This post discusses plot points of the Handmaid’s Tale episode “The Other Side.”
In this week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, the series takes its biggest narrative leap away from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. Instead of remaining focused on Offred (Elisabeth Moss)—whose voice-over has been a grounding force—it leaves Gilead entirely to show what became of her husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle). It’s a world-expanding hour that offers a picture of what the adaptation becomes when it diverges from what Atwood put on the page. “The Other Side” primarily charts Luke’s escape to Canada, and we discover that while his wife has been suffering unspeakable horrors, he’s been awaiting news for her in a community of expats. Did this seem like a fitting companion to the text? Or is it somehow off base?
I’m intrigued by “The Other Side,” but not totally sold on the direction it takes the show. The reason the initial episodes were so brilliant is that they managed to convey with frightening precision the restrictive and claustrophobic nature of what life in Gilead is like for the Handmaids. Luke’s escape is supposed to be harrowing, but it doesn’t come close to being as visceral as anything we’ve seen up to this point. Instead, the introduction to what’s going on beyond the borders of the dystopia only lifts the previously established tension and stalls its momentum.
I can’t help but compare “The Other Side” to the American Gods episode that just aired, which also took steps to deviate from its source material by focusing on a spousal character adjacent to the protagonist, previously thought to be dead and buried. Whereas that one succeeded, I felt, by making its subject just as fascinating as said hero, “The Other Side” gets tripped up by failing to make Luke compelling on his own. It’s all plot and no emotional development. He’s still noble and devoted to June, and now we just know he’s alive. (This is no dig on O-T Fagbenle’s naturalistic performance, which exudes warmth, especially in the scenes with his family.) Much has been made of how important the exclusively female perspective is to The Handmaid’s Tale’s success. “The Other Side” alters that by showing the experience of crisis through Luke’s eyes, but it fails to do anything significant with that perspective.
“Little America”—the area of Toronto where refugees are living—scratches an itch often present in this type of fiction. It demonstrates how the rest of the world reacts to a cruel society’s reign, and for that reason it may be interesting to explore. However, the visit from the Mexican ambassador in last week’s episode accomplished a similar function while still keeping the focus tightly on Offred. Given that the series is ongoing rather than limited, it’s obvious creator Bruce Miller needed to widen its action. But “The Other Side” does not reassure me that he’ll be able to pull it off.
I honestly didn’t mind “The Other Side” as much as you did, Esther. This whole Gilead setup is so morbidly fascinating to me that I’m grateful for any backstory, like Serena Joy and the Commander’s role in the societal architecture last week. So I appreciated seeing the path that June, Luke, and Hannah were trying to take to Canada in the first episode and what happened after that.
Luke’s escape seems highly unlikely, to be sure, but I also really enjoyed Fagbenle’s performance a great deal. Grabbing drugs from the ambulance, having to get himself out of the safety belt on the ceiling—just the basic tasks he would have to accomplish to survive fascinated me (then again, I don’t watch The Walking Dead). I also liked the band of outlaws that picked him up, with the benevolent nun and the traumatized young girl. In fact, I was sad that many of them didn’t make the rescue effort. But it was heartening to see that there were some survivors somewhere, that not everyone had been shuffled off to the colonies or sent to Handmaids’ school, that the Mayday resistance had some actual roots.
I know that Luke and June are looking back at their family with little Hannah through rose-colored glasses, so their memories of merry-go-rounds and making pancakes are almost too ideal, but I get that that’s their perspective. And I see what you’re saying about Luke’s role as “loving husband.” I think that’s why his performance impressed me so much, especially in Little America: He seemed like an entirely different person. And his companion still can’t speak, but at least she seems to be resolved with her new life. There has been so much horror over these past several episodes—June’s frequent rapes, the loss of Janine’s eye, the fate of Ofglen/Emily—that I think the show was wise to hang on to this episode until this point. Like June when she gets that information about Luke last episode, we’re all ready for a little hope. If I were more wedded to the book, I might be more pissed off about the show introducing this new plotline. But as I’ve said, I read it so long ago, and since Margaret Atwood has already made a cameo in this series, it seems like she’s okay with it, so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be. If the show then switches entirely from June’s perspective to Luke’s, sure, that would be a major misstep. But I’m okay with this episodic departure, just for the necessary context it provides.
As fun as it is to see what happened to Luke (and I agree that O-T Fagbenle is really good), I don’t like the departure simply because it takes the focus off June, and that super tight focus is what gives the book, and its adaptation, its claustrophobic power. The narrow lens of seeing Gilead through a Handmaid’s perspective makes the story singular and extreme, and adding in Luke’s perspective dilutes it. Offred’s uncertainty in the book over her husband’s fate is frustrating for the reader, because of course we want to know what happened to him, but Atwood’s deliberate choice to never show us, again, makes Offred’s story hit all the harder.
“The Other Side” does what TV does, which is stretch everything out for an ongoing series. I worry that the departure will give too much time to Luke, when The Handmaid’s Tale is and should be all about Offred. On the other hand, the shift also signals that we can spend time with other characters, and I’d by lying if I said I’m not excited about the possibility of an episode dedicated to Moira. Give me more Samira Wiley! I loved the Ofglen/Emily episode, even though that, too, was invented for the series, but it kept the focus on Gilead and the Handmaids in it. I guess what I’m saying is that I want this show to stay focused on the women.