiped away in this cliffhanger moment of season five, when Serena reminds June that she helped to take away her first daughter, Hannah, who remains captive in Gilead even as June has found freedom in Canada.
“[The funeral broadcast] sets the scene in a very complicated way,” says Moss, who is also an executive producer and currently finishing the edit on season five. “We’re working on the finale and it’s really interesting to go back and see where we started, back to episodes one and two, because we really go so far from episode two to the finale. We go a long way. This season is wild; that’s the word I would use.”
Strahovski similarly describes this season as a roller coaster, noting that the ride Serena and June take not only goes up and down but also takes several upside-down loops. “They’re trying to one-up each other,” she adds to THR in a separate conversation. “It’s, ‘Oh, you’re going to take Fred? Well, I’m going to remind you that I can take your daughter, again.’ And it goes from there.”
When the season begins, Strahovski describes Serena as being “a different kind” of unhinged, now feeling desperate and alone. “We’ve seen Serena unhinged in different ways in past seasons, but this was very fear-based,” she says. After losing their influence in Gilead, Serena and Fred spent much of season four in a detention cell while in Canadian government custody. Her unexpected pregnancy, however, eventually brought Serena and Fred closer, which is why she is hit especially hard by his murder at the hands of June and a group of former handmaids seeking revenge. June also mailed Fred’s severed ring finger to Serena, a move that creator Bruce Miller told THR was sure to bring about a scary reaction from Serena, who still has cards to play.
“I think it’s hitting Serena that Fred’s gone and she really doesn’t have anyone in her court, even though that relationship was complicated,” says Strahovski. “All these people are pulling back or implicated somehow; Mark Tuello [the U.S. government representative in Canada, played by Sam Jaeger] is showing signs of pulling back from Serena, and whatever thread of a relationship Serena thought she had with June, now June has gone and murdered Fred. Serena feels so exposed, so abandoned, so betrayed by whatever was left in her life, that the fear is just so big now.”
Strahovski cites the scene at the morgue — where Serena finds out that June won’t be punished, since the murder took place outside of Canada’s jurisdiction, and takes it out on Mark Tuello — as being most representative of how Serena is recoiling from fear, before springing forward and using Hannah to get back at June. As an actor, “it was really fun to play those scenes lashing out from that space, and then to have that revenge funeral moment,” she adds. “Serena’s way of acting out and of protecting herself, and of surviving Gilead and all those situations, is to lash out.”
The Hannah cameo brings the show full circle, back to the premiere episode that sets up the entire story of The Handmaid’s Tale: A daughter being ripped from her mother’s arms, and the fight to get her back.
“From the beginning, I’ve always felt this story was very much about survival — and not only June’s survival, but the search for survival on the part of so many characters. The search to survive as who you are, as who you want to be, with the choices you want to make. I find that very moving,” says Moss of what she calls the heart of the show. “Whoever it is, whether it’s Serena or June or Moira [Samira Wiley], it is always about their search to survive as the person that they want to be.”
She continues, “And with June and Serena, they’re trying to figure out who that person is. I always describe this season as June versus Serena, but more to the point, it’s June versus Offred [her handmaid name] and Serena versus Mrs. Waterford. These are two women who are trying to figure out who they are in this new world where they are both post-Gilead but still feel Gilead pulling at them. They’re trying to be these new people with this supposed newfound freedom, and it’s not that easy. And they are circling each other in their search.”
For June, especially, the lead character has had very little time to process the trauma she’s been through, while also being tasked with figuring out who she wants to be. By charting a 24-hour period post-Fred’s murder, the fifth-season premiere begins where the fourth season ended, meaning June has only been free for a few months and Fred’s blood is literally still drying on her hands. Moss says the opening scene in the diner, where June and her handmaids have a “bacchanal” feast like warriors to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “Gettin’ Happy” — a scene she directed — is one of her favorite scenes in the entire series.
“The guilt that she feels is very palpable and she wants to be punished. She wants someone to tell her what is right and what is wrong,” Moss says of June’s head space when the season begins, after the diner celebration sets her off on a path of self-reflection. “Coming out of Gilead, she has a very skewed idea of what is right and what is wrong, and of violence and when it’s right and when it’s wrong, having not only been the victim of violence but witnessing it so many times. She desperately wants somebody to say, ‘What you did was wrong and you need to be punished for it.’ And, she doesn’t get it. She doesn’t get that release. She doesn’t get that satisfaction. So, she doesn’t know where to put it.”
Moss says it’s Serena who will help June to figure that out as the season goes, crediting Strahovski for the complexity she brings to the role (“the vulnerability, the knowledge of Serena’s own flaws is pure genius and completely Yvonne”).
“We were building towards this idea of Fred Waterford being the villain, and being the one June had to vanquish. And what becomes very obvious at the top of our season is, it didn’t fix anything for June. It was a momentary feeling of euphoria and relief, but it doesn’t fix the problem,” says Moss. “Serena is sort of this other half of June that she needs to deal with. In the same way that June needs to deal with her own demons, she needs to deal with this person who has had such an effect on her life, and who has been such a huge part of her life, in positive and negative ways.”
The Handmaid’s Tale releases new season five episodes weekly, Wednesdays on Hulu. Head here for more of THR‘s coverage on the season, including an interview and conversation with Miller.
Elisabeth Moss and Yvonne Strahovski on Why Their ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Face-Off Is Anything But Simple