It was a big night for Hulu Wednesday as the streamer dropped the first two episodes of Season 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” its acclaimed drama series based on Margaret Atwood’s best-selling 1985 dystopian novel of the same name.
The small screen adaptation, which premiered a year ago, captured the zeitgeist of divisional politics and discrimination against women.
It also vaulted Hulu into the top-tier of awards recipients with a slew of honors, including Primetime Emmys, Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, AFI, DGA, PGA, TCA and WGA awards — and others too numerous to list.
For those who somehow missed seeing the saga of the now iconic red-robed and white-bonneted handmaids, who are valued only for their childbearing capabilities but otherwise horribly abused as they are held captive, the series is set in Gilead, a totalitarian state faced with a plummeting birth rate and incipient environmental disaster in what was formerly part of the U.S.
The leaders of this fundamentalist regime will do anything to repopulate their devastated world, and that means holding the few remaining fertile women in sexual servitude.
“Blessed be the fruit,” the women proclaim in Stepford Wives-style greetings to each other as they are forced to do chores like daily shopping and often, to participate in degrading, punitive exercises overseen by their taskmaster, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd).
When we last saw lead character Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss, who is also a producer, she was pregnant — but not by her master, Fred Waterford, who is chillingly portrayed by Joseph Fiennes. Nor is the real birth father known by his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), whose name belies her icy, cruel countenance.
In addition to Aunt Lydia, Strahovski’s character can be considered one of the main villains in the hellscape that is Gilead.
Yet as seen through the many flashbacks the series employs, Serena Joy Waterford’s beginnings were much more benign.
We spoke recently with the actress, who is also known for her work in “Chuck,” “Dexter” and “24: Live Another Day,” about the complex, harrowing and cruel world of “THT.”
TVWeek: What was it that initially attracted you to “The Handmaid’s Tale”?
Yvonne Strahovski: I was intrigued by the character, the storyline and the writing. I loved the dialog — and the subtext. I had not read the book beforehand, so I didn’t know that it was so extraordinary. The script was so compelling and engaging and the character was so complicated. When I first went in for it, I didn’t know the backstory so I went with having made it up. But afterwards I read the book.
TVWeek: Offred called her a monster, but tell us about the character of Serena Joy and how she evolves.
Strahovski: Offred was definitely hitting on something. Yet in order to believe that to be true there also has to be an in-depth view of her, to spend time with her and justify her behavior and come to understand of whom and why she is. I find lots of dualities. She really did have a pure intention of trying to save humanity and celebrate women and their biological destiny and encourage them to have babies. When you wrap it up, as a woman she lost her voice — inconveniently — in how Gilead was to be structured. She has had to survive and has had to sacrifice things herself. There is lots of rage, dissatisfaction, disconnection, rejection — and no way to manage it.
TVWeek: Do you feel that women are held to a different standard than men when it comes to displaying some of the characteristics she embodies?
Strahovski: There are certain instances that would make it different in what they’re doing in positions of power and abusing their authority. What makes it so complicated is the issue of [the lack of] fertility of Serena. It’s obviously not something a man could portray. One of the biggest things causing her difficulty is there’s so much tension and jealousy because Offred is there to provide a baby. She’s a woman who actually can’t do that, and that’s really sad and agonizing for Serena Joy. I’ve had lots of discussions with Lizzie [Moss] about this and there are so many nuances and so many layers of that cake to play with.
TVWeek: With Joseph Fiennes as your husband, how do you process the unusual nature of the relationship between you two?
Strahovski: With her husband, it’s a very sad relationship. It used to be powerful and loving, but creating Gilead has taken away her voice. It’s the beginning of the end, and you see that when Serena is about to make a speech, and it’s nixed. That’s when it began to suffer as far as her ability to connect with her partner on an intellectual level. That’s a huge strain on a couple. They are worlds apart, but that need for connection is a constant slap in her face to get down on her knees.
Sex in Gilead is only because of procreation, but I imagine back in the day they may have bent the rules about that. Yet it took over their relationship, and the power play shifted to where men had all the power.
TVWeek: Can you describe your feelings about the first time you did the rape/ceremony scene with Elisabeth and Joseph?
Strahovski: I thought it was going to be awkward. It didn’t end up being that way. You also have to giggle about it because we’re human. It was fine. It was great to do that scene and I find it incredibly powerful. We spoke it, and it was choreographed. I had a clear vision of what Serena would be doing, and had conversations with director Reed Morano about it. Luckily, we had the time to flesh it out and really just play, and that’s one of the greatest things about the production of the show.
TVWeek: Although the book was published more than 30 years ago, do you feel that Gilead is an allegory for the times we live in today?
Strahovski: Sometimes it feels like a direct parallel, and as we were going through shooting it, and all the attention, I felt it was going to be something special and recognized, especially after the presidential election. With the Women’s March during the second half of Season 1, I remember thinking this show could really hit, above and beyond my imagination. It’s affected people differently. For those disappointed in Trump, the show spoke to fears of what we’ve seen that’s happened in the past and history repeating itself. That’s why the book remains relevant, because there are elements in how it resonates now.
TVWeek: Could you anticipate the impact “The Handmaid’s Tale” has had and its awards success?
Strahovski: It’s crazy, the scope and reach. It didn’t surprise me that we had a very successful night at the Emmys. It’s a moment in TV history, and really speaks to an emerging platform’s ability to show material like this, as it is not something you’d see on regular network TV. With Hulu, we’re able to go for it. It’s a trend that’s emerging that there is a need for raw material and creators of it who want to be creative without restriction. It’s a really wonderful time for television and stories like this to be coming out.