You can’t know how tightly bound a dystopia is until you try to escape; you can’t know how much has been taken from you until you realize you can’t get it back. If losing your job seemed bad, just wait for the gunshots and government-enforced fertility centers.
As The Handmaid’s Tale has rolled out on Hulu, two main talking points have emerged: First, it is very unsettling, and second, it is unsettlingly possible. It’s dystopian fiction, but not very far removed from reality. Instead of dropping its audience into a bleak world they could never imagine, it shows that world’s gradual transformation. Through flashbacks, viewers see June (Elisabeth Moss) remaining in Boston after the Commanders make it illegal for women to have bank accounts or jobs, and staying put even though they’re shooting protesters and coordinating attacks on the US government. It shows June upset, but thinking things might right themselves. Handmaid’s Tale feels real because it’s not just a story about a woman trying to endure an oppressive society—it’s a story about how easily she could become a part of one.
A great deal of this comes to light in “The Other Side,” which flashes back to the time when June and her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) realized they had to get out of Boston to save June and their daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake). After being smuggled out of the city by a friend of June’s mother, they believe they have found temporary safety in a remote cabin. For a while, as they make chocolate chip pancakes and skip rocks on the pond, it seems as though they’ll be able to escape to Canada.
But they’ve waited too long. June and Hannah never make it across the border. The state-appointed Guardians of Gilead capture June and take her daughter away. Luke tried to fend off the Guardians as his wife and daughter fled, shaking as he attempted to load a revolver. But he gets shot in the side and captured—until the ambulance he’s in flips over, killing the Guardians, leaving Luke injured but alive.
Handmaid’s Tale feels real because it’s not just a story about a woman trying to endure an oppressive society—it’s a story about how easily she could become a part of one.
As June is taken to the Rachel and Leah Center to become a handmaid, Luke makes it to a small town, where the walls are graffitied with “GENDER TRAITOR” and “FAGS DIE.” He collapses inside an abandoned home, and is found by a group of fugitives (“an army brat, two strays, a gay, and a nun,” as one describes them). They bandage his wound and drive him towards the border, along with one other rescued passenger: a silent, traumatized woman with a tag on her ear, who the fugitives found in a handmaid training center. The group has a plan to escape, but Luke won’t go, refusing to leave his wife and daughter behind—until Zoe (Rosa Gilmore), one of the rebels, shows him a whole town that was hanged from the rafters of their church after trying to resist.
Luke agrees to join the fugitives, giving the boatman Percocet and morphine, salvaged from the crashed ambulance, and his wedding ring in exchange for passage to Canada. But the Guardians have found them, and as the boat swerves away from gunshots and speeds towards safety, only Luke and the silent woman make it out alive.
Three years later, the two refugees live in relative safety in Toronto’s Little America neighborhood. There are rations on coffee, but people walk freely in the streets. After a call to his cell phone, Luke heads to the American consulate, walking past hundreds of flyers of missing people papering the walls. An officer has a package for him, which arrived three weeks ago from contacts in Mexico. It’s the note June (now Offred) wrote to him moments after she found out he was still alive, in the seconds she had alone with the Mexican ambassador’s assistant.
Offred doesn’t beg to be rescued, but affirms she’s still alive, and asks for what she really needs. “I love you, so much,” she writes. “Save Hannah.” This scene never appeared in Margaret Atwood’s novel. Throughout the book, Luke only exists in Offred’s memories. In Hulu’s adaptation, he’s a way for the audience to see what the world looks like outside his wife’s purview, to see how quickly society could go from taking away jobs to taking away everything. In the final moments of this week’s episode, the camera flashes between Offred, sitting in her red dress by the window, and Luke, staring out a window beside the American flag, tears streaming down his face. Offred is now trapped within the Republic of Gilead. But her words have found a way out.