This week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t pick up where it left us last episode, but it makes sense: we go back to the opening scene of the show to find out exactly what happened to Luke and how he survived. It’s a nice change of pace – June’s/Offred’s arc is compelling, but it’s also exhausting, so it was nice to be able to catch your breath with some (mostly) physical peril. It also gives Luke the chance to become an actual character, pulled into the present instead of just living in June’s flashbacks and recollections. Outside the politics of Gilead and (obviously) tied to June, we can root for Luke in a way we can’t for any other male character.
The episode followed two threads, told out of order pre and post the gunshots June heard at the beginning – June, Luke, and Hannah being smuggled out of Boston and into an isolated cabin, and Luke finding his way to Canada (the “magical land of the north” – thanks, Justin).
An old family friend of June’s smuggles the entire family in the trunk of his car, making sure the “police officer” who checks the trunk is on their side. June and Luke are presented as a unit in this episode, more than we’ve ever seen. They joke together, even through their fear (“do you remember the sublet we had in Somerville? This [trunk] is bigger”); he calls her Junebug; they even move together. We get family scenes, too – Luke watching his wife and daughter make pancakes, teaching Hannah to skip rocks. They’re spotted by a Woody Harrelson lookalike, who says he won’t report on them but lets them know that their contact, who was getting them passports, has been killed.
After June and Hannah run, Luke tries to shoot at the guards that arrive, but he gets shot. He wakes up in an ambulance when it overturns (what was the point of saving him? What were they going to do with him?). He finds his way to a ransacked town, where another group of refugees finds him. This part was kind of cliché (dialogue like “at some point, you’re gonna have to stop collecting strays” had me rolling my eyes a little bit. But “an army brat, two strays, a gay, and a nun” was pretty good).
Luke demands that his fellow refugees stop the bus so he can go back to Boston to find his family, but they convince him that he’d just end up dead. One of the women shows him a church full of the bodies of the people who tried to stop Gilead from taking the women; she’s shot, too, as Luke boards the boat headed for Canada. All of this was pretty standard dystopian fare – running through the woods, finding other survivors who don’t all survive.
At the end of the episode, we finally get to see Luke in Toronto. Its normalcy is completely jarring – even though we know that the rest of the world hasn’t collapsed into insanity the way that America has, it’s still strange to see a free, unchanged city. He has a meeting with a dignitary, and he makes his way through a hallway completely papered with notes and photos – a hall of the missing. It’s interesting to see this titular other side. Everyone in Gilead has stories of the ones who got away – Moira’s girlfriend (or wife?), Emily’s wife and son. This episode brings them back together, in a way, two people holding on either side of a thin, frail thread.
But the thread doesn’t break: Luke gets the message that June wrote him at the end of the last episode, three weeks after she wrote it. He’s in shock – it’s been three years since he’s seen her, a timestamp I don’t remember us having before. Once he’s alone, he grins, dissolving into tears. The message is simple, as things between Luke and June have always been: “I love you so much. Save Hannah.” The small reminder of what love actually is – eight words, scrawled on a tiny slip of paper – sustains the characters and the viewer. It’s the thing June held onto back in episode five, facing down the Commander – the thing she’d given up on. And I think it’ll be enough to kick both of them into action.