Warning: This interview contains spoilers for “The Other Side” episode of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Luke is dead by the time Offred begins narrating her story in The Handmaid’s Tale, gunned down in a forest while his wife and daughter make a desperate, and ultimately futile, attempt to escape the grip of Gilead. No, wait. He’s not dead; he’s wasting away in a cell, prematurely aged from beatings and malnutrition, hair shorn to avoid lice infestations. Scratch that: he’s alive and living in Canada, an active member in a resistance movement formed by Gileadean refugees. And any day now — maybe even tomorrow — she’ll receive a secret message from him promising rescue. For Offred and readers of her story, Luke’s ultimate fate will forever be multiple choice, and the answer changes depending on her mood. He exists only as a fragment of memory that, as she puts it, is “stopped dead in time,” losing shape and form with each passing day.
Confronted with Options A, B, or C for his serialized adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale showrunner, Bruce Miller, ended up picking C — a choice that likely won’t be without controversy amongst the book’s fanbase. At the tail end of the sixth episode, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) learned from the representative of a visiting delegation from Mexico that Luke (O-T Fagbenle) avoided death at the hands of Gilead soldiers. In the seventh hour, “The Other Side,” we see exactly how he survived and became a citizen of “Little America,” the refugee community that’s sprung up across the Canadian border. His journey is a harrowing survival story that’s part Children of Men and part The Revenant. “It has a different tone than the rest of the season,” Fagbenle says of Luke’s solo adventure. “You get released into a larger world before coming back to the world we all know.”
And “The Other Side” really does seem to take place in another world, one that feels closer to the lawless post-apocalyptic frontier imagined by The Walking Dead than the strictly regimented society constructed within Gilead’s borders. Then again, that orderly republic didn’t exactly spring into being overnight. Late in the episode, a “Three years later” title card pops up onscreen, providing us with — for the first time in the series — a sense of just how much time has passed between Offred’s current life as a Handmaid and her past as June, a woman with a great job, a loving husband, and a button-cute daughter. Thus, the bulk of Luke’s adventure also takes place three years prior, when America as we knew it had fallen, but Gilead had yet to fully rise. It’s an in-between time when families try to disappear before the emerging regime’s grip tightens, and small bands of survivalists fend for themselves in the wild, helping those they can and leaving behind the ones beyond assistance.
Fortunately for him, Luke becomes one of the people they choose to help. Badly wounded in a firefight with pursuing soldiers, he’s put inside an ambulance bound for Gilead that ends up crashing into a stream. After limping away from that wreck, he seeks shelter inside one of the ransacked storefronts that line the main street of a ghost town, where he’s soon roused by a squad of escapees bound for the Canadian border. Their trip North is intercut with flashbacks-within-flashbacks depicting June and Luke’s flight to the border, one that included a tense ride in the trunk of a car owned by a friend of June’s mother followed by a lengthy stay at a remote cabin prior to their final, desperate moments together.
With entwined narratives that involve lots of running, shooting, and hiding, “The Other Side” often resembles an action film that’s been dropped in the middle of a dystopian drama. But it’s an action film starring a male hero who doesn’t know how to fire a gun or successfully protect his family. Neither a John Rambo nor a John McClane nor a Jason Bourne, Luke’s continued survival is due entirely to luck rather than ass-kicking prowess. “That’s what excited me,” says Fagbenle, who previously portrayed more traditional action heroes in a pair of British TV series, The Five and The Interceptor. “Luke is someone that most men can relate to. What happens if you’re not familiar with guns, haven’t had a fistfight since you were 13, and you’re trying to outrun a tyrannical system that’s ripping your family apart. That’s terrifying! And if you were to look at countries like Syria or Afghanistan, that’s what normal people often face.”
You can also bet that John Rambo wouldn’t have fled the country if it meant leaving his wife and daughter behind. Instead, he’d head right back to Gilead’s central nervous system and blow up the Red Center where June is being retrained to become Offred. To be fair, Luke initially feels that impulse as well, and refuses to follow his new compatriots across the border. But a detour into a church, where hooded bodies dangle from the rafters, knocks the forced machismo right out of him. “That’s something I wrestled with a lot as an actor,” Fagbenle says of Luke’s choice to leave America for Little America. Coming to terms with his character’s decision required him to embrace a different definition of bravery. “The stupid and cowardly thing to do would be to stay and pretend to be an action hero. He isn’t Jack Bauer! Instead, he makes a decision that’s more in line with his kind of thinking, which is plan and petition,” he says. “That may seem like a weakness, but his decision is based on what’s best for his family rather than him. If he ended up dead, he’d be of no use to them.”
For now, Luke won’t be of immediate use to June, except as a much-needed source of hope. (Fagbenle says he gets “goosebumps” at the thought of performing a June and Luke reunion with Moss, while obviously declining to reveal whether that might come to pass before the end of this season or in Season 2.) At the same time, the fact that she knows he’s alive fundamentally changes the nature of their long-distance relationship. In the book, Offred allows her liaison with Nick to flourish into a full-blown affair, clinging to the driver’s body as her memory of Luke’s figure continues to fade. (“Day by day, night by night he recedes and I become more faithless,” she says.) That relationship seems destined to be shorter-lived in the series now that June is aware that Luke is out there waiting for her. And, for the record, Fagbenle does think that his character is faithfully waiting to be reunited with his wife, even after three years of being on his own. “In my heart, I see him obsessed with his wife and child,” he says. “We’re all human, and so maybe he does find some kind of release. I just don’t think it’s who he fundamentally is.”
Of course, it’s worth noting that Luke cheated on his previous wife with June — an affair that, as we saw in the fifth episode, began over a seemingly innocent coffee date. Fagbenle says that scenes like that one helped define for him who this version of Luke is compared to the distant character receding from Offred’s memory on the page. “What was revealed to me in doing those scenes is that June is the alpha in their relationship. You can see it onscreen: she’s charming and seductive, powerful and sexy at the same time,” he says. That realization helped the actor fill in another bit of backstory that otherwise has gone unexplained in the book and onscreen: why Luke doesn’t hesitate when June asks him to leave his first wife later on in that same episode.
“I think what often happens when people leave their spouse for someone else is they tend to go for the opposite of what they already have,” he says. “For Luke, that maybe meant he was with someone who was more fragile or he wasn’t sexually compatible with or didn’t share his idea of what their future would look like.” Fagbenle also emphasizes that, even though we see Luke quickly agree to June’s request, it’s not a choice he makes lightly. “There’s a way we could have played that scene where it’s passionate and sexy. Instead, it’s somber and intimate — almost sullen,” he says. “You understand that there is a weight involved for both of them in the decision they’re about to make. Luke is a loyal guy at heart, so in my mind, he stayed in that other relationship long past its due date, and then he fell in love with June. Love is a hard thing to turn your back on.”
The Handmaid’s Tale releases new episodes every Wednesday on Hulu.
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