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The Handmaid’s Tale checks in across the border, with mixed results

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Well, here’s an hour about Luke. It’s a good hour, well-acted, well-written, and well-made. It ends on a note that might not be as memorable as many of those that precede it, but which packs an emotional honesty that’s proven to be one of the great strengths of this series. It’s all perfectly fine, and it kind of feels like filler.


That’s not a condemnation, but it’s not exactly a Hallelujah chorus, either. To work as an ongoing television show and not a miniseries, The Handmaid’s Tale will have to regularly reach well beyond the pages of Margaret Atwood’s surprisingly slim novel. The novel’s not a quick read, precisely—just as I’d advise against bingeing the series, the novel is probably best consumed at a pace that allows for lots of reflection and the occasional breather—but it’s not what you’d call sprawling. Atwood’s nightmare story is told as much through the details we lack as those we have, leaving the fates of many up in the air, offering hints of previous lives and terrifying potential fates for its characters without confirming much at all. Part of what makes it such an unsettling read is how Atwood allows the mind to fill in some of the gaps and leave the others vacant, turning the unknown into either an opportunity for a horrifying personal take—oh my god, so X is what happened to Ofglen–or a into a void one doesn’t dare fill.

“The Other Side” fills one such void. The full weight of this decision won’t be felt until we see more of Luke in future episodes—is this a wrap on Little America until that world collides with Gilead? Will we be checking in on Luke’s search for Hannah?—but for now, this is an episode that seemingly hopes to prove that The Handmaid’s Tale can step away from the Commander’s house for an hour and still find stories to tell. Does it succeed in that? Sure. As stated above, it’s a good hour of television. Does it feel like it belongs on some other series? Absolutely.


Part of this comes down to the simple fact that this is an episode made up of flashbacks-within-flashbacks, only arriving in June/Offred’s present in the final moments. It’s a structure that can’t help but lessen the dramatic tension, and while that’s sort of a nice break in a show that’s as tense as any in recent memory, it still falls just a bit flat. We begin where “Offred” did, with a car crash and terror close behind, but stick with Luke this time instead, watching as he fumbles with his revolver (an odd sort of reverse take on Chekhov’s gun—if a gun goes off in the first act, we must see where it came from in the second, or something) and gets shot for his trouble. We watch as he survives an ambulance crash because he was shot, in a familiar car-crash-from-inside-the-car shot made fresh because the camera, like Luke, stays strapped to that gurney). We watch as he steals pills and a coat, wanders past his car and the torn pages of a family album, and finds shelter in a café with some charming homophobic graffiti sprayed across its face. After he‘s rescued by a band of others on the run, his mind drifts back to the first half of their attempted escape, and weaving one into the other, the show meanders toward the present and a note on a small piece of paper.

There’s no reason an episode that exists almost entirely in the past shouldn’t work, and this one mostly does. It fills in some blanks—where is Luke? How did he get there? How did the delegate from Mexico know how to contact him?—and leaves others empty. It introduces at least one character who seems likely to stick around (Colony’s Erin Way as a wordless escaped handmaid credited as “Erin”) and a pack of others who we get to know only briefly, though two prove particularly memorable (Kim Roberts as Christine, a bad-ass nun, and Rosa Gilmore as doomed ringleader Zoe). It offers a little insight into a character who’s been mostly undefined, and that’s very welcome. But when a story doubles back to the past, heading toward an ending we already know, it has to make the trip worth it. We’re not here to see what happens, so what are we here to see?


In that regard, the episode trips a little, and some of it has to do with perspective. Just as an episode that mostly precedes the events of the series could work, there’s also no reason an episode couldn’t leave June/Offred in the background for a bit. After all, the series’ strongest episode to date focused on Emily/Ofglen for nearly half its runtime. Still, there’s something about seeing the protagonist and narrator solely through someone else’s eyes—and this narrator in particular—that feels like it belongs to some other series. Here, June/Offred is most useful to the story in contrast, willing to do whatever it takes to get her family out of the country even as her husband drags his feet. It’s good stuff, but Luke’s perspective simply isn’t as interesting as June/Offred’s. He walks, he reminisces, he seems on the edge of death but doesn’t die, as we knew he woudn‘t. With June/Offred, each step seems like it could be the last steady move she makes, the world shifting and her emotional and mental stability growing ever more frayed. Yet somehow even O-T Fagbenle‘s honest performance can’t make Luke’s story feel as fragile and volatile. Maybe it’s the writing, or perhaps it’s just that he’s a man.

That’s where this outing truly succeeds (outside of its aforementioned final moments, which hit like a hammer). Thanks to that contrast with June/Offred, we get to know a man who, on the one hand, desperately loves his family and wants to keep them safe and happy, and on the other, would rather say he knows how to use a gun than make sure he actually does. It’s a bullheadedness that’s threaded throughout, and which calls back to his tone deaf declaration that he’ll take care of June way back in episode three, after she loses her job. He knows things are bad, but he doesn’t seem to fully grasp how bad they are until a mute woman hands him a beer and he can’t look her in the face, until a woman who saved his life has to drag him into a church filled with hanged corpses before he realizes that simply heading back to Boston won’t do any good.


What “The Other Side” reveals is exactly what it says on the tin. Yes, we see a glimpse of life across the border, in the great northern wonderland of Canada, and yes, we see the other side of a terrifying flight through the woods. But when this episode works—and again, it mostly does—it’s when writer Lynn Renee Maxcy, director Floria Sigismondi, and Fagbenle let us see exactly how shortsighted and foolish this intelligent, compassionate, and well-meaning man can be. It’s what makes the final scene hit so hard. “I love you, so much,” June writes, and then issues clear instructions: “Save Hannah.” As his face contorts with joy, fear, horror, and bewilderment all at once, you get the sense that maybe now he really does understand.

Stray observations

  • As always, you can find a few great visual moments from the episode highlighted on Twitter. Fewer than usual this week.
  • I’m guessing we’ve probably seen the last of Christine, but god, I hope not.
  • Apologies for getting this one up a half hour late. Woke up this morning with a bunch of new thoughts about Luke and wanted to include them.
  • “An Army brat, two strays, a gay, and a nun” sounds like a) a very useful group of people to wind up on the run with, b) the set-up to a foul joke, and c) a great party.
  • Book stuff: book readers wondering when exactly the show was going to get to a particular aspect of Gilead’s society will be interested to know that next week’s episode is called “Jezebels.”

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