Let's be clear — Serena Joy is kind of the worst. But as far as "the worst" goes in The Handmaid's Tale universe, she's also kind of the best.
I would be lying if I told you that I didn't feel bad for the Commander's wife. On one hand, she is 100% responsible for her fate. She helped craft the narrative of Gilead, and as "A Woman's Place" shows us, basically came up with the justification for keeping fertile women enslaved for procreation purposes. Unlike Offred, she came to this new world order willingly, and with her eyes open.
But on the other hand, it's hard not to pity someone who has been so brutally let down by life. Before she played the part of the dutiful wife in teal-blue, Serena Joy was a conservative activist. She had a loving and reciprocal relationship with her husband. She wrote books, delivered passionate speeches, organised rallies, and even got arrested for her beliefs. She had a purpose and a drive. The problem is that the those very same beliefs, taken to their ultimate conclusion, end with a world in which she no longer has a voice.
As Sarah Jones pointed out in the New Republic, Serena Joy — long believed to be a fictional reimagining of the very real Phyllis Schlafly — is a warning to conservative women who think collaborating with the patriarchy will serve their own ends. "Even though she occupies the highest rank for a woman in this new world, she is now legally inferior to her sad-sack husband and, finding herself childless, has to employ Offred as a surrogate. Rage roils the edges of her ice-princess restraint," Jones writes. We get examples of women's bottled rage at being stymied over and over throughout the series. I mean, if it weren't for Serena Joy, Gilead wouldn't have its trade deal with Mexico. Fred may be the Commander, but Serena is the brains.
This is why the casting of Yvonne Strahovski is particularly great: She also happens to be stunning. Her Serena lives in a gorgeous house, with Shakespeare in Love (Joseph Fiennes) for a husband. If she can't be satisfied with her position in this world, then who can?
In the book, Offred also notices this discontent: "She doesn’t make speeches anymore. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word."
If Serena Joy was trying using conservative arguments to raise her profile, then she has failed. And if, rather, she truly believes that women are inferior to men, then she has succeeded — and also failed herself. There's no winning for her. Which is why, rather than hate on the woman with fantastic eyebrows, I suggest we turn our attention to the real culprits in this narrative: the men.
The genius of Gilead's system is the way that it uses women to police other women, often relieving men of having to bear the responsibility or guilt of the regime. Take Aunt Lydia, for example: As an older woman who can no longer have children but is also unmarried, she takes on the role of enforcer, a villain in a system where she legally has little power. She may believe that the ends justify the means; but even if she didn't, she'd go along. She, like, Serena Joy, lives in a prison of her own construction. And that must suck.