[Editor’s note: Spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 1 Episode 7, “The Other Side,” follow.]
It’s one of the biggest unanswered questions of Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” — what happened to the heroine’s husband, Luke, after their failed attempt to escape the religious dystopia in which she’s now imprisoned?
For over 30 years, fans of the book have learned to cope with this uncertainty, but in the current Hulu adaptation executive produced by Bruce Miller, we get an answer in Episode 7: Luke (O-T Fagbenle) lives. Not only that, “The Other Side” chronicles exactly what happened to him after he and his wife (named June in the series, played by Elisabeth Moss) were separated. It’s a brutal story of survival that does have something resembling a happy ending — at least, as far as that term can be applied to “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
According to Miller, the initial inspiration to give Luke his own episode was fairly simple: “First of all, O.T. Fagbenle is such a good actor,” Miller said. “He’s so interesting and thoughtful and really skilled, which was an influence on the idea.”
Plus, early in the development process, the idea of revealing that Luke was alive intrigued him. “I liked the idea that Luke was alive, because it played into the perspective aspect of the show,” Miller said. “We assume Luke’s dead because the way we hear it — we’ve watched TV before, we know what three shots in the distance means. So I really wanted it to be a surprise to the people who read the book.”
“From the start, I was told very early on that Luke was still alive and that there would be an episode which explained how he survived and what his story has been since then,” Fagbenle said to IndieWire (in a lovely British accent). “I just found it really moving and exciting, particularly because it shows another aspect to the world. And as a fan of the book it was so great to be able to explore bits not shown in the book.”
Telling Luke’s story, in fact, let Miller and the writers (Lynn Renee Maxcy is credited for “The Other Side”) open up the narrative on a whole other level, tracking the rise of Gilead with flashbacks showing Luke and June (Elisabeth Moss) trying to escape it.
“It gave us a sense of the world and what the world was like at that period, just as Gilead was taking over, and also to give us a sense of who else was fleeing the world,” Miller said.
Plus, it gave Luke additional dimension beyond basic plot points. “For a character like Luke, who plays a very modern normal guy who’s no braver or less brave than anybody else, it really showed the depth of his devotion to his family — that he would do anything, suffer anything to get back to them and it gave him not… not a crazy brave persona that doesn’t fit, but it gave him the kind of singular devotion that I thought the character had,” Miller explained.
“Here’s a guy who in Episode 7 gets shot in the stomach and keeps going until he drops in an effort to find his way back to his wife and child — and there’s not even a good chance he’s going to find them,” he added. “It’s a wonderful story about strength and affection.”
It was a tricky secret for Fagbenle to keep, especially in this age of Twitter and Facebook. “It’s definitely one of the bigger reveals of the series and one of the biggest tangents off the original book,” he said. “So I’ve had to be careful with social media posts and how I phrase things. I mean, people assume you’re dead and you can’t correct them because you’ll give the game away. That’s been an interesting wire to balance on.”
But the importance of the story made the minor inconvenience worth it, especially the final scenes that depict Luke three years after being separated from June, living as a refugee in Toronto. “What I found most exciting was being able to tell a refugee story, and tell it from the perspective of an everyday American a father, somebody who’s got a job and then somebody whose life is upended,” Fagbenle said. “I think that story, told from a perspective that lots more people might be able to relate to, might help people relate to real stories that we hear on the radio and the news and such.”
Real life refugee stories are something the show does a powerful job of invoking, something Fagbenle credited to crew including production designer Andrew M. Stearn, art director Evan Webber, set decorator Christina Kuhnigk and costume designer Ane Crabtree, “who manage to create this space in which you can imagine this is what it would be like if America descended into this kind of situation, and if Canada was the only refuge,” he said. “It definitely helped acting in that because the environment felt so real.”
What does Fagbenle hope happens in the show’s future — especially with the knowledge that Hulu recently greenlit a second season? He admits that it’s hard for him to be objective — for in Fagbenle’s eyes, despite the fact that three years have passed, Luke hasn’t moved on. “I love Luke and June and I want them to be together. I want the family to get back together and that’s what I want people to want, as well.”
There are three more episodes left this season, and while of course Fagbenle wouldn’t reveal any spoilers, he did promise that “there is more Luke coming — and there is definitely a surprise which will shock some people.”
So far, with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” that feels like a given.
New episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” premiere Wednesdays on Hulu.