Every week, a few members of the Vox Culture team will gather to talk out the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and staff writer Constance Grady discuss the seventh episode, “The Other Side.”
Checking in with another familiar face
Todd VanDerWerff: The deeper we get into season one of The Handmaid's Tale, the more I see this middle section as the "let's figure out how this thing is a TV series and not just a miniseries" portion of the program. As such, all viewers' results may vary.
And I think, generally, "The Other Side" succeeded in convincing me that there are lots and lots of stories to be told in Margaret Atwood's world, not just Offred's. It took something I was certain I wouldn't give a shit about — Luke's struggle with resistance forces in Canada — and made me a convert. This isn't the best episode of the season, but it's a really great episode about Luke, and that might be a higher bar to clear.
Coupled with last week's Serena Joy flashbacks, it also underlines that Hulu’s adaptation is going to do its damnedest to make us care about the non-Offred characters in its orbit, or at least make us understand who they are. While that's necessarily going to turn off some fans of the book (I actually hate the idea in theory but have been more or less fine with it in execution — at least until the inevitable Nick episode), it's ended up being a smart way of expanding the show's scope.
I'm talking a lot about this episode in terms of season structure and TV theory when, really, I was mostly impressed by how willing it was to be dark. And I don't just mean in theme — there are literal scenes in “The Other Side” where you can't see anything onscreen and instead can only hear the actors' voices.
Yeah, there's a lot of hard-to-see TV out there, but this episode feels like it's scaling new heights in that regard. What did you think of all the pitch-black images?
Constance Grady: It was surprisingly compelling to watch Luke muddle around in the darkness of this episode, but what struck me was how much less oppressively cramped "The Other Side" felt compared with the show’s first few episodes.
In making the move that you aptly describe as the transition between miniseries and TV series, The Handmaid's Tale has had to sacrifice a lot of what made those first three episodes so terrifyingly different and great, like watching a silent, frozen scream. We were trapped almost exclusively in Offred's horrifying perspective, and even when we ventured out into different points of view, like Emily's or Janine's, we were still seeing the world through a Handmaid's eyes. And that world was characterized by a feeling of being trapped, of being ground down.
That's obviously not a sustainable perspective or mood for a full TV series! The story is opening up and becoming The Handmaid and Company's Tales — and it should, if it wants to continue. But it does mean moving away from some of what was most aesthetically interesting about those earliest episodes.
So here we get Luke's adventure. Which is … fine? Luke is a likable enough character, and his traveling companions are scrappy and compelling. But for my money, his arc is a little generic.
By which I mean, as a person who has watched any TV show or movie before in my life, I have seen a fair number of stories about a good brave man struggling through the wilderness, with the help of an unlikely group of companions, to save his wife and child. It's a good story! There's nothing wrong with that story! But I don't need to come to The Handmaid's Tale to find it, and it's never going to give me anything as shocking or sickening as, for instance, Moira and June trading wordless looks of horror at the Red Center as they realize exactly what their new role as Handmaids entails.
Is this episode’s generic nature a bug — or a feature?
Todd: I suppose that's what a lot of this midsection of the season has struggled with — how do you tell a story about Handmaids while giving the audience some (completely necessary) space to take a breath and remove themselves from the world of the show? Episode four tried a pop music montage. Episode five tried sex. Episode six tried giving Offred a big speech. And this one removed us from the world of the Handmaids entirely.
And I think I liked “The Other Side” a lot more than you. It's probably my favorite since episode three, perhaps because it has a touch of the generic to it. After all, the resistance to Gilead (which apparently takes the form of a US government in hiding) would probably be a fairly standard resistance movement. Luke would probably move on with his life a little bit. The letter June wrote to him would probably be as short and to the point as possible.
I also liked that the episode reframes the stakes for Luke — he's no longer in it just to save his wife or even his country. He needs to get to his daughter and make sure she isn't forced into horrifying servitude like her mother has been.
As we've discussed before, June might already be too enmeshed in Gilead's way of life, no matter how much she wishes she weren't. But Hannah might still have a chance of living a full, happy life somewhere far, far away (though as we know from the situation in Mexico, Gilead's tendrils might be spreading).
Or maybe I'm just into the way director Floria Sigismondi uses narrow shafts of light and the gray winter sunlight of Canada to create a dystopia that feels at once familiar and still horrifying. I do hope we return to Offred’s perspective soon (or maybe we could check in with a character in a similar situation — like the supposedly-dead-but-c’mon-she’s-played-by-Samira-Wiley-so-she-can’t-be-dead Moira?), but I found “The Other Side” to be the best respite we’ve had from that world so far.
Constance: I agree that this is probably the best tension relief The Handmaid’s Tale has found. We talked a little last week about how the show has struggled when it’s tried to end episodes on a cathartic note, but that final scene of Luke laugh-crying in bewildered relief over June's note is a lovely moment, with a little edge of darkness to it: He doesn't know, entirely, what's being done to her, and he probably hasn't let himself imagine anything as bad as her life actually is. And for once, the ironic pop song playing over the credits sort of worked.
But the most interesting thing for me about spending an hour in Luke's mind was getting to see how he sees June. His version of her is a lot less bitingly sarcastic than the version we see every week.
In part, that's circumstantial — she's not being ritually raped on a monthly basis in his memories, so she has less to be biting about — but it's also the result of sarcasm not fitting neatly into the way he wants to remember her. Luke sees June primarily as a mother. June in his memories is always backlit so that her hair becomes a golden halo. She is always murmuring sweetly to Hannah. When she turns a gun on an intruder, it's in a protective mama bear stance. In Luke's head, she is the Angel in the House.
That same way of thinking is what led Luke to react to the news that June could no longer own property by saying, "You know I'll always take care of you," and then to laugh when Moira got offended. Luke respects and loves June, but he also objectifies her a little bit.
He doesn't quite think of her as a human being so much as someone to put on a pedestal, to love and cherish and protect. He may not be a Gileadean misogynist, but he's still steeped in the worldview that made Gilead possible, just like anyone else.
Welcome to the resistance
Todd: That's a great reading of this episode. Luke might not be into what Gilead is all about, if only because the entire power structure of Gilead — made up of white men in natty suits with slicked-back hair as it is — wouldn't seem to have much room for him. But he can't entirely escape the objectifying impulse, because the country he grew up in is the same one that gave birth to Gilead in the first place.
That kind of insight is, to me, why shifting the perspective in a TV show is often so vital. Knowing how Luke thinks about June doesn't give us more insight into her — we probably could have guessed that she was fiercely protective of her daughter before this — but it does give us more insight into him and especially the world he was raised in.
I keep thinking of Mad Men while watching this show, and I think it's because both series, by turning to periods of more overt sexism (one imagined, the other real), force us to confront the tendrils of that sexism in our own lives.
That’s why I was so terrified at the prospect of a Luke episode: because the temptation of an episode about him would be to turn him into a big hero. Instead, he escapes by accident, falls in with the resistance by accident, then mostly just hangs out. He's not the hero. He's just lucky, as so many of us are.
But with that said, did you like his traveling companions? I was most fond of the mute (probably tongueless) former Handmaid played by Erin Way, who's been so good on Alphas and Colony.
Constance: I won't lie, I would spend a rainy Saturday afternoon watching a cable movie about that scrappy band of outsiders driving their assisted living facility bus up the East Coast, dodging Gileadean forces at every turn. I'm looking forward to seeing more of the mute Handmaid in future episodes (great catch that they must have cut out her tongue, I hadn't put that together), but I also enjoyed Zoe, the self-sacrificing leader who you could tell immediately would have to die, and Christine, the nun who does not give a single fuck.
Actually, I would love an episode of The Handmaid's Tale about nuns. Much of the rhetoric and the aesthetics surrounding the Handmaids is drawn from the rhetoric and aesthetic of nuns — the veils, the seclusion, the talk of religious sacrifice — but historically, nuns have consistently found ways of defying authority and claiming power for themselves. And in Gilead, nuns are on the hit list, because they are papists and that's basically the same thing as pagan to the puritanical Sons of Jacob.
Give me an episode about how a religious order of women thought about the rise of this religious cult centered on controlling women's bodies.
Todd: Constance, I think you have yourself a spinoff (just as I've come to wonder if The Handmaid's Tale and Children of Men take place in a shared universe).
What I liked best about this episode is how it shows that those words scratched into Offred's closet — “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” — might be ironic commentary on what's coming for Offred (in that the bastards really did grind down her predecessor), but they apply just as well to everybody living in Gilead and outside of it. It’s easy to feel ground down, but resistance is necessary if you’re to stay human.
This midsection of The Handmaid’s Tale’s first season has been lumpy, but it's convinced me, more or less, that there are more stories in this world than Offred's. And that was probably the most important thing the series could do.