[This story contains spoilers to the seventh episode of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s fifth season, “No Man’s Land.”]
“I’m their handmaid… it’s like I’m you.”
The Handmaid’s Tale viewers have waited a long time for Serena Joy Waterford to get her due.
Finally, in the seventh episode of the penultimate season of Hulu’s Emmy-winning series, that moment of payoff arrived when Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) went into labor and had no one to help her but her former handmaid, and current enemy, June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss).
The episode, “No Man’s Land,” forces the dystopian series’ warring women into an intimate barn setting where June, torn at the idea of helping her former abuser, ultimately coaches Serena through the birth of her first child, baby boy Noah, son of the late Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). The childbirth scene is primal and intimate and prompts the women to confess their secrets: June tells Serena that she didn’t kill her when she had the chance because she simply didn’t want to, and Serena realizes she has been forced into essentially being a handmaid in the Wheelers house and begs June to take her baby to freedom.
“It’s so unexpected the way they crafted Serena becoming a handmaid without her actually becoming a handmaid,” Strahovski told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the episode about the twist — and major moment of payoff — of Serena being stripped of everything and having nowhere to turn but to June. “I fantasized about them turning Serena into a handmaid because that’s the best kind of revenge and satisfying for the audience. But I never thought that Bruce [Miller, creator] would do it because it’s too obvious. Then I read this version and was thrilled they managed to do it in this great, clever, creative way.”
But June doesn’t take the baby. Instead, she lectures Serena on why that baby needs his mother, and she gives Serena the confidence to want to fight for her child. “I’m not sure how much of it is about Serena and how much of it is about the baby, but it makes for such a complicated, layered setup,” she adds.
The episode ends, however, with the ultimate comeuppance when, shortly after arriving at the hospital in Canada, June’s husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) calls immigration authorities on Serena, who is undocumented, and her baby is promptly taken away as she is detained. Where Serena goes from here, Strahovski says, is “rock bottom.” But first, the actress takes THR behind the scenes of the biggest Serena-June episode to date, why it felt so personal to her, and whether or not she believes Serena can change.
When you and I chatted at the beginning of the season, you said, with a laugh, that you’ve worked hard to make people want to root for Serena. How does this episode feel like a turning-of-the-tide moment for her amid this larger June and Serena payoff for viewers?
It’s pivotal in so many ways. And it’s so complicated, which is what makes it so juicy. I think it’s hard to feel one way about it, which is why I’m so curious how audiences will react. People are going to want to see Serena get what she deserves, but when there is an innocent little baby involved, that gets complicated. And that’s the complicated line June is walking this entire episode in making the decision to come back and help Serena while she’s in labor.
Having all those amazing scenes to work with, as an actor, was like threading such a fine thread to navigate the emotions. Especially from Serena’s point of view, to go from the most magical moment in your life, only to realize that you have no life anymore, and then she’s asking June to take the baby. For Serena, it’s one of the rarer moments where we’re not seeing her manipulate as much because she’s sort of realizing things in the moment. Where we left with the cliffhanger in the previous episode, she was going moment by moment and had no plan; we’ve never seen her that way, and it’s really interesting territory.
You also told me you were blown away when you read that Serena’s labor scene would be just the two of them and that you and Elisabeth Moss got to play around with the scene and found things “you didn’t think could exist.” What were some of those things you found?
That moment I was talking about was in that huge scene when Serena offers for June to take her baby, and June has her back turned to Serena, and she comes back in and says, “I’m not you. I’m not going to do that, because you’re the mother.” We found almost laughter in it. There was smiling. And it was like they were really bonding in a lot of ways, which is very confronting and conflicting if you’re watching that as an audience member, given everything they’ve been through and everything you’ve witnessed Serena do. The smiling throughout that moment was something neither of us had envisioned in that way, which was really cool and powerful. The whole episode was really fun to map out, even the physicality. And for me, it was so personal because I had just given birth.
Did you add some of the primal screaming into the scene and other elements of the labor?
The noises I definitely wanted to be more guttural. I wanted it to be representative of at least what my labor felt like. And I wanted to have that physical intimacy between June and Serena that a lot of people do with their partners when giving birth. I wanted it to be intimate and to see the physical relationship between these two women, with the noises and also the positions. June had given birth twice, and Serena had not. So I wanted to sort of peel back on the savviness of Serena being a first-time mom while the stakes are so high and very dangerous. In that moment in the barn, there’s a lot of panic given the circumstances and the environment, and given that June is a threat still in those moments. There is definitely a layer of panic and anxiety that’s infused into the birth scene. It was one of the most — if not the most — exciting episodes to play with in the whole five years for me.
That’s interesting you mention the smiling because viewers are expecting some sort of manipulation, and the smiling made me wonder if June was being genuine. Do you believe June meant what she was saying, that Serena is the best mom for her child and that she should fight for her baby?
Yes. I do think she genuinely means it. However, I think the “but” that everyone in the audience is thinking and feeling, and the “but” that Serena and even June is thinking and feeling, is that June doesn’t necessarily trust herself, and doesn’t trust herself to follow through on that pure genuine thought. She might be saying it in this moment, and this is ultimately what she wants to lean into because she is a better person than Serena, but I think the fact that we’re all bumping on is, but how long is this going to last? And, can this last? This is a show that explores what it’s like to be experiencing trauma and the aftermath of trauma, and the continuation of reliving your trauma through people and your abusers. Anything can change, which is why it’s so complicated and complex.
Do you think Serena could have ever lived with the choice of giving up her son if June had said “Yes”?
Oh, God. I don’t know what would have happened. I don’t know that I can see her laying back in the hay and being like, “God take me now, I’m going to die.” If it had been written where June said “Yes,” I could see Serena regretting it and running after the baby and June.
Then there is the revelation that Serena is essentially a handmaid when she returns to the Wheelers’ house with this new baby. It seemed like she couldn’t confront that, until now, and this role reversal is a major payoff for the audience — how did you feel about it?
I love the slow reveal. It was a chance to have Serena be not prepared for something. You see how she’s going moment by moment as we got deeper and deeper into the setup of the Wheelers in episodes five and six, and at the end of six, she has zero plan. She has no idea what she’s going to do when she gets in the car with Ezra to go and get June, knowing Ezra is supposed to kill June. Plus, the labor is starting. It’s such an opportunity for me as an actor to show a different color and then some. This is a credit to Eva [Vives], our director of those episodes because they felt very reminiscent of old school The Handmaid’s Tale and back to season one, where we had that major creep factor; that feeling in the pit of your stomach of, “What is happening here?” It was such a throwback to what was one of the major elements that makes the show in the Gilead world.
There are three layers of justice with Serena in this episode. First, the birth, since we’ve seen June give birth under such trying circumstances. The second is to see Serena describe herself as a handmaid; and then the third comes in the final moment when her baby is taken away from her. How would you describe this episode of justice for Serena — is it deserved?
Oy. It’s hard because, as the actress playing her, I don’t know that she’s genuinely sorry. I think it’s more about absolving herself of whatever guilt she feels and that she’s gotten herself into a terrible situation that is very much like the one June was in. And June happens to be there, so Serena is all about saying, “You know what, I’m so sorry.” But it’s more like she’s saying, “I’m so sorry because this sucks, and I really don’t like being in this position. And I don’t want to be here anymore.” It’s not like Serena is saying in her apology that this is about June. And that’s a key difference. I think people really want to see Serena having a taste of her own medicine — which this definitely is — the way the episode ends. But it’s hard because there is a little innocent baby involved, and people don’t want that. That’s what June says: “This is about the baby. It’s not about you.”
June also does seem shocked when she finds out that Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) called the authorities on Serena and that her baby is being taken away from her, after all they just went through.
Yes, June is definitely not meant to be a part of that plan. The whole thing is awful. I’m in it subjectively, which is a whole different ballgame than when I’m looking at it from an objective standpoint. When I’m in it, it’s really all about mama bear. You’d be dying inside. There are just no words to describe the emotional rage and devastation in that moment, so I think that’s where the character is at.
It’s a pivotal moment to see Serena go into mama bear mode. Do you have hope she could change for the better?
I love being the bearer of great news and saying, “I think she’s going to turn out to be just a stellar person!” But I don’t think she can. I don’t think she has the ability to self-reflect and look deep inside herself to truly realize what she has done, because I think that would unravel everything and be too hard. She might be very smart, but she’s not emotionally smart enough to really know that “if I’m going to try to be a good and well-rounded human, I have to go backwards and look deeper into myself and do all that work.” I don’t think she’s capable.
Serena will always choose Serena, at the end of the day.
Yes, but now it’s Serena and her baby.
Both Serena and June have found themselves in incredible predicaments as mothers. When you look at June’s current situation, would you go back to Gilead to save your child?
It’s just an impossible decision, which I think is what the show is so beautifully exploring. Do you go back into your oppressor’s and abuser’s territory? The character is wanting to do that, but then you have to pull back and think: “Is that going to make it worse and an even more terrible situation?” It’s really about gathering all the information, which is impossible, and that’s why this is such a heart-wrenching show to watch and very difficult, it’s so confronting.
On the personal level of having a baby so close to filming and being a mother of two, have you found this season impacting you more?
I think separating your job from your mental state is really important, but this was way too close to home. Especially because I had just given birth — my baby was 8 weeks old when I went back to shooting. And I have a now 4-year-old as well. When you’re postpartum like that, there’s a lot of stuff going on with your own body and emotions; you’re flooded with so many new feelings. It definitely hit a raw nerve being so close to a real-life birth. I remember reading the end of episode seven and then reading episode eight, and I had to put the script down. It was so hard to read. The show has always been difficult for me to watch, I’m never the one who can sit there and binge. I remember watching the first three episodes in season one and having to pause the show multiple times because my husband and I were sobbing. I’ve always found it really hard; add a recent birth to the mix, and you’re off to the races!
On a larger scale in the U.S., Roe v. Wade was overturned at the end of your shoot and the show, which at its core is about women losing rights, is now airing at a pivotal time. The Handmaid’s Tale has always been prescient. Do you feel a different reaction this season?
I don’t know that it feels different, because like you said, the show has always eerily been so aligned and representative of current affairs when it airs — which is so strange because we’re filming it months and months before that. It has always been really shocking to me as the years have gone by. This is obviously a really big year, given what’s going on with Roe v. Wade, but it has always given me that feeling, I will say. And I think the awful part is that perhaps it’s not that surprising anymore. Part of the terror is that it is starting to feel normal to have a dystopian show representing elements of our reality. I don’t know that anyone ever expected to be part of a show that is so meaningful and representative to so many people for so many different reasons. That’s also been a part of the journey. We’re a part of something that almost feels historic in a way.
Bringing it back to June and Serena heading into the final three episodes, what comes next is a new level of desperation and hopelessness for Serena. How would she and June sync up by the end of the season?
The ball is definitely in June’s court in terms of whether they stay connected or not. Serena is in an impossible situation. Episode eight is probably her ultimate rock bottom. Serena is going to continue to try to anchor herself to June because that’s all she’s got, and she’s desperate. Her mama bear has joined forces with her inner manipulator, which makes for an interesting combination. As we head towards the end of this season, I think it’s going to be a very unexpected turn. I guess we always say that, but this time what I think is different is that I’m not sure anybody is going to guess what episode 10 is going to hold for June and Serena. You’ll know what I mean when you get there.
You have one more season after this one. Have you given any thought as to what you’d want to tackle for Serena’s final run?
The world is our oyster, I guess! We’ll see what the writers come up with. I feel very grateful and satisfied. Everything I got to do this season was an incredible gift and then an incredible joy — pun intended! — to be able to really flesh this character out. There are so many clever elements, and I feel so lucky to be playing someone for five seasons and still feel challenged, which is rare, I think. So I have no doubt that the writers will continue to challenge me. They’re very savvy with how they always manage to surprise us. But if I said what I want, I think I might be spoiling something. So I’ll save that for after the last episode has aired, and then give my two cents about what the future might hold.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Handmaid’s Tale releases weekly Wednesdays on Hulu.