I went to bed angry; I woke up angry. I find myself stumbling more over which words to pick for last night’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale than I ever have before. Because while the show has made me furious before, I have never been furious at the show until now. So with your indulgence, which I readily plead, I’m going to break with form entirely today, to try and articulate in some rational way the bitter taste that the episode “The Other Side” left in my mouth. This caveat, and then we begin: if you loved this episode, that is your right, and I wouldn’t call you wrong for it, though I absolutely think you are. I am not a fan of irony or hating things for the sake of strong opinion, so understand; it pains me to have disliked this episode. I respect the right to love, is what I’m saying. And oh, I wanted to love it.
And it’s certainly not the fault of O-T Fagbenle that I didn’t. If an episode had to be dedicated to Luke, blessed be the fruit and may the Lord open that the character is in such capable and empathetic hands. I like Luke; he bungles and fails to understand the severity of the world around him, and acts with the sure-headed belief that, somehow, things will work out despite all of the evidence suggesting otherwise, but his heart is right. He is a kind, academic man, thrust into brutal circumstances he has had no practical preparation for. So we see him give into June’s insistence on leaving the country, perpetually surprised at how intensely everyone is reacting. Luke is shocked when the man who will smuggle them over the border takes their phones and smashes them – June is not. It is pretty evident that, left to his own devices, Luke would not climb into a cramped car trunk with his wife and child, but – to his credit – he follows June’s lead. They make it to a cabin at the border, where they cool their heels in something resembling domestic bliss, while their fence goes to retrieve forged passports for them. A neighbor informs them that he heard on his police scanner that authorities are looking for their little family and that their contact has been hanged from a lamppost. No passports are coming, and Luke, June and Hannah would be wise to get the hell out of dodge. Unfortunately, the streets are icy and their car runs off the road. Luke sends June and Hannah into the woods (where we first met them in the pilot) and stays behind to nobly, but stupidly, face the incoming cavalry with just a revolver he barely knows how to shoot. The gunshot we heard in the pilot was indeed Luke being shot, but it was not fatal. He is loaded into an ambulance and driven away, but uh-oh, the ice strikes again, and the ambulance careens into a creek bed, leaving everyone but the strapped down Luke dead, or at very least wildly incapacitated. Luke frees himself, stocks up on some supplies, steals a jacket, and starts walking. He reaches an abandoned town and takes shelter in an abandoned shop. Eventually a small group of survivors on the run finds him and take him into their ranks. They travel north, and though Luke initially plans to head back towards Boston to find June, he is persuaded of the folly of that action (because let’s be frank; it would be a genuinely stupid suicide mission. One man against a regime? Guess who gets dead in that scenario.) and takes the boat to Canada, where we undergo a time jump.
Three years later, we see that Luke is living a relatively pleasant life in “Little America” where the PTSD Handmaid-in-training who fled on the same boat Luke did can now sit outside, unattended, in absolute peace, while June is kept a captive for her monthly rapes and given all the freedom of a closely leashed house pet. There was an opportunity here, to undercut the sunny, euphoric peace of Little America by returning the camera to Gilead and June. This opportunity is not taken. Because this episode is not June’s story.
And that, my friends, is the root of the problem. For its expanded universe and broadening scope to tertiary cast members, the show has never, until this episode, lost focus of the fact that this is June’s story. We can dedicate time and real estate to Ofglen and Serena Joy because they are very much parts of June’s current world, where Luke is not. But additionally, those episodes where Serena and Ofglen played such pivotal roles, June was still present and affected. June is only a memory in Luke’s story. And while that is not inherently a bad thing in different circumstances or on a different show, in this world, on this series, it is devastating. June is sidelined. She is marginalized. In her own story, in a medium that is dedicated to giving her voice, she is silenced. And worse, she becomes a woman in a refrigerator. If you are unfamiliar with this trope, the essence of it is that a woman’s trauma and tragedy is used as a motivator for a male character. This is not, of course, the greater significance of the series, but it is undeniably the implication of the episode. By making Luke the focus of the entire episode and removing June almost entirely, she becomes little more than a plot device. Same for Hannah (who, it is worth noting, is played by possibly the most adorable child in the history of the world). Luke is passive on his own, content to sort of wait it out, see what happens. The only motivating factors for his narrative are the terrible things happening to his wife and child. The show itself turns June into Ofluke in this episode. It takes away her agency and her voice and her goddamn narrative, and it is infuriating. Especially because, even in isolation, this chapter never reaches the operatic heights of beauty, horror and storytelling The Handmaid’s Tale usually excels at.
Episodically, taken fully out of context and left to stand alone, I would call it a better than average episode of television. It has some absolutely stunning shots (in particular, a scene where one of the refugees shows Luke a church filled with the hanging bodies of dissenters is gorgeous and blood curdling), but overall, it indulges in a far greater number of expository “hey, let me explain to you what’s going on” dumps than this show usually provides. The Handmaid’s Tale has, until this point, been very elegant in how it reveals its world and its history-showing and counting on the audience’s capacity to parse the action and the setting and to figure things out. This episode explicitly stated a great deal of things we already knew, with very little advancement of the plot or the world. And while, again, it is no fault of the incredibly charismatic, talented, and sure, I’ll say it, super attractive, actor playing Luke, I am here for the handmaids, for those without voices. This episode did a great disservice to the mere notion of providing voice to the marginalized.
In perhaps the most tone deaf moment of the entire episode, Luke reads June’s hastily scribbled note from the end of last week’s episode, and “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby” plays softly in the background, as the camera alternates between Luke’s joyous reaction, and June in her handmaid reds smiling softly in her room. And while this scene did provide me with my new favorite shoe-gaze song, it felt disingenuous to how unflinching the show has been, how unsentimental. Because we know. And yes, Luke doesn’t, but any continuous narrative cannot divorce itself from the history it has laid out, or, equally importantly, from the consumer’s knowledge. Ending the episode on this tender note – “Yay! She’s alive!” – ignores or worse, dismisses, the brutality we know June has endured. This may have served as a compelling pilot episode, a jumping off point for us to learn June’s story. Instead it felt like a betrayal of the implicit compact, to give her word.
My standard for this show is, granted, very high. Every episode to this point has been basically perfect, so this one broke my heart a little. There is still time to course correct, and I have high hopes for next week’s episode. Until then, don’t let the bastards grind you down!