The Handmaid’s Tale: “The Other Side” Recap


By: Karen Valenzuela (@VictoriaNoir89)

This week’s episode, “The Other Side,” steps away from Offred, Serena Joy, and Commander Waterford, and focuses instead on Luke, Offred/June’s husband. The last episode left us with quite the cliffhanger: we found out that Luke might be alive somewhere, in spite of us hearing the gunshots in the pilot and figuring he’d been killed.

As the book is written in first person with Offred as our narrator, we only know what Offred knows and nothing more. Therefore, we never really know what happened to Offred’s husband – whether he was killed or still alive.

With “The Other Side,” The Handmaid’s Tale series takes a step past the book’s narrative and fills that in for its viewers, expanding on author Margaret Atwood’s world.

It opens in the same way the pilot did. We see Luke, June, and their daughter Hannah fleeing the Guardians. Luke crashes the car, they climb out, and he forces June and Hannah to continue on without him. But this time, we see what happened to Luke from that point on.

Their vans close in on him, sirens roaring, as he stands his ground with a revolver in hand. The Guardians render him useless immediately, shooting him in the torso. He drops his gun and falls to the ground, losing consciousness as they close in on him. When he comes to, he’s strapped to a gurney in the back of a medical van, receiving rudimentary treatment from one of the Guardians. The driver loses control on the icy road and sends the van rolling down a hill, crashing into a ravine. In immense pain, Luke unstraps himself and crawls over to ransack some medical supplies and shoves them into a bag, then grabbing one of the dead Guardians’ coats and his gun. He gets out of the overturned van and crosses the shallow river to approach the driver who is still just barely alive. He tries to threaten their whereabouts out of the man, but he dies before he can get anything from him, and Luke is forced to climb back up onto the road and continue his journey on foot.

He retraces the road back to where he crashed the car earlier, then follows the path that June took with their daughter, happening upon their bag and Hannah’s stuffed bunny and one of her boots, a clear sign that they were caught and taken away. They didn’t escape.

Luke makes his way back into a town that looks all but abandoned. It’s clear Luke’s wound is getting worse, and he hobbles through the snow into a cafe of some sort, rummaging behind the counter for some food he can eat. And as he slumps down to sit on the floor, weak and shivering, we’re taken back to when he and June were attempting to skip town before the events of the opening scene.

He’s driving through Boston, past Guardians and their armored vehicles, as June looks out the window, chewing her nails nervously. Hannah is in the back sleeping, and we learn they gave her something to make her sleep so that they could escape without scaring her. They disagree about how late they’re leaving, and June mentions Moira’s plan to cross the border on foot. (We know that doesn’t exactly work out for her, since she ends up in the same Red Center that June does.) They pull up to what looks like an old junkyard where a man – Rupert Whitford – is waiting to help them escape. June’s mom (who we can assume was some sort of doctor or nurse) “gave him the snip” after they made that procedure illegal (of course they did). “It’s no time for kids,” he adds. And you can kind of see where he’s coming from with that one. Rupert takes their phones and smashes them so they aren’t tracked, and he makes them get rid of their backpack. Luke takes a few keepsakes out of the pack and they ditch it, before he has them climb into the trunk of the car with their daughter.

Rupert drives them out of the county as they hide in the trunk of the car, and as they lie in the darkness, we hear the sounds of approaching sirens. It’s a stressful moment, and June is clearly on the verge of a panic attack, but Luke calms her down and the sirens pass them by. The couple reminisces about other times and the show lulls us into thinking the danger has passed when we hear sirens again, and this time Rupert pulls the car to the side of the road. Through the entire scene, we’re in the trunk with the family, so we only know as much as they know about what’s happening, and it’s a terrifying moment when a Guardian pops open the trunk and shines his flashlight down in their faces, looking down on them. He announces it’s all good and walks away, and Rupert thanks him as he slides in view. He says the guy owed him a favor, shuts the trunk again, and they continue their journey. Phew.

He takes them to a secluded cabin in the woods. When June takes Hannah off to pick out her room, Rupert gives Luke the revolver he uses at the beginning of the episode, shows him how to load it, shoot it. He announces he’s going into Canada to get them passports because their U.S. visas don’t have any value anymore. They’re to stay put until he comes back with the passports – however long that ends up taking.

We’re back again with Luke in the abandoned cafe where he’s passed out from fatigue and probably blood loss. A group of people who are also trying to escape from Gilead stumble upon him, assuming he’s a Guardian because of the coat he stole earlier. He’s able to convince them otherwise before they kill him, telling them he’s looking for his wife and daughter, that he was shot by the Guardians and how he was able to escape when the ambulance he was in crashed. They help him up and take him into their small bus stolen from an assisted living home. A few escapees and “strays” have united to get to safety in Canada and are traveling together in the bus. A young woman named Zoe seems to be their unofficial ringleader. As one of them describes their motley crew: “You got an army brat, two strays, a gay, and a nun.” One of them is a silent young woman who seems to avoid eye contact. (They say her name is TBD – to be determined.) She absolutely seems to have some form of PTSD, but it’s easy to assume she’s been through a rough time considering she has a red tag on her ear like the Handmaids and we have a pretty good idea what Handmaids go through.

Zoe’s bus gang

We’re taken back to the cabin in the woods where Luke and June attempt to normalize things for Hannah, making pancakes, joking about adding chocolate chips into the batter, sneaking the little treats, laughing, being all cute and sweet. And we’re lurched out of the nice little scene by the almost-Handmaid (TBD) in the bus screaming bloody murder. She’s thrashing and sobbing as Zoe tries to comfort her. When a now-awake Luke asks what’s wrong, Christine (the nun) tells him about how they found the young woman. There was a raid on a high school in which fifty women (including her) were hiding inside. Their children had been taken, and the Guardians kidnapped the fertile women.

Flashback to the cabin again. Luke, June and Hannah are standing on a dock, looking out into the lake, when a dog comes out of the woods and barks at them. His owner trots out of the woods, a gun over his back. He’s friendly enough, but the whole situation seems suspicious and definitely dangerous. It seems like they wouldn’t want anyone knowing they’re there. (Not to mention, the music behind the scene is all doom-y.)

Zoe’s bus gang are making their way north, Luke discovers, and he loses his cool. He needs to find his wife and daughter. He needs to get out of the bus and go back. But when he stands up and starts yelling for them to stop the bus, Zoe stands up too and threatens him by cocking her gun. He sits down, obviously upset. TBD cracks open a beer and hands it to him. A gesture of humanity, or might we go further and say she’s just made an effort to connect with a kindred spirit?

Luke, June, and Hannah are preparing to leave. As Hannah’s in the bathroom and Luke tries to teach June how to use the revolver Rupert gave him, the man from the lake lurks at the entrance to the house and startles them. June holds him at gunpoint as he says he heard on his scanner that “they’re looking for you.” He tells them they know their car. Rupert’s dead, the man tells them. It seems this guy is trying to help them, so they lower the gun and he tells them a road to take. He’s called a friend to meet them at the border. And for the first time in the eight episodes we’ve watched of The Handmaid’s Tale, someone says what we’ve all been thinking: “This is pretty f*cked up.” It sure is! And we know it gets worse!

It’s the next morning with Zoe’s bus gang. They stop at the edge of the water. This seems to be where Luke will part ways with Zoe and company so that he can go back and find June and Hannah. Peter reminds him that “the boat leaves as soon as it’s dark,” and we assume he means the boat the gang will take up to Canada and a new life…freedom. But as he’s leaving, Zoe stops him and asks if she can show him something first. She takes him to an old abandoned church and walks him inside. Dozens of bodies hang from the roof. It’s a chilling sight, and we’re sickened along with Luke. She explains that this is what happened to the people here who tried to fight back. There’s no use in his trying to find June now, and she tries to persuade him to come with them to Canada.

Needless to say, that works. He joins them as they go to the dock that night to book their passage to Canada. The man captaining the boat gives them a hard time because they haven’t paid for Luke’s passage, but Luke gives him a few of his possessions, including his wedding ring, to assuage the man.

Luke and TBD climb aboard the boat first. Just as the others are preparing to get on, they’re shot at by Guardians. The boat peels off without the rest of the gang and we watch as Zoe is shot and killed. We assume the others were either killed or captured as the boat leaves them behind, bullets whizzing past the deck where Luke and TBD huddle down. Finally, their boat clears the gunfire and they get away safely.

TBD and Luke in “Little America”/Toronto three years later

Three years later we see Luke and TBD have settled in “Little America”/Toronto, what looks like a sanctuary type of city for Americans who escaped Gilead. Luke mentions rationing, so we can assume Canada – or at least this part of it – has been affected by the environmental factors that have wrecked the crops in the U.S. and in Mexico. Someone calls him on his cell phone then and we don’t hear what she’s saying. Luke goes to an administrative office of some sort, walking through hallways lined with photographs and drawings of missing persons. These are pinned there by people who most likely escaped from Gilead into Toronto are trying to find their loved ones who they were either separated from during their escape, or ended up getting left behind altogether. One of the workers calls his name and takes him into a private room. I’m not entirely sure what Luke thought he was there for, but she interrupts him and asks if he knows a woman named June Osborne. (DUN DUN DUNNN!) When he confirms she’s his wife, the worker hands him an envelope. Inside is the note Offred wrote for the ambassador’s assistant to deliver to her husband, the way he said he would try to at the end of the last episode. We learn Offred wrote the note three weeks earlier and the fact that it got to Luke means the resistance is alive and well. More than that, after three years of not knowing what happened to his family, Luke has received confirmation that his wife is still alive. The ending is infused with hope, giving us a glimpse of Offred back in her bedroom, a small smile on her face as we hear what she wrote to her husband: “I love you. So much. Save Hannah.”

This episode was quite the detour from the first seven episodes, essentially showing us “the other side” of the story, meaning Luke’s experience after that opening sequence from the pilot. It was a bold move to take us out of the main storyline and plop us in with a new protagonist for the entire hour-long episode. And it is illuminating to see what life was like after D.C. fell, when Gilead’s powers-that-be were cleaning things up, forming their Republic, and enforcing their heinous laws upon the people. Closing off the borders and trapping people inside, kidnapping children and fertile women, murdering anyone left who is trying to resist.

When Luke staggers into that abandoned town, we’re given a look into how hellish and frightening those last days of America as we know it must have been. The terrifying imagery of horrible slurs tagged on shop windows – “Gender Traitor,” Gilead’s term for people who are gay; and “F*GS DIE” – resembles what happened just before the Holocaust. How intolerant, hateful people in 1930s Europe tagged Jewish shop owners’ windows before concentration camps were deemed an appropriate way to handle the entire group of people – millions upon millions of people. And let’s be honest, it’s how some people in America now treat men in turbans and women in hijabs. If there’s a lesson to be learned from The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s that brushing off or ignoring even the smallest infringements of rights against any group of people can quickly compound into a massively oppressive state in which many if not all suffer. And we walk a fine line between something as seemingly innocuous as judging/fearing a person for how they look, love, pray, and dress, and oppression – even violence – against that person.

As a whole, this was a compelling episode, though the focus on Luke’s trials didn’t have as much of an emotional impact as the prior episodes focusing on Offred and the Handmaids have had. It isn’t just that I’m viewing this from a female perspective and relate more to a female protagonist, though that certainly might be part of it! What Luke went through seemed to pale in comparison to being kidnapped, tagged like cattle, thrown in what’s essentially a prison where you’re taught to allow a random rich man to rape you so he and his wife can have a child, where you’re also beaten for small infractions, and stripped of your identity, independence, and individuality. Luke’s story is one that needs to be told, but for an hour, viewers were taken to another place, plot-wise and emotionally, and it isn’t quite as captivating. O-T Fagbenle is stellar throughout the episode, ranging from excruciating physical pain (Luke gets his stomach literally stapled shut while he’s awake) to intense emotional pain, from fear to love, worry to relief, despair to hope.

I do, however, think the series walks a dangerous line if it dwells too much on the male experience in Gilead. While it’s an important perspective for us to have, as the idea that only women suffer in a violently misogynistic society is inherently foolish, the fact of the matter is that a woman in this sort of society suffers on a much grander scale than a man, whether he’s in a lower or a higher class. And while seeing everything that happened at the start of Gilead’s being formed is intriguing and the expansion of Atwood’s world fascinating, Luke’s journey just didn’t interest me as much. That said, this show is very much capable of telling Atwood’s story, scaring the living daylights out of us, enthralling us, and for all intents and purposes, traumatizing us beautifully. The feminist thrust of The Handmaid’s Tale remains, even through the experience of a man who’s lost his wife and daughter and has spent three years trying to find out what happened to them.

Did you enjoy this episode of The Handmaid’s Tale? Let us know in the comments!

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