In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred considers that there are multiple, contradictory versions of Luke: He could be alive, plotting with the resistance; alive, and wasting away under back-breaking work in the Colonies; or dead since the day their family was dragged apart. Any of these scenarios are plausible, but as long as she carries them all in her head, she doesn’t have to choose for one to be the truth. With the various adaptations of the novel, we now have three different Lukes existing in our pop culture consciousness. Book Luke’s fate is never spelled out, and we have no idea if Offred ever even gets closure. Movie Luke is gunned down in the first few minutes. And TV Luke… well, he’s surviving.
Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale “The Other Side.”
As psyched as I was last week to find out that Luke is indeed alive, this episode was a bit of a letdown. It was certainly a step down in energy, as it had to track back three years to show what happened to him after June heard gunshots and got her daughter Hannah yanked out of her arms. We eventually rejoin the present day in a fascinating enclave in Canada called Little America, where the ragtag U.S. embassy ferries messages from Gilead, like June’s secret missive to Luke. That’s a piece of worldbuilding I can’t wait to see more of, how refugees from the system are surviving on the outside. But the hour leading up to Little America mostly felt like filler.
Of course, we had to see what happened to Luke, if only to address some unanswered questions. He falls in with a group of survivors—”an Army brat, two strays, a gay, and a nun”—and is by far the least interesting member of the bunch. But they take him in and do what they can for his gunshot wound, and offer the chance to flee to Canada with them, because that’s what you do in dystopian futures. Luke is mostly still in shock, but riding along in a retirement home bus (nice detail) with this crew seems to, for the first time, cement how bad the danger is. The flashback-within-a-flashback reveals that June had wanted to leave town when she lost her job, or when Moira left, but Luke was more laissez-faire about the whole thing. He was sure that they would make it over the border, despite each confidence-rattling development, like their contact shattering their phones (because Gilead can still track you through them) or being shown how to shoot a gun (because you might need to).
The biggest danger to Luke in Gilead is the state’s stance on adultery, but he doesn’t know that yet. It’s more vital that he see why the other survivors are on the run, what about the new world order directly impacts them: the gay man walking through towns with homophobic threats scrawled over buildings; the nun forcibly wrenched away from her vow of chastity because she might be fertile.
The Handmaid’s Tale series deals in a number of proxies, in order to have its characters experience key emotional moments while still being separated by the plot machinations. Through Ofglen, Offred (and viewers) learns what happens to a queer “gender traitor” because Moira is supposed dead after her escape from the Red Center. Similarly, the silent blonde with a red ear tag who opens her mouth only to scream in her nightmares gives Luke a preview of what June could be going through at this very moment as a Handmaid. The “stray” (not named in the episode but listed as “Erin” on IMDb) even resembles his wife. The Ringer’s analysis of the episode lays out why in Luke’s case this is much less effective:
Like so much else in this show, Luke’s situation has contemporary resonance: When you’re opposed to persecution but aren’t affected by (or even indirectly benefit from) it, what do you do? Instead of exploring those questions, however, “The Other Side” leaves them largely unaddressed in favor of only superficially illuminating plot. By failing to justify its detour from the main narrative, “The Other Side” becomes at best filler — and at worst the needless accommodation of a man’s experience of women’s oppression.
At the end of episode 3, when June has lost her job, access to her bank account, and her ability to own property in one fell swoop, Luke’s response is automatic: “You know I’ll always take care of you.” Even when Moira laughs bitterly about Luke being part of the problem, he’s confused; he thinks he’s offering comfort and security, failing to consider how his attempts at protection further dehumanize June. That blind spot resurfaces in a later episode, when the series goes back further in time, to Luke and June consummating their affair. She asks him to leave his wife Annie, and he immediately says yes. He doesn’t couch it in excuses about him and Annie’s marriage falling apart; it’s simply “I’m in love with you, what else am I going to do?” That kind of focus must be flattering for the recipient, but it’s chilling to see how easily he disregards his wife’s needs for that of the other woman.
To be clear, these are the aspects of Luke’s personality I find most fascinating: his single-mindedness, his tendency to objectify June even if he genuinely loves her, the fact that he doesn’t automatically know the best course of action in a crisis. There’s an excellent moment with the band of survivors when no-nonsense leader Zoe, in response to Luke’s request to go back to Boston and find his family, casually leads him into a church filled with the hanged bodies of dissenters. While he cries out and turns away from the decomposing corpses, she stands over him, not cruel but unrelenting. The message is clear: Don’t be a hero. I would rather he be realistically weak than unrealistically heroic.
Some of those flaws seem to have carried over to the Luke we meet in the present, in Little America. He seems to have settled comfortably into his new life: He’s got a cell phone, he seems to have put on some weight and eschews wearing his glasses in public, he brings tea (or coffee, when they have it) to Erin while she hangs out.
Something about the familiarity between Luke and Erin in the present immediately raised my hackles. They live in the same apartment—whether it’s with the rest of their comrades or on their own is unclear—and they have an easy camaraderie as he visits her and gently pushes her to work on her trauma by not retreating home. Maybe they’re just buddies, or maybe they’ve found comfort in one another, three years on. And yet, I am all for Offred and Nick carrying on their affair; even after finding out that Luke was alive, my first thought was How is June going to juggle these conflicting feelings for different men? and not You’re cheating on your husband! But the mere thought of Luke becoming emotionally attached to another woman was intensely uncomfortable.
What bothered me, I realized, is that I felt Offred was somehow owed this small comfort, of being with Nick, after all of the humiliations and dehumanizations of being a Handmaid. Whereas Luke doesn’t seem to be suffering much at all, aside from the general state of being separated from his family, and somehow my knee-jerk reaction was to think that he wasn’t “allowed” to indulge in another relationship.
What’s most interesting is that it doesn’t seem as if Luke has spent the last three years searching for June and Hannah. In fact, when he’s called to the embassy, he thinks it’s to follow up on something involving Handmaids-in-training being held in high school gymnasiums. It’s a sweet concern, but he’s years behind in intel. It’s unclear if information about Gilead and its Handmaids hasn’t traveled north, or if Luke is just off the mark. When the representative asks if he knows who June Osborne is, and when she hands him the note we saw Offred write last week, he seems truly flabbergasted.
And for all that I just laid out my own emotional response to Luke’s behavior, this is great storytelling. It tracks that he might have drifted away from saving his family in favor of building up a new life outside of Gilead. But now, June’s agonizingly short note—I love you, so much. Save Hannah.—has yanked him out of complacency. Did she choose that wording to prove that it was her? Is she aware of her own limitations within the Commander’s household, and that she needs to ask someone on the outside to save her daughter? Or does she not expect to see Luke again, does she expect that he can only choose to save one of them and it must be their daughter?
All questions to hopefully be explored in season 2. (It is worth mentioning that O-T Fagbenle is listed as appearing in the last three episodes of season 1, but I imagine that the writers will save his big action for next season.) And all reasons that I’m glad Luke is alive and back in the story. Even if “The Other Side” was mostly filler, even if he’s not the perfect husband or father, he’s much more interesting as a flesh-and-blood character with flaws than as an idealized flashback or memory.