The Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale began with a liminal moment: Luke and June running for the border, their lives teetering precariously between Gilead and Canada, life and death. It could have gone either way, but it went this one. June tumbled back into the horrors of Gilead, while Luke disappeared from view, exiting offscreen to the sound of a distant gunshot.
He was gone then, like so many other things were gone for June — her name, her daughter, her freedom, her world — all of them measured now by their absence, by the negative spaces they left behind, her mind reaching for them like a tongue in the socket of a missing tooth.
In the book, Luke’s fate was always unclear; he drifted through Offred’s memories like a ghost trapped between one world and the next, never truly alive or dead. The show pushes us to new territory by informing us — and Offred — that he is very much alive. This is the episode where we rewind the tape and watch it again from the very beginning, this time with the camera fixed on Luke, to find out exactly what that means.
One of the great delights of the Game of Thrones television series is its ability to move beyond the limitations of the point-of-view characters in the books and explore the perspectives of characters who never got a first-person spotlight, inhabiting the rooms we never could have entered through our narrators. The Handmaid’s Tale takes a similar tack, letting its focus shift temporarily away from Offred, settling first on the secret history of Serena Joy, and now on Luke.
Luke’s flashbacks aren’t quite as effective as the ones for June and Serena Joy, if only because they lack the stark contrast between the women’s vibrant lives before the rise of Gilead, and the rigid, dehumanized existence they find on the other side. His story sits at the fulcrum, fumbling around the messy, terrifying limbo of a world in the midst of turning into something terrible, a monster that has not fully completed its transformation.
We start at the very beginning of their run for the border, the journey we encountered before only at its end. Luke and June are ever so casually driving out of Boston in a low-key panic, hoping desperately that it’s not too late for them to make it out. June insists they should have left earlier, when she lost her job or when Moira left. Moira didn’t make it, of course, but June doesn’t know that — only that she can feel the maw of Gilead closing around them.
A friend of June’s mother agrees to take them across the border, and they end up abandoning all their possessions and huddling in the trunk of a car headed north. The man asks for their phones and immediately crushes them under his boot. They can track you even if the phone is turned off, he explains, because they live in an authoritarian state with 17th-century ideas about women and 21st-century surveillance technology.
Although the man tells them to leave everything behind, Luke insists on taking the family photo album with him anyway, trying to claw back a tiny piece of the life that has been taken away from him, and the family that is about to be. Loss comes so often as an agony of minutiae: the shirt they left behind, the stray hair still stuck to your pillow, the book they loved still sitting on the table right where they left it. You don’t lose a life, or a person, just once; you lose them a thousand times, in a thousand tiny ways, and sometimes you never stop.
The man leaves them at a remote cabin slightly south of the border, promising to return later and take them the rest of the way. He never does, on account of getting hanged from a streetlamp by black-suited goons, so Luke and June end up racing for the border themselves and thus coming full circle, all the way back to where it all began one more time.
This time, as June runs into the woods, we see Luke fumbling with a gun as the sirens grow closer. He takes a bullet to the gut only seconds after the bad guys roll up, and wakes up in an ambulance driving him back into Gilead. He gets lucky when the ambulance ends up rolling off the road, and he escapes. But after he makes his way back to his car, he finds nothing but detritus waiting for him: Hannah’s stuffed bunny, June’s shoe, the little things they left behind. The fulcrum has tipped now, and they have gone into the other side of the story, disappearing from his view.
He makes his way to a house in an abandoned town, its windows pierced with bullets and painted with charming Gilead slogans like “FAGS DIE.” It’s interesting how the ultimate truth of the creator of the universe so often gets conflated with the precise ways that a small group of people want to be terrible to others. The version of Christianity that the new regime has embraced is as self-serving as it is violent, a cherry-picked interpretation that allows them to roll back the advances in social equality that threaten their supremacy and place themselves back atop the throne as unquestioned kings.
It is a vision of America ruled by terrorists and religious extremists — not the foreign ones that serve as convenient bogeymen for bigots grasping at power, but rather the angry, militant white men who pose an even greater threat. The “traditional values” and “faith” at the heart of Gilead do not strengthen but shatter individuals, families, and communities. Its leaders have no interest in either representing or serving the people of America, but rather crushing them into rubble in order to rebuild a country where a very thin slice of privileged people — them — get to sit at the top.
Luke joins up with a ragtag crew of survivors who have also been labeled enemies of the state: a woman who grew up as an army brat, a gay man, a nun, and a traumatized survivor of a Handmaid training center. Luke wants to go back to Boston and rescue his family, so one of his new traveling buddies drags him to a church where over a dozen corpses are dangling from the rafters, and offers some tough love: “If you go back, you will die.” He reluctantly reconsiders and hops on a boat to Canada, but the toll he has to pay to cross the river out of hell is a steep one: his wedding ring, the last thing he has of June, is the only coin he has left.
His successful escape means that we get our first real glimpse of the world outside Gilead, something that is referenced only obliquely in the book where we are confined along with Offred in a very narrow world. Although the Mexican trade delegation in the last episode offered a glimpse into the international and economic implications of the Gilead coup, Luke’s point of view takes us all the way into Canada, where he’s settled in a neighborhood of refugees called Little America.
Luke is summoned to the U.S. embassy, one of the last ragged scraps of the overthrown American government, where an official somberly asks him if he knows June Osborne. When he identifies June as his wife, she hands him a small manila envelope and says nothing further. Luke regards it with a combination of fear and hope: Does whatever is inside mean life or death for June? She floats in his mind in the purgatory between life and death. Does he want to know the truth if it means losing her, finally feeling her die?
The small piece of paper is, of course, the message that Offred scrawled at the very end of the last episode, when a member of the Mexican trade delegation handed her a notepad and gave her the exact same news this letter gives him: The person you love is still alive. Her message in a bottle has floated all the way across the river that divides life and death, and somehow made its way into his hands. In a way, they are touching.
Luke laughs and cries, hears her voice in his head as he reads the terribly brief note that has brought her back to life: “I love you, so much. Save Hannah.” We haven’t heard a word about their daughter since a soldier pulled her out of June’s arms, but if the show continues to push these boundaries, maybe we’ll get to learn more about her too. In a show that often feels as painful as it does hopeless, it’s the first sign that there might just be hope for all of them yet.