Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” Finally Gives Agency to a Black Character
Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale – if you aren’t caught up, you may encounter spoilers.
When The Handmaid’s Tale first premiered on Hulu, I wasn’t quite sure what I would be up for. I’d never read the book, though I had a vague awareness that the world of Gilead was not for the weak of heart. Margaret Atwood created a world that encompassed all of the worst atrocities throughout history, normalized for audiences to feel the true weight of these events.
One of the things that Handmaid’s Tale does well, in my opinion, is story-writing. The show does a great job of building up suspense and creating a sensation of genuine fear and dread for the characters.
Normally, I hate these kinds of episodes in series — ones that act partially like filler episodes — where we get little to no new information about the main character and the conflict we’ve been exploring so far in the season. But instead, “The Other Side” begins to answer some of the questions that have been building up all season.
“The Other Side” begins at the origins of the show – going over the steps leading up to Offred/June’s role as a Handmaid. As we begin with the familiar scene of her and her family trying to escape Guardians, the scene quickly shifts to follow June’s husband, Luke. Following these events, we see exactly how Luke managed to escape after being captured shortly after the car crash, his resolve to keep moving forward even after realizing that Hannah and June had been captured, finding comrades that help him with his injuries and eventually assist him in reaching Little America in Canada. At the end of the episode, when Luke learns that June is still alive, we feel the weight of his sobs and resolve in June’s eyes to escape Gilead at all costs.
For Black viewers, the way that Handmaid’s Tale has tackled race before this episode has left much to be desired. From the first episode, the striking parallels to slavery without explicit mention of it doubled as quietly triggering content; the centering on June/Offred’s experiences without diving deeply into the perspectives of the Black people in her life left a bad taste in my mouth. We’ve seen police brutality and jaw-dropping violence before only mirrored by news media and dystopian movies like The Hunger Games, though specifically leaving out how these experiences affect Luke, Moira, and even June’s daughter Hannah on some level sends a message of unconscious anti-Blackness to the audience that is hard to swallow.
By centering on Luke’s journey in “The Other Side”, we see the double meaning of this episode title – a “feminist” show that only explores gender oppression and no other marginalized identity is hardly a feminist show. By giving Luke agency as a character and understanding (finally) what he has endured and suffered, we can begin to piece together the totality of the show’s feminist gaze. What is powerful about this episode, is how Luke’s journey only adds to the power of June/Offred’s resolve.
Ending the episode back on the events of last week’s episode – June/Offred meeting the Mexican Ambassador, being in contact with a potential new ally and realizing that Luke is actually alive – all bring this side episode back to the central story in a weaving way.