'The Handmaid's Tale' Star Yvonne Strahovski Had to Fight Her Own Emotions While Filming Season 5's 'Motherland'

The actor also says that Serena won't be as 'patient' as June was in trying to get out of her role as a handmaid.
by Danielle Turchiano — 

Yvonne Strahovski and Bradley Whitford in 'The Handmaid's Tale'


Warning: This story contains spoilers for the eighth episode of The Handmaid's Tale Season 8, titled "Motherland," . Read at your own risk!

There has been a lot of debate over what Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) deserves on Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale. On the one hand, her book and her steadfast standing by her husband Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) not only helped Gilead rise in the first place, but she also was a willing and active participant in the society, including ceremonies. On the other hand, it is cruel to have your baby taken from you and crueler still to ask you to live in the same house with it but only be allowed to interact with it to feed it, like a machine. 

The eighth episode of the fifth season, titled "Motherland," saw Serena have to make the terrible choice to go back into the Wheelers' home as their handmaid, just to be able to be with her son again. She had been facing deportation, but Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) struck a deal with Alanis (Genevieve Angelson) and Ryan (Lucas Neff) to allow her to stay in Canada under their watch. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

"I didn't think she could tell at all that it would go as pear-shaped as it did," Strahovski tells Metacritic about Serena's loss of power and relationship with the Wheelers. "I wanted to clock the intensity and the weirdness of that initial meeting with Mrs. Wheeler and have that be kind of ironic because Serena did the same thing to June all those seasons ago. But definitely, we wanted it to be a slow build and realization of, 'Oh my gosh, I'm like a handmaid' on top of her already desperate situation of not really having anywhere to go."

Serena has grown more desperate throughout the fifth season, as she has realized just how much power she is losing, and that desperation is causing her "to make decisions on the fly," Strahovski says, and also turn to unexpected people for help. Namely June (Elisabeth Moss), who Serena calls repeatedly and who finally meets with her in the detention center in "Motherland."

It is during that meeting that Serena resigns herself to accept her fate as a handmaid, at least temporarily. After all, June's advice is to do what she did, which is act like a handmaid, but secretly plot her way out (perhaps with a side of revenge) the whole time.

Here, Strahovski breaks down that encounter between Serena and June and previews how Serena will handle her new position in life.

When June meets with Serena, she admits to her that she was plotting against Serena the whole time she was living in her house. On some level, Serena must have known that, but it also strikes different chords to hear it out loud, admitted to your face. On top of that, she's exhausted all of her options for help and she's been separated from her baby. How did you determine how much and what kind of emotions to let Serena show?

It was such a massive point of contention for me — that level of emotion spilling out in that scene and what I was going to do with it — because, to be honest, I've invested so much in this character, and it was really hard watching her in that entire episode be stuck without the baby and how personal that is to me. I have a baby; I had just given birth to my second child not long before shooting these episodes, so it was all pretty close to home for me. I just wanted to sob in every single scene.

I feel like if it was me in that situation, I would have just been messy, pleading, emotional, just sobbing in every single scene. And I thought to myself, "It's a television show and it needs to be more interesting than that." Plus, Serena is also very manipulative at the same time, so how do I marry them together?

That scene in particular, I was actually fighting my own emotions that I would have been feeling if it were me, Yvonne, [in that situation] to be able to play the scene. It's a little more held back. I think it's a more authentic representation of Serena — maybe not wanting to show all of that to June; there's part of her that's still maybe holding back, realizing that she's solo.

Right, there are things Serena is feeling, but what she is willing to show she is feeling to June is probably a lot less. When she has been vulnerable around June before it hasn't worked out well for her.

I think she tries to manipulate June in that scene and she realizes June is never going to budge. And then it's that realization that makes it one of the worst moments for Serena because she literally has no one. She's been leaning on all these men — Mark Tuello and Lawrence and her husband who's now dead — and June's always been this baseline. She's always expected that June'll be there as a weird lifeline, and this is the moment where June is cutting it off.

It's just so sad for Serena to realize that she is truly, truly, deeply on her own in this moment. And the complications of their relationship and Serena holding onto these ties — these memories of the good and the bad — she's trying to utilize them and say, "All of these things make us bonded." She's desperate to keep this relationship in whatever way she can, but it's just not working, and that's just devastating to her.

How did you determine how much of what Serena was saying to June was just to try to get June to help her, versus genuinely trying to connect? Is it finally settling in that her beliefs and behaviors have led to her own downfall, and can you play with regret and remorse?

It's tricky because I'm not sure that Serena is really saying sorry when she is [verbally] saying sorry. I'm not sure it's genuine. I think it's more about trying to absolve herself of any guilt, rather than genuinely being like, "I was a total sh-- bag," if that makes sense.

I do think the closest that she comes to being genuinely remorseful — and it's about the other person, not about herself — is when she says, "How did you ever live with me?" I think the other ones, during the birth scene, she's in such an activated, heightened state of panic, and the stakes are so high, I'm not sure that it's something she's really sitting with or has remorse. It's more after prison: she's alone and she had some time to really mull it over and really understand a little bit of what it might have been like.

Coming from the place of privilege that she does, it could be very easy for a person to act entitled and then turn angry when she doesn't get what she wants. What do you think keeps Serena from outwardly showcasing the anger at her situation while she is still detained?

I think she knows if she goes in that direction then she's even further away from the baby. But also, she's not unaware that June hated her. I think she knows in her mind, but I think she's so deeply traumatized in her heart — from being betrayed by Fred years ago and throughout all the seasons and by having a sh---y relationship with her mother, as we saw in that flashback. I think it's that wounded inner child that is sort of driving the ship a little bit here.

Serena ultimately does take June's advice because June points out that you can't help your child if you are not with them. In preparing to more fully take on the handmaid role, did you go back to any earlier episodes to see how Lizzie performed certain movements, in order to show that Serena really was paying attention then and is now truly mimicking what she saw in her own home?

I didn't go back and rewatch. I think the physicality was the thing that stuck with me the most — just how you would physically portray someone in a handmaid position. She goes back to the Wheelers and has to be that, but I think she forgets herself. You'll see in [Episode] 9 just how she runs up the stairs. She forgets herself and that just comes from her absolute desperation of her being a pure mom in that moment and wanting to see her baby.

From the minute Serena steps back into the Wheelers' house, she is struggling to restrain herself greatly. How long can she successfully hide her true intentions and feelings, the way June also advised?

Serena is incredibly manipulative and savvy, but she's always been in a position of privilege while doing that. I'm not sure that she's as savvy being so highly manipulative in a position that is not so privileged. She's out of her depth, so I think we're going to see her flail a little bit.

And we've already seen her disagree with Alanis on how to care for Noah. What does that relationship look like going forward?

It's very difficult for Serena. You're only allowed to breastfeed your child and then, "Bye!" It's horrendous, I can't. That's why the show can be so difficult to watch. So, for Serena, I think any mom instincts will kick in, and that's something the show has always shown us: those mom instincts and what you would do to aid your connection with your child. Given her more privileged, entitled past, I think she's going to butt heads [with Alanis] a little bit more and try to figure out a quick fix, Band-aid solution. Whether she succeeds or not is another question, but I don't think she's going to be as patient, perhaps, as June might have been in her plotting and her approach.

The Handmaid's Tale Season 5 streams new episodes Wednesdays 


Get to know Yvonne Strahovski:
Prior to The Handmaid's Tale, Strahovski was best known for playing Sarah Walker, a CIA asset who works alongside the titular, unlikely spy in Chuck (74), and serial killer Hannah McKay in Dexter (76). However, the Australian actor also starred in 24: Live Another Day (70), The Astronaut Wives Club (60), and Stateless (72).