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Our favorite new feel-bad series veered sharply away from canon last week with an episode focused primarily on monstrous would-be mother Serena Joy. Hulu was wise enough to ease us into this shock by keeping Offred clearly visible in the periphery, if not always front and center in the story.
This week, “The Handmaid’s Tale” gambles on the audience’s interest in the finer details of Luke’s escape and survival, giving O-T Fagbenle a chance to round out his character while pushing Offred (here seen pretty much only as June) almost entirely out of the picture.
It’s a long shot that ultimately pays off, but only after a certain grim acceptance has settled in: this week’s episode isn’t here to move the plot forward, per se — it’s here to fill in what we (and Offred) have never gotten to know about the growing resistance to Gilead, as harbored by our gentle neighbor to the North. In the meantime, our embattled heroine will have to perch on that cliff for one extra week while we go and get ourselves educated.
This is a tough episode to recap, because the action takes place in a dreamy slipstream of flashbacks within flashbacks, only to lunge forward at the very end to answer part of the question we were left with last week: does Offred trust the Mexican liaison to pass a note to her long lost husband, and if so, what could it possibly say?
One of the first things we learn about Luke in this episode is that he’s terribly unprepared for the crisis unfolding all around him. What more potent visual metaphor for impotence could possibly be drawn than the husband and father trying in vain to load and wield a firearm? Hearing the bullets scatter across the floor at his feet — or for that matter, listening to Luke try to overrule their experienced guide’s instructions as he shepherds them to safety — I flashed back to Offred’s lines in the first episode, “I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen.”
That’s the recurring theme of this episode, in which Luke sleepwalks through the aftermath of their escape attempt, resisting pretty much every person in the resistance he meets on his journey to freedom. He’s determined to retain some vestige of control, desperate to zig when he sees everyone else zag, even when those around him clearly know better. Defensive, he lies to June about his prowess with a firearm; we at home know it’s a lie, because we already watched him fumble the ammo.
It’s as if he’s determined (as one of our great political leaders is mistakenly believed to have said) to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
A series of gunshots heard in the distance were all June ever knew of his fate, but we now see his injuries landed him in the back of a doomed ambulance. After extricating himself from his second crashed vehicle of the day, a disoriented and maimed Luke attempts to make a solo run for the border, fueled by an even wilder sense of desperation once he stumbles upon evidence that June and Hannah didn’t get there after all.
Making it as far as a burned out town marred with graffiti like “GENDER TRAITOR” and “FAGS DIE,” Luke is intercepted by a patrol of political undesirables — “two army brats, a gay, and a nun,” plus an escapee from the fledgling Red Center. Collectively, this unwieldy band has seen all the hell that’s eluded Luke up till this point, but he spends most of his voyage fighting them tooth and nail, determined to set a course that leads back to his imperiled family. His rescuers patiently but firmly set him on the path of least resistance, which happens to be his only chance of survival — he’s just too blinded by pain and fear to see it.
Finally, one of these guardian angels discreetly escorts him to a local church building, driving home the point of what’s at stake for those who attempt to survive and resist from within. This mass-hanging in the belly of a church is more than just the episode’s visual centerpiece: it’s a wake-up call, underscoring once and for all that Gilead isn’t a religious movement or a political revolution, it’s not something you can reason with or withstand on your own.
It’s terrible that such horrific events must be witnessed firsthand before the reality of it sinks in. You’d think we would have learned this by now, but even as we speak, gay men are fleeing torture and murder in Chechnya — and the US isn’t one of the countries that’s opened its borders to shelter them.
Meanwhile, other critics are getting tough with us “Handmaid’s Tale” viewers for making the experience all about our liberal anxiety: why are we hearing so much moaning about the US transforming into a Gilead-esque dystopia, but so little concern for the parts of the world where this is already more or less underway?
“While its story hits awfully close to home given our current climate, we didn’t need ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to show us the nightmare that sets in when religion and patriarchy work together to control the lives of women,” observes Alternet. “For millions of people around the world, the dystopia our two polarized camps are debating is an everyday reality.”
They go on to quote Margaret Atwood herself about the creative limitations she imposed on herself as she wrote, grounding the tale in realism for readers in 1985 and beyond: “One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the ‘nightmare’ of history, nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities.” It’s the present that needs to be addressed if we want to keep the carcinogenic seeds of Gilead from taking root — not the future.
Peering in on Luke’s new home in Toronto’s “Little America” district three years later, it’s easy to mistake the relative normalcy of his appearance for complacency. Are we to forgive him for moving on, buying new clothes, making new friends, essentially starting with a clean slate while June soldiers on in a hell of sexual torment? I’ll go ahead and answer that for you: yes, we are.
I’m emphasizing that because I felt an uncharitable reaction building up inside me at the sight of Luke hanging out with his fellow escapee — perhaps there’s even the hint of a romance budding there?
That’s just another trick pulled by a show that’s consistently smarter and more historically savvy than most of the people watching. For people who fled the horrors of the Holocaust and started over in new countries, many years might go by without news of whether family or loved ones had survived, or where they might be. Those years were spent in a state of grief and anxiety, but grief is not always paralyzing. Life does go on, and so it has for displaced persons around the world throughout all of world history (which is itself mainly an account of our wars).
The episode doesn’t keep us in the dark with these thoughts for very long. Almost immediately upon being reintroduced to Luke, we get to see the tears in his eyes as he receives news that his wife is alive — or at least, she was as of a few weeks ago, when her note was gathered.
From our relatively luxurious position of knowing how many episodes remain in the season, we know for a fact that June is alive. However, she would rather we (and her husband) concentrate our energies elsewhere:
“I love you so much. Save Hannah.”
That’s the full extent of Offred’s message, communicating in just seven words everything one could hope to hear from a loved one.
it’s also a message that teaches the rest of us about Offred’s determination to cope with the lot she’s been handed, for however long that might last. If her plans go very much further, she may not expect to be alive by the time anyone can retrieve her.
Her eyes are open to the danger. Now, at long last, so are her husband’s.