[Spoilers, spoilers, and more spoilers.]
"They should never have given us uniforms if they didn't want us to be an army." —Offred
Now that the first season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale has drawn to a close, perhaps the biggest question we’ll be asking as we impatiently await the season two premiere in 2018 is whether Serena Joy is “cruel, evil, sadistic” (and roughly a dozen other far more vitriolic names that Offred/June called her), or if she is herself a sympathetic victim of the patriarchy doing all she can to have the one thing she is allowed in the Republic of Gilead: to be a mother.
The episode opens, appropriately enough, with the Shaker song “Simple Gifts.” The Shakers, a sect of Quakers, were a pacifist Christian movement that also believed in equality of the sexes. To have that haunting melody as a background to an introduction of the Red Center training, where Handmaids are tased, embedded with a tracker, and humbled on their knees with a stammered “I’m sorry, Aunt Lydia,” for any disobedience and sin is a shocking revelation of how far and fast women fell in Gilead.
But the violence of the Red Center was just the beginning for Offred this episode, as Serena Joy discovers her “affair” with Commander Waterford. First, Serena Joy backhands Offred soundly, knocking her to the ground. “You could have left me with something!” the Commander’s wife shouts, admitting that in the new regime she has nothing: no job, no purpose, no power, and now, not even a relationship with her husband. But there is still one thing that can be hers and hers alone. In an abrupt about-face, she forces her to take a blackmarket pregnancy test, and rejoices when it turns positive.
Serena Joy is obviously prepared to do whatever necessary to preserve this new addition to the family and her new role in life: mother. She immediately confronts Commander Waterford, informing him of the pregnancy—and taunting him that the child is probably not even his. “You are weak. God would not let you pass on that weakness,” she proclaims after revealing that she knows all about his non-ceremonial sexual interactions with Offred. Her words are cold and cutting, but in reality they are also protecting “her child” by attempting to cut the Commander off from Offred, not because she still wants him, but out of fear that Offred will try to kill herself like their previous handmaiden, causing Serena Joy to lose her only chance for a child.
Is Serena Joy cruel to tell Waterford that Offred was with someone else, that the baby might not be his? The fact that Waterford is so entirely unsympathetic makes that piece of vitriol seem justified. In fact, I may have cheered her on a bit when she told him how utterly weak he was. But a few scenes later it was Offred calling Serena Joy a bitch and so many other choice profanities after the Commander’s wife showed her a brief glimpse of her daughter, Hannah, but refused to let her out of the car to see or hold her. “She’s happy and well taken care of,” Serena Joy tells Offred. “As long as my baby is safe, so is yours.”
How you interpret Serena Joy’s motives here is a sort of Rorschach test of your feelings on her character. Offred hears those words as a threat, later begging the Commander to “protect” her daughter from Serena Joy. But is offering Offred a look at Hannah really an act of cruelty, or a kindness? Could it have been a reminder of what it means to be a mother? A precious moment to see that her daughter was as happy as one can be in this new world? After all, Offred has said repeatedly that her every action is motivated in keeping her daughter safe. Serena Joy allowed her to see that Hannah was safe, and could continue to be safe as long as Offred continued to follow the rules of being a Handmaid and protect the child she is now carrying, and hand the baby over after birth.
All Offred sees, however, is a villain, ready to manipulate her and harm her daughter. As for the Commander himself, he, too, begins to question whether Serena Joy even cares for him anymore. As the Commanders council meets to decide the fate of Commander Warren Putnam, the man who lied and manipulated his handmaiden Ofwarren/Janine into being his sex toy and used her to the point where she eventually tried to kill herself, Waterford suggested Putnam simply be allowed a minimal punishment, saying he sounded contrite. “Who amongst us hasn’t made mistakes?” he asked jovially, seeming surprised to hear that even Putnam’s wife wanted the harshest punishment possible.
“She loves him. She fears for his soul,” another Commander says. It's an explanation that Commander Waterford takes to heart (although it’s far more likely she simply wanted him punished for his unfaithfulness), leading him to wonder if that means Serena Joy no longer loves him since she has let him continue sinning on, unabated.
Now that season one has wrapped we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Commander Waterford is a villain, but it’s still difficult to decide where Serena Joy falls on that line. Is she also a villain, or simply misunderstood? Is her desire to keep Offred alive all based solely on her carrying a child that she hopes to raise, or is there a piece of her that recognizes herself in Offred’s oppression and is using the only bit of power she has to help her? After all, both of them believe they would do anything to protect their children.
Which of course brings us to the attempted stoning of Janine, and the role of Aunt Lydia. If Serena Joy is unable to be characterized as a hero or villain, then Aunt Lydia is completely impossible. The woman who began the season as the ultimate emblem of abuser and oppressor in episode one ended the series with what was no doubt the most complex character of the entire series. The full spectrum of her evolution was on display this episode as she began it by tasing and slut-shaming the new Handmaids in the Red Center, dispensing pain and shame in equal measures.
But the cracks in her veneer that we’ve seen throughout the season—her promises of extra dessert to Janine when she isn’t allowed to attend the Mexican delegation party, her fear as Janine stood on the edge of the bridge, preparing to throw her life away—ruptured even further as her voice audibly trembled as she commanded the Handmaids to stone Janine for putting her baby’s life in danger.
“God gives us blessings and he gives us challenges,” she proclaims, struggling, as she tries to convince the Handmaids to mete out Janine’s death. “The price of his love is high but it must be paid.” In the end, however, even Aunt Lydia crumbles as she stops the Guardians preparing to harm the Handmaids when they won’t throw the rocks. “These girls are my responsibility,” she intercedes, telling the girls to “go home. There will be consequences.”
Season one relied primarily on Margaret Atwood’s book, and while it offered much more opportunities to add depth and motivation to the characters within it, it remained mostly true to script—the development of Janine’s storyline and Moira’s final successful escape to Canada excepted. But that outline is finished now that Offred has been removed from the Waterfords’ home, leaving the second season of the Handmaid’s Tale to be a completely original story.
Will we finally learn whether we are justified in our love or hatred for Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia? I guess we’ll have to wait to find out.