One of the most interesting parts of The Handmaid's Tale has always been the show's flashbacks to life before Gilead. It's shocking to see how quickly the United States turned into a theocratic dictatorship, especially now that the real world looks more and more flawed each day. Fans learned in Season 1 that Serena Joy Waterford played a major role in shaping Gilead, and in Season 2, The Handmaid's Tale dove deeper with a series of flashbacks depicting her life before the takeover. What was Serena Joy's job before Gilead? At times, it's easy to feel bad for Serena, but fans should never forget that she's complicit in creating the dark world of Gilead.
In Season 1 Episode 6, "A Woman's Place," fans finally learned about Serena Joy's past as a religious author and speaker. Before the takeover, Serena Joy published a book called A Woman's Place that described a way of life known as "domestic feminism." According to domestic feminism, women should submit to their "biological destiny" as mothers and child-bearers rather than pursue high-powered jobs or fulfilling carers. At the time, a historically low birth rate was devastating the U.S. population, so Serena's words served as both a solution — her book focused on "fertility as a national resource, reproduction as a moral imperative" — and as a rallying call for religious Americans.
As Serena Joy's book became more popular, she began giving speeches accusing women of abandoning their families and preaching the benefits of being "submissive" to men. Serena set out to convince people that true feminist power comes from staying in the home and taking care of children, but before the takeover, this was still an incredibly radical thought. In Season 2 Episode 6, "First Blood," fans learned that after one of her speeches was cut short by protesters, Serena was shot in the stomach. Her injuries were so severe that she was left unable to have children, but the attack didn't stop her from continuing her crusade. In fact, it fired her up even more.
Once she recovered, Serena helped Fred plan the radical "terrorist attack" that convinced many Americans that a new regime needed to take over. Slowly but surely, Gilead's policies began to take hold in America, and many of these early policies were informed by Serena Joy's writings.
Serena may have been a major architect of Gilead, but as soon as the theocracy's leadership took charge, she was kicked to the curb. Fred and the other Commanders (all of whom are male) took her ideas one step further and decided that the best way to exert control over the population was to silence women altogether — including Serena. Suddenly, women weren't allowed to hold jobs, write, or read, a brutal policy that ended Serena's career as an author and public speaker.
As Serena realizes what she's done to herself, it's natural to empathize with her situation. In the Season 1 flashback, Fred tells Serena that she should be "coming with" to his important meetings, and it's easy to agree: She was the mastermind behind Gilead, and now, her opinion is no longer considered important (or even considered at all). But at the same time, Serena is in a prison of her own making. If you're going to preach that women shouldn't have jobs because a woman's place is in the home, you can't expect to carry on as an author when those harmful ideas become a reality.
The silver lining in all this is that Serena now seems to be questioning her loyalty to the regime she helped create. When Fred was in the hospital, Serena (and June) carried on with his Commander duties, and with that pen in her hand, she seemed genuinely happy for the first time in a long time. And when Serena and Fred travelled to Canada in Episode 9, an American delegate offered to help her escape to Hawaii, where she would be free to write a memoir or anything else she'd like. Serena didn't take him up on the offer, but the moment made it clear that she's thinking — and likely has been thinking for a while — about the possibilities of a life outside Gilead.
While it remains to be seen whether Serena stays in Gilead, I'm willing to bet that her background as a writer will come into play again in Season 2. Maybe she'll forge another one of the Commander's documents and help June escape? I'm always down for a good redemption narrative, and no one in The Handmaid's Tale deserves one more than Serena Joy.