Louisa Mellor

Jul 9, 2017

The Handmaid’s Tale devotes an episode to life outside Gilead, with mixed results…

This review contains spoilers.

1.7 The Other Side

How Hamlet spent his days at university in Wittenberg. What Mr Bingley and Jane did on their honeymoon. How St John Rivers got on as a missionary in India. What befell Rosie Cotton while Samwise Gamgee was on his way to Mordor and back.

Stories that don’t need to be told, one and all. Here’s another to add to the list: what Luke was up to while June was going through hell in The Handmaid’s Tale.

By all means, tell us Luke’s alive. End another destabilising, laser-sharp hour on gender politics with a shot of him getting a Canadian latte or taking out the bins, sure. But devote a whole episode to the sub-Walking Dead crew that got him over the border, and that week he, June and Hannah spent eating chocolate chip pancakes on the lam? Don’t waste our good time.

That’s unnecessarily mean. Forgive me.

The Handmaid’s Tale has been so far from a waste of our time until now that it’s earned itself a little leeway. With a second season already commissioned, this show has set its sights on a world expanded beyond the three hundred-odd pages of Margaret Atwood’s novel. For its own survival, it needs to establish life outside Gilead.

It also needs what I understand is referred to by experts in the trade as a plot. ‘Look at all this horror’ will only get you so far. A family separated by a border and trying to reunite is a story. Goals, conflict, stakes, true love… Luke and June trying to save Hannah has it all.

Reluctant as I was watching it, The Other Side was a necessary stage in The Handmaid’s Tale’s evolution from stunning portrait of fundamentalist insanity to ongoing drama series. (After all, there isn’t even a category for ‘Best stunning portrait of fundamentalist insanity’ at the Emmys.)

The story of what happened to Luke since we saw him in the pilot’s frantic opening moments filled a knowledge gap. While June was taken to the Red Centre and Hannah was taken who knows where, Luke was shot by Guardians, escaped by a stroke of RTA-related luck, and teamed up with a ragtag group of survivors fleeing the regime change. Not all of them made it over the border, but he and his Red Centre escapee pal did. They now live in an enclave of Toronto known as ‘Little America’, where US refugees try to track down loved ones lost to Gilead’s cruel and unusual punishments.

Oddly, for an episode so heavy with typical thriller elements, The Other Side felt like a pause for breath. It’s testament to the extremes of dread contained in a normal episode of The Handmaid’s Tale that it was something of a day off. Audiences are used to following groups of post-apocalyptic survivors on television. The motley crews and tough talk and ad hoc surgery and urgent escape scenes are all familiar to us.

The Handmaid’s Tale’s power is in world-building and presenting things we haven’t seen before on TV. Take away that strangely still, colour-coded world led by Elisabeth Moss’ captivatingly quiet performance, and things start to feel very ordinary.

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, A Woman’s Place, here.