I’m a bit conflicted about this episode — in many ways, I loved it. And yet, part of me felt that I shouldn’t have loved it. I’ll try to explain what I mean.
Part of what makes this adaptation so good is its ability to broaden the story from the tale of one handmaid, and develop a more detailed world. However, in doing that, there is a danger of doing exactly what Professor Pieixoto wanted from the Offred tapes: something more concrete, more ‘factual’. And we’re meant to be annoyed by the Historical Notes at the end of the novel, right? The Historical Notes present a sneering look at the personal story, critiquing Offred for not giving us a meta-narrative about Gilead. The tone is meant to give us a disconcerting feeling that while we may be relieved that Gilead doesn’t last forever, some of those attitudes still permeate official discourse. The Professor hints that Offred’s tale is just too domestic, too small, and too emotional (i.e. too ‘female’), and he spends his time trying to identify the men in the story; we’re meant to see that as a rejection of the validity of female experience, and a sign that history is repeating itself. ‘Herstory’ just isn’t enough for his ‘esteemed colleagues’.
Consequently, branching out to show us ‘The Other Side’ was slightly grating. This might be unfair, and even hypocritical of me. I didn’t have the same reservations about Serena’s backstory last week. And next week’s episode, entitled ‘Jezebels’, will hopefully do something similar for Moira — perhaps also Emily, who we haven’t seen since she was dragged away from her Grand Theft Auto incident. So what was it about Luke’s POV episode that felt a bit wrong? Is it just because he’s a guy? The tone of it really wasn’t a ‘What about the men?’ MRA sort of deal. It would be really harsh to call it that. But unless we see wider world-building from a range of characters’ POVs, an episode focusing on Luke might seem like an odd choice.
In terms of the narrative of the show, it made perfect sense. The big reveal that he wasn’t dead at the end of the last episode needed explaining or it would have felt like a cheap trick. They had to explain it well, too, or we might have been perceived him as having abandoned her to her fate. And it was a bit of welcome respite from the ongoing horror of Offred’s story. It gave us another week away from the Waterfords, and a chance for our blood pressure to go down. (Perhaps also a chance for the livers to recover after the outrage drinking game of last week.) It also gave us a chance to see Luke in more detail, outside the flashback memory sequences from previous episodes.
What do we know about Luke from the book? He had an affair with June, then they got married, and had a kid. This in itself doesn’t give us a clear understanding of him. The guy who leaves his wife for a woman he’s having an affair with? Urban dating legend. The guy that leaves his wife for a younger woman? Ah, cliché. Is Luke a myth or a cliché? Or is he anything more than that? Moira wasn’t sure about him. June’s mother wasn’t sure about him. (And as they are my favourite characters, I have a few reservations too.) But he seems like a good guy, despite some (presumably) accidental patronising when things start to go sour politically. He ‘took care’ of the cat, which was worrying. But he’s not some sort of pet-murdering psychopath — they couldn’t take the cat with them, or it would be obvious they were fleeing, and a hungry cat may have given them away to the neighbours. He could also have been giving the cat a more merciful death than starving. He felt awful about it, and that was a note in his favour. And finally, he (apparently) died whilst sacrificing himself to buy June and their daughter a bit more time to escape — clearly heroic.
What did this episode add? Luke is sentimental, hanging on to the photo albums. He wanted to leave the country properly, waiting for visas even though that perhaps proved a fatal delay. Moral, well-meaning, a bit naive. He knows how to use a gun — sort of. He can get shot in the guts and keep going, out of sheer dogged determination to get back to his wife and daughter. He makes friends in adversity — bonding with the former nun and looking after an escaped handmaid, whose name we never know, for three years after the escape. He doesn’t give up, frantically investigating what he found out about the training centres, trying to find and rescue his wife. In short? He’s a good’un.
What is the impact of knowing more about him, now that we know he’s alive? Well firstly, it has an impact on how we view June’s ‘interactions’ with Nick and Fred. There was a fledgling romance with Nick, and the dynamic of that will change now. She knows that it is cheating now. Will she still spend time with him? Nick’s status in the show is as ambiguous as it is in the book; he may be a spy for the resistance, or an Eye for the regime. Either way, he could be a useful ally or a dangerous foe. It will also mean that private interactions with Fred will feel even more sullying than they have already. Showing us more of Luke makes us root for him over Nick. By juxtaposing the men, we have a clearer idea of who to cheer for. It’s like the writers are making sure we have clear answers to a game of Shag, Marry, Push off a Cliff.
But there’s something else that this story added, which was sorely needed: hope. There is only so much misery that we can take after all, and the end of the episode, with Luke taking a moment to let the relief wash over him, and June’s note urging him to save their daughter, and reassuring him of her continued love — well, that was just what was needed to hold back the relentless doom of the last few episodes.
Hope can be dangerous; optimism can be blind, after all. Hope might just build us up so that when we crash down again, we have further to fall. Hope might be foolish. But unrelenting despair is too much. The show either needed some comic relief, which is highly unlikely, or a gentle seasoning of hope; all things considered, I’m glad they told Luke’s story. And I’m glad that O-T Fagbenle had so much to do here. In a normal show, Fagbenle’s performance would have stood out as beautiful, particularly his reaction to June’s note. But Moss, the absolute queen of the micro-expression, has set the bar really high, and so what could have been a stand-out performance just feels normal. That’s how good Moss is.
It all comes back to Moss’s performance as June/Offred, and perhaps that’s the key to quashing those moments of discomfort from this week. Our handmaid’s tale intersects with many other tales; their tales are also hers. As much as this was a story about Luke, it was also a story of Luke and June. What did it add to the show? It gave us more of June. It was a pre-handmaid’s tale. It fills in more of her story without limiting her identity to her reproductive status. It tells us more about her — the real her.
It does something else too. It reminds us that the oppression of one group diminishes all groups. Fred believes that “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.” But what this episode proves is that worse for some means worse for everyone. That’s a valuable lesson to learn. And it’s a valuable story to tell.