The Handmaid’s Tale: 1x07 The Other Side.
The Other Side feels like an escape. It’s a very deliberate departure from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which was limited by its own premise – limited to Offred’s perception of Gilead, her small room, her house, the Chinese Whispers about Mayday, which eventually, at the end of the book, arrived at her house. There was a very vague sense of the world outside, but nothing very tangible, nothing that ever had any true bearing on her story. The show makes a very conscious decision here, sending a message that it has the ability to not just discover Serena Joy’s past, but that it can also venture outside of Gilead, through Luke, June’s husband. Who – and this is also a departure from the book – is not dead, who, in The Other Side, goes through something that is presumably very deliberately an homage to how these post-apocalyptic narratives usually go. The show is smart enough to know that this departure has to be gendered, that the person who can go through these post-apocalyptic has to be Luke instead of June (in the same vein, and perhaps frustratingly, Luke is the protagonist here, not the army brat who seems so very prepared for all of this, not the gay guy who constantly navigates through a territory that is in every way, shape and form hostile to him, not the quiet survivor of a re-education centre whose name is TBD because she has lost her voice in some unspeakable trauma). Where June’s slow steps through Gilead in the flashbacks of the show has always been marked by the absurdity of it all – a future where the regime takes the bible selectively literal, with hilarious if violent results – Luke’s first step in those liminal border regions where he leaves the normality that Gilead still affords to a heterosexual man are identical to what any hero in any post-apocalyptic scenario goes through.
Specifically, the episode pieces together the backstory to June’s and Luke’s unsuccessful escape, and draws a different path for Luke to what June just always assumed happened to him. The gun shots that rung out in the distance where his, but then he got shot, but then the ambulance that was taking him back didn’t take ice into account – was derailed by weather, by circumstance – offering a very wounded man an opening to make an escape. He is present enough to grab medication, a gun, to make all the right moves for an unlikely survivor in this hellscape. He gathers his resources, and limps off, and finds an abandoned village (seemingly collectively punished for some kind of transgression against the ideology of Gilead, serious enough to warrant homophobic messages on walls, and a horrifying act of violence that will later be discovered).
Luke becomes a traditional, classical hero – the kind of man who is savvy enough to collect things to barter, the kind of man who gets picked up by a raggedy bunch of post-apocalyptic heroes who pick up strays and rescue them, out of a sadly unexplored sense of duty to a humanity that has maybe proven itself not worthy of saving. The thing here is that The Handmaid’s Tale toys with branching off into being a different show for a moment here, one about this unlikely group of heroes, but then of course it travels back to what it was always destined to be – a story about June, where none of this has any place in the narrative. It’s a sad loss, one that maybe deserved one than more episode to get to.
If this show was concerned with the men that are left behind, that were not the architects of this regime, that lost so much in what followed and yet were partially to blame for not acting sooner, for not recognising the danger – and this is maybe the best moment in this episode, the way that June blames Luke for not recognising the danger hovering over his family earlier – it would be like this episode. But instead it only ventures down this path for one episode out of ten, very aware that the core of its story and concern is elsewhere (and maybe this is where the controversy started – it’s not a feminist but a humanist show, because there is one episode about Luke, struggling to rescue his family but eventually forced to concede that one man is not enough, that these acts of heroism mean absolutely nothing because death is so immediate, and inevitable). He stumbles and finds artefacts of his old life, a child lost to the woods and a wife dragged away to a horror he wouldn’t be able to imagine.
Luke is a man fiercely determined to save his family, and he and June go through all of their available resources to do so. A friend of June’s mother (who we haven’t met yet, but, from the books, was a fierce feminist, horrified by her daughter’s apolitical existence) helps them to gather the resources to get across the border, and along the way, they are helped by the kindness of strangers, which in the end, makes no difference at all, because they waited too long. Maybe it was a bit too comfortable, still – June lost her job and her ability to have money, but Luke would have still been okay, and he promised to take care of them, and maybe, it would all go back to normality eventually, maybe it was just a short glitch. I think this is where the episode completely succeeds, more than when the show pains to show how the lobster slowly boils to death because it can’t tell the exact point when things become unbearable, unliveable. The show tracks this precise point in the personal romantic relationship between June and Luke, and it doesn’t hesitate to show June’s apprehension about Luke’s hesitation, the fact that he always used Hannah as an excuse for his inaction. We know that Moira’s earlier attempt to flee was unsuccessful, but in the present tense June’s mind, Moira had her timing right, while her husband’s hesitation is to blame for why everything is so much harder now. He tried to do everything by the book: getting both of them valid visas for Canada – missing that Gilead is no longer a world where following any kind of rules comes with validation. Once they decide to escape, those visas are completely without value, and their helpers have to organise them fake passports. And then it all goes wrong, because of course it does – and all that remains for Luke to do is to rage, and to eventually concede his own helplessness in the face of the power of Gilead. We’ve seen how it all happened from the Commander’s and Serena’s perspective, so we know how unescapable the architecture of terror that they built together truly is.
It all leads to that moment in the church, with Luke insisting that he, like any hero would, will go back and save his family. The woman leads him into the church, where a whole community that thrived to do better, that attempted to save and be good, is strung up on the rafters, left to rot. A cautionary tale about the value of bravery in a world that does not reward bravery. Still, even then, it hasn’t landed for Luke that this world is different from what he imagines. The moment when he and June and Hannah huddled together in a trunk didn’t do it, and the men taking his family away, only leaving pet animals and pages from a family photo album didn’t. It takes this unspeakable violence – with so much historical precedence, but none of it HERE, none of it TO FAMILIES LIKE HIM, to land. Eventually, he and the quiet women are the only ones to survive, and they begin a tentative new life across the border, in a refugee quarter for escaped US Americans. There isn’t much detail about what it means to be a refugee, what it means to exist precariously in a different country that struggles for resources and for a future – because in the end, all that remains is the message that was written last episode. June, to Luke, struggling to process the information that her husband is alive. Save Hannah. I love you.
A nun tells Luke what Gilead is doing, but he can’t really process it yet what it means for June to be one of the fertile women that the regime is gathering up, and is in the process of building an entire economy on.
This episode was a little bit like Dollhouse, going off convention and off limitation in its Epitaph episodes – this is the darkness, the conventional post-apocalyptic storyline, that lurks behind its premise, but the very way in which the show operates and is conceived doesn’t really allow for any of it to be explored in more meaningful detail. I WISH we could have had the chance to see more of Zoe. Rosa Gilmore’s memorable performance (somewhere along the lines of Lena Heady’s Sarah Connor) was outstanding in this episode.
Luke and the quiet woman (Ashley), in an unspoken relationship, straddling that literal border between Gilead and Canada, existing in the non-space of being a refugee – like Luke walking through that hallway of missing people (which is also a cliché from so many other stories, but yet, inevitable), and then receiving his message, and cherishing it, finding purpose in it.
We finally get a timeline of sorts – between June and Luke attempting to escape, and now, it’s been three years.
The United States still exist, formerly, across the border. The weirdness, and absurdity, of seeing Gilead so effectively compared to the conventional 21st century reality of visiting a consulate, of finding a reassuring piece of home in a different country.
And in the end – one of the best musical uses on the show – Cigarettes After Sex’s Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby.