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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Handmaid’s Tale puts the excellent Yvonne Strahovski in muddied waters

Illustration for article titled The Handmaid’s Tale puts the excellent Yvonne Strahovski in muddied waters
Photo: Elly Dassas (Hulu)

Here’s a thing that just about everyone who watches this show will presumably agree on: Yvonne Strahovski is very good at her job. Here’s another: The uniform for the wives is a lovely color. Thus endeth the consensus on Serena Joy.


As a collection of scenes featuring good actors saying interesting things, “Useful” works wonderfully well, especially when one of those actors is Strahovski, alone or with others, silent or not. Moss is, of course, as good as ever; so is Whitford, but this is a hell of a showcase for a performer who’s been given some monumentally heavy, complex, often contradictory material, and who has, in this writer’s opinion, managed to make Serena Waterford a compelling character without ever attempting to hide or erase the parts of her that are far from sympathetic. Pick a scene from this in which Serena figures, any scene, and you’ve got a great one.

The problem is when you attempt to stitch them together.

Viewers, this one among them, have been frustrated about the ways in which Handmaid’s seems to be spinning its wheels. That’s not a problem with “Useful,” which doesn’t move the plot forward in leaps and bounds, but nevertheless covers quite a lot of territory. It’s easy, very easy, to imagine that, say, just a meeting of Commanders at Lawrence’s home could take up the majority of that hour. Or that an episode about June having to choose the five women who won’t die could take center stage, perhaps coupled with that scene with Serena. Maybe just Serena with her mom. Maybe just the shifting dynamic between Lawrence and June. Pick two of those, any two, and you’d have more than enough for an hour, because all those stories are internal, requiring a lot of calculation and thought and feeling on the part of whichever character or characters are central. An episode that begins with June staring at the swinging bodies of Marthas, hooded, with crosses over their faces, has plenty of places to go, particularly when you consider the role she may have played in their deaths, the deaths of others, and the risk of death that hangs over her daily.

Instead, it’s all of those things, and a farewell with Nick, too. Yet the word “overstuffed” doesn’t seem to apply, because none of those stories is given much weight. June refuses to make the choice Lawrence puts in front of her after a heated, upsetting conversations about guilt, value, usefulness, intellect, complicity, and many other things—a scene that, unlike many of the others that surround it, you’d never call underwritten—and then by episode’s end, she’s made it. We can infer that she arrives at that choice after thought, as well as after her visits from Nick and Serena, but we’re mostly on the outside there (a rarity for this show). She tells Serena, now all too aware of the unbearable pain of losing a child, that they can fight back, and then she selects a lawyer, a journalist, an engineer, an IT professional, and a thief (maybe the most “useful” of the five) to stay while the others go off to the colonies. This is part of the fight, clearly.

But it’s a decision made at a distance. So is Serena’s. Strahovski is so good here, but this episode feels like a collection of sadnesses, large and small. She goes to two mothers—her own, and June. She’s looking for... what? Peace? Compassion? Connection? A quiet place to mourn? Moss and Strahovski have always been great together, and there are here, too, though nothing in that scene comes close to the complexity of the “I hope this feels like that” scene in the season three premiere. June tells her things, she listens, and what they mean to her remains unclear. She walks into the water, and walks back out, and while we can, again, infer the reasons based on the content of her scene with June, it’s mostly just great acting of tremendous feeling, without much there to make it hit home.


Here’s one small example: Why does Serena leave the leather attachment Rita made for her on the bench? Could be several things. If she does not intend to come back, it could be a message for Fred, or for her mother. It could signal that she doesn’t want to hide what was done to her, and what it means, in which case it seems most connected to her conversation with June. Maybe she just doesn’t want to get it wet. Any of those is interesting (well, all but the last). It could even be a combination. But I don’t know, because despite Strahovski’s efforts, Serena’s arc here remains unclear.

Her scenes with her mother, however, provide some clarity. Put Laila Robins in the awful, passive-aggressive TV moms hall of fame (Dead To Me gave us another great entrant in that category this year). Offering people “comfort” by underlining all the ways in which you perceive them to be flawed, inadequate, or broken seems to be a tactic that runs in the family, and more about that relationship might have further illuminated Serena’s arc here.


When June’s motivations or inner thoughts are unclear—not something that often happens, even if what we learn doesn’t always make perfect sense—it’s okay, because we’re sure to get more information soon. But sometimes The Handmaid’s Tale seems to revel in Serena’s contradictions, and at others, it assumes we have a perfect understanding of a simple story. It can’t be both. This is a woman whose staggering levels of internalized misogyny led her to help create a system in which she, and any children she might have, will be brutalized and undervalued, and in which the intellect which helped to create the system becomes worthless when residing within it. She played an active role in both ritual rape and rape, plain and simple; she also loses a finger advocating for girls to be given the right to read. It’s a lot.

Strahovski is up to playing all those contradictions, to considering her from all angles. In “Useful,” the episode failed to meet her at her level.


Stray observations

  • The relish Elisabeth Moss put on “a thief” was just wonderful, put it on a loop.
  • What do we think the connection between Beth and Nick is/was?
  • Would Serena be permitted to pay a visit like that without her husband?
  • Laila Robins is also playing an important role on this season if The Bold Type, in case you’re wondering where you’ve seen her lately.

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!