[Editor’s note: Spoilers follow for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 1, Episode 6, “A Woman’s Place.”]
A young attractive couple sits in a movie theater, waiting for the show to start. The man gets a text message — he tells his wife the news. “It’s happening.”
On the surface, it seems like an ordinary moment. But what we just witnessed in “A Woman’s Place,” Season 1, Episode 6 of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” was the end of America as we know it.
In the flashback sequence featuring Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), the soon-to-be VIP couple of Gilead is learning that their group’s plan to dismantle the American government, institution by institution, has been put in motion:
“They issued the orders. It’s what we proposed. Three separate attacks.”
“Three weeks. Congress first, then the White House, then the Court,” Fred says.
“Blessed be,” Serena whispers.
The setting for this realization was very important to showrunner Bruce Miller and the cast. “I love that they’re in a theater and they feel so different from the people around them,” Fiennes told IndieWire. “And it’s frightening to them, they’re not cardboard cutout evil characters. This is a big deal, and they know the impact it’s going to have on ordinary people.”
Miller deliberately wanted to deliver the news in the form of an (unseen) text message because “I wanted to make everything as normal as possible. I also loved understanding the motivation behind the Commander and Serena Joy by putting them in the middle of the real world, that they felt needed to change — that they wanted to change. That they would make good again “
“I’ve always been fascinated by the very beginnings of things,” Miller added, “because it seems to me that once something gets going it’s easy to look at it in terms of history. But what was it like for the first person who realized they could get a rocket ship to the moon? What was that moment like?”
This scene, of course, is a long way from a scientific breakthrough — instead, it’s the beginning of the end for women’s rights as we know them, an extremist reaction to the fertility crisis wreaking havoc in this alternate universe. “From their religious point of view, [the revolution] is to instill moral integrity into a place which is debauched and horrific,” Fiennes said. “So it it’s great seeing them from a really genuine point of view of crisis and wanting to do good in the world.”
The flashbacks presented a major challenge for Strahovski as an actor, especially after playing the present-day version of the character in the previous five episodes. “It was hard to navigate the Serena Joy that was pre-Gilead,” she said. “When we meet her [in the pilot], she’s so stern and so embedded in this world and so trapped in this world — it was hard to imagine her prior to that and what and how she came to be this way.
“It just feels like she was so much lighter pre-Gilead,” Strahovski added. “I think she definitely had a pure intention to save the world.”
“The sad thing when you look at the flashbacks and when you look at them in real time,” Fiennes noted, “is that she had this voice. They’re both architects of their own unhappiness — they both believe in this totalitarian theocracy, this authority that is going to cleanse the world of its moral decay. But in stripping away people’s rights, she strips away her own voice and her own rights. It’s brilliant, that complexity.”
It all begins in that moment in the movie theater. “Here is the change in state — they go from being people who are theoretically considering doing something to being people who are doing something,” Miller said. “And we see how that affects them.”
From Strahovski’s perspective, “I think it all goes back to this core belief that Serena Joy had, that the greater good was going to be served with her good intentions. I think she truly believed that she had the answer — she was going to be a part of this amazing revolution, this amazing movement that would better the world. And that made it okay.”
Whether or not you empathize with Serena, there’s one thing we can all likely agree on: Whatever has happened to the world of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “okay” is not the word to describe it.
New episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” premiere Wednesdays on Hulu.