As the world eagerly awaits season two’s release this spring, here are the five most important characters that helped make The Handmaid’s Tale so huge.
Content warning: this article discusses the depictions of sexual violence, murder, abuse genital mutilation, queerphobia and suicide.
The Handmaid’s Tale is probably one of the darkest shows around right now. It almost makes Black Mirror look tame. The show was a huge hit for Hulu and a fantastic adaption of Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopia. What made season one just so engaging were the incredible characters we got to see – and most of them were women. They were women with complex stories now facing horrors that actually, are shocking in just how unsurprising they are. Here are five characters that made The Handmaid’s Tale season one just so incredible – and sometimes utterly horrifying.
5) Janine (Ofdaniel) played by Madeline Brewer
Janine probably has the most tragic story of the show. She’s told it’s her fault she was gang-raped, she gets her eye gouged out for telling Aunt Lydia to fuck off, she’s assigned to a family where the commander’s wife ridicules her and the commander falsely tells her he loves her. When Janine gives birth, she’s forced to hand over her baby to Mrs Putnam, is assigned to another family and finds out her former commander never loved her. When Janine then tries to commit suicide, she’s revived only to be forced to sit in a circle while the other handmaid’s – the only friends she has – are told to stone her for her sins. Yet, it was this scene that gave one of the only rare moments of empowerment when the handmaid’s refused. Janine is the one everyone roots for, but season two will likely only get worse given that she was sentenced to death at the end of season one.
4) June (Offred) played by Elisabeth Moss
Moss utterly shines as June in the lead role. Her monologues are often the highlight of each episode. June shows what it means to face the desire to submit merely to survive versus the fierce instinct to want to destroy your own oppressors. June’s refusal to stone Janine is a moment of pure joy, even though everyone knew it could only end in pain for June.
3) Moira played by Samira Wiley
Moira doesn’t feature quite enough but when she does, she’s one defiant ray of hope. At one point, it seemed as though Moira had given up, but by the end of the episode she’d murdered someone who was sexually exploiting her, delivered a package from the resistance movement and was making her bid for freedom and heading to Canada. “Praised be, bitch,” indeed.
2) Emily (Ofstevens) played by Alexis Bledel
Bledel won huge praise for how she portrayed Emily and rightly so. The only issue with Emily is that she doesn’t feature enough. Never before has a show tackled the oppression of queer women so boldly. Often, it is the stories of men who are attracted to other men who dominate. It was incredibly refreshing to see an exploration of the oppression of bi, pan and gay women. Bledel’s screams, as she’s forced to wear a muzzle while she watches her girlfriend be hanged from a crane were chilling. Emily is then put through female genital mutilation in a terrifying attempt to ‘cure’ her of being a ‘gender traitor’. It’s heartbreaking, shocking and haunting. Yet, Emily returns, steals a damn car and even hits one of the guards. Emily encapsulates the very essence of resistance in every single scene.
1) Serena Joy played by Yvonne Strahovski
Let’s just be clear – Serena Joy was one of the worst people in season one, but her character was one of the best in terms of story. She was in no way morally good. Strahovski is brilliantly chilling in this role, switching from gentle and vulnerable as Joy waits for her husband to acknowledge her existence, to completely terrifying as she finds new ways to torture June. Serena Joy pushes for a Christian supremacist society where men led the show, and then finds her own book being thrown in the trash, her contributions ignored, and her husband having affairs while she could do and say nothing, because of her own years of activism.
Yet, that is why Serena Joy is a character that is so crucial to the show. Often, it’s annoying when TV shows use a younger actor to play a part that should be a middle-aged person but in this show it works. Millennials are more liberal than previous generations but they still vote for Trump, they still sign up to the alt-right and they still have bigotry which thrives. The TV show doesn’t make this a millennials vs the rest of the world narrative. It’s needed when the situation is much more complex. It’s young white women who so often don’t show solidarity, who feel the victim but then push an agenda of abuse. Serena Joy is the reminder that it isn’t the screaming, raging, violent fascist that usually brings down society but all of the mild-mannered, intellectual middle class white people, carefully crafting an agenda of oppression. It’s the person who sacrifices her own career, to help her husband become a tyrant. It’s the person who centres their own pain, and refuses to acknowledge the humanity in anyone else. Serena Joy is how The Handmaid’s Tale happened, and that’s why she’s the most important, and the most dangerous character of them all.
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