[As ever, spoilers abound]
As we ended episode 6 of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the assistant to the Mexican ambassador had just informed Offred/June that her husband Luke was still alive, and he urged her to write a note to him that he can pass on to Luke to let him know she was too. Offred’s surprise and relief was a riveting cliffhanger.
It’s a shame Luke had to come along and ruin it all.
With episode 7, we learn that there is a very good reason that the series is still called The Handmaid’s Tale and not The Handmaid and Her Spouse’s Tale. While I’m sure that “What happened to Luke?” was a question that loomed large on many viewers’ minds after episode 6 wrapped, I doubt anyone believed it merited an entire hour’s worth of storytelling.
Yet that is exactly what we got. We learned that while June and their daughter, Hannah, were hiding in the woods and eventually captured by the Guardians, Luke was being carted away in an ambulance after a gunshot wound to the stomach. Fortunately for Luke, the ambulance crashed and he was able to escape, and was eventually found, bleeding, in an abandoned cabin, by a busload of refugees heading to Canada. For no discernible reason other than genuine kindness, the refugees patch up and heal Luke’s wounds, feed him, and try to bring him to Canada with them, despite the fact that he is surly, burdensome, and determined to try to head back to Boston. He eventually joins them. Three years later, while living in Canada, he receives June's message, and discovers that she is still alive.
You wouldn’t think it would take an hour to tell this story except for the fact the episode was littered with Luke making bad decisions. In fact, if there was a theme to the episode it was probably this: Luke makes bad decisions that put people in danger. We first learn this as June, Luke and Hannah begin their journey to leave the country. “We should have left when Moira left,” June frets as they get in their car in Boston. “When they took our jobs, we should have left right away.”
Luke admonishes her, reminding her that they couldn’t go at that time. They had a child. They had to try to get visas. They had to do everything the proper way, rather than sneak off on foot like Moira. Luke was all about following the rules, doing everything the right way. “We still should have left when Moira did,” June reiterated. June understood that the rules had already been broken, there was no reward left for those who used the proper channels. And when they met up with their connection and learned that their visas were no good, that they would have to travel in the car trunk, it was June who first accepted that the old world was gone.
Luke? He just kept making his bad decisions. Tossing Hannah’s Benadryl so she couldn’t stay asleep in the car? Bad decision. Playing outside, exposed, at the lake, alerting neighbors to their presence? Bad decision. Not keeping his gun loaded, leaving him desperately trying to load it as the Guardians caught up with them, rather than being armed and ready for them? Bad decision. Trying to run back to Boston and forcing the refugees to find him and convince him to go on to Canada with them – an act that slowed their get away and then resulted in a number of their party missing the boat and being murdered. You bet that was a bad decision.
Did any of these bad decisions officially change anything for June and Hannah? It’s hard to tell. Moira left the country immediately, yet obviously she was caught and brought to a training center. They were discovered at the cabin, but their contact had been killed so they would have been forced to go off on their own at some point anyway. And a loaded gun doesn’t necessarily mean Luke could have slowed down the Guardians enough for June and Hannah to hike the last two miles to the border.
Still, it can’t be missed that all of these bad decisions had little direct long-term impact on Luke himself. He still made it to Canada. He has his freedom. There may be some rationing of coffee and electricity, but other than losing his family his life is mostly unchanged. You can be certain no one is forcing him to have sex once a month to create the next generation for the aristocracy. He came out on the other side of the revolution mostly consequence free, just like he had in his old life in the U.S.. After all, it was June who was labeled the adulterer and punished for the crime of an out of marriage relationship, not him.
The biggest problem with Episode 7 is that Luke is a character that is actually better not being well-defined. June’s memories of him are likable enough, but as we learn more about him without her bias shading his personality, he’s actually less enjoyable as a person. Unlike June, Serena Joy, Ofwarren/Emily, Moira and yes, even Aunt Lydia, Luke may actually be better in theory than in reality.
The women of the Republic of Gilead appear to have complex personalities, complicated motivations and multi-level relationships. The men of Gilead, on the other hand, come across as one-dimensional characters motivated only by power, lust or insecurity. Maybe that is why Gilead ended up in the patriarchal power structure that it did. They had to lock away their women in order to hold any power themselves. It was the only way to ensure that they didn’t completely overshadow the Republic’s men.