In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ ‘Good’ Men Are Not The Heroes

Warning: Some spoilers ahead.

There are three leading men at helm of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a show that centers more frequently on the horrific experiences women endure in a theocratic dictatorship known as Gilead.

Each male character probably consider himself a “good” man: The commander (Joseph Fiennes) would argue that any his so-called faults ― and there are many ― pale in comparison to his devotion to a greater future, which he is engineering for all of humanity. Nick (Max Minghella) would claim powerlessness, for he is, after all, just a driver, incapable of truly saving the woman he’s falling in love with. He might be a spy for the men who’ve made this hellish existence reality, but he chooses not to inform on Offred (Elisabeth Moss), or June as she was once known.

And then there’s Luke.

Luke, played by British actor O.T. Fagbenle, has escaped the dystopia that’s ensnared his wife June and turned her into a sexual slave for fearful misogynists. He reluctantly crossed the U.S. border into Canada, nearly dying in the process, eventually finding his way to a settlement known as Little America. By Episode 7 of the series, he’s lost his partner, his daughter, and ― unable to be the savior he’d probably imagined he could be; escape was his only means of reuniting with his family ― he’s stuck in limbo. In Canada, he’s begging officials to update him on the status of June, to help him locate her and their daughter, rescue them, bring them to safety. 

In Margaret Atwood’s book, the source material for Hulu’s series, Luke is but a figment of Offred’s memories. The Luke of the TV adaptation, however, has been given a heftier storyline, a little bit more agency in this stomach-churning universe that’s made life an existential nightmare for nearly everyone involved. Still, showrunner Bruce Miller and the series’ writers held back ― they didn’t turn Luke into a hero. In fact, even in Offred’s memories, he’s the imperfect feminist ally. He, like so many others, turned a blind eye to the creeping acts of sexism and violence around them. He wasn’t painted as a key member of the resistance; instead, when the world was falling apart, he attempted to quell June’s fears with the standard motto of masculinity: “I’ll take care of you.” These murmurs of imperfection are hardly indictments. “Good” men can be patronizing, the series makes clear. “Good” men can be fail to be heroes. 

Ahead of Episode 7, which was released on Wednesday, HuffPost spoke to Fagbenle about his character’s evolution. Check out our conversation about male feminists, Little America and populism below.

What was it about the character of Luke that drew you to the show?

To be honest, my first draw to it was the source material and the script that’s so profound, so important, so beautiful. And then to work with Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Miller, Reed Morano. I was like, I’m a fool not to be a part of this journey. But Luke is the one guy you meet outside of Gilead, and represents the counterbalance to the men who’ve bought into that system. I was really intrigued by that.

We experience Luke in two ways throughout the series ― first, through Offred’s memories, which seem dream-ified, maybe a little bit idealized; second, through the scenes that show Luke’s perspective on what happened during and after he and June are separated. As an actor, did you approach these scenes differently?

I think I had to approach each moment as if I was there and responding to everything, because there’s no real way of me playing someone else’s dreams, that you don’t know about. I just have to play my truth in that moment and hope that reads. For me it was more of a continuum.

Having read Margaret Atwood’s book, were you happy about the ways Bruce Miller adapted Luke’s character for the show? Were you excited about anything in particular?

You know, I’m an actual fan of the book. I can’t recommend enough to your readers to actually go and read the book. Don’t worry about spoilers, just go and read the book, because it’s amazing. It’s nourishment for the soul. So as a fan of the book, I’m very protective of it as well. What’s amazing about what Bruce and his extraordinary imagination has done is it’s taken the book and I think in ways fulfilled it visually. In terms of Luke, he’s taken scant lines, little whispers of Luke from the book, and helped create something ― along with Lynn [Renee Maxcy, who wrote Episode 7] ― and expand on Luke and the world in such a satisfying way. That’s one of the things I enjoyed so much about reading the script, because I have so many questions about this world and I’m so excited about this world. I’ve still got more questions I want answered and luckily we live in an age where there is a medium that can help fulfill my infatuation with the novel.

Episode 7 is such an intense episode for your character. How did you conceive of the emotions Luke’s going through at the time of his and June’s separation, when he’s forced to cross the border into safety himself, leaving his family behind?

I think the two main tools actors have are the imagination of what other people have gone through, to connect with and through research, and there’s one’s own experience. I think what was challenging about Episode 7 was trying to draw on everything I could to try and navigate my way through each scene. Fundamentally, that’s when you’ve got a great script and a great director and a great crew and actors opposite you.

Did Bruce Miller or any of the directors/producers prep you and the rest of the Episode 7 cast on what this “Little America” represented to the story? In terms of what morale would be like there, what quality of life looked like, what the goal of the establishment was?

There were discussions about that. Luckily, Floria [Sigismondi], our wonderful visionary director, her and I would sit in this cute vegan diner in Toronto and hash over our ideas about what Little America was and how long Luke had been there and what he’d been doing ― why he was there ― and kind of emotionally fulfilling what that place is. Ultimately, I think for Luke and others like him, it turns out to be a very well-funded and resourceful place for refugees. And unfortunately, a lot of the refugees in our world don’t get such a haven.

A lot of Americans today are drawing pretty frightening parallels between the show and what’s happening in politics today ― as a Brit, do you see parallels between the show and real life beyond America?

There are so many things to take from the show. I think there’s questions of populism and charismatic leaders, and what happens when we abandon logic and empiricism about fundamental principles about creating a society, and instead, attach ourselves to fear and xenophobia and non-rational principles. And we can see consequences of that in lots of societies around the world. We can see the consequences of that inside families. I think there’s lots to be see in terms of the dynamics between the powerful and the powerless ― how structures can maintain those and normalize those, to the extent that we actually think those imbalances and inequalities in our society are inherent in them, when actually they’re not. They’re created by powerful people to maintain their power. It’s important for all of us to recognize and fight against those forces.

Another one of the interesting aspects of “The Handmaid’s Tale” show I wanted to talk to you about is how the show is able to explore this idea of “good” men as “bad” feminists. There are a few scenes that stick in my mind: For example, when June and her college friend Moira are panicking after they’ve been fired from their jobs and lost access to their bank accounts, Luke says to June, something along the lines of “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you.” He doesn’t mean in it a malicious way at all, but it is, in a way that Moira points out, dismissive of what’s really happening. Later on, when Luke asks June if she and Moira ever fooled around in college, it’s posed as an innocent question, but certainly a problematic one ― and you can tell that’s the case by June’s incredulous and amused response. Ultimately, the show allows Luke to be this imperfect character. So I’m wondering, when you were preparing for the role, was this something you thought about? About how a lot of “good” men would potentially fail to become heroes when a regime like Gilead first took control?

Right. We all fail and we all have weaknesses. I think that’s what helps us relate to characters we see on TV or read in books, is that we recognize our frailties within them and maybe don’t feel so alone. We get learn from their mistakes. Talking about that scene, when he says “Don’t worry, I’ll look after you,” I really love that scene as well, because it’s tough sometimes for men to know how to talk about feminism. It’s also sometimes hard for people to talk about the prejudices against minorities ― any number of things that you’re not necessarily experiencing yourself. But that doesn’t mean the conversation can’t take place. I find that very interesting, because we see how difficult it is [in the show] and also how incumbent it is on men ― and all of us, really ― to become more aware of the historical and present social context of what you say. The context of Luke saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you,” is insensitive and betrays a lack of understanding about what real women around him are going through. It’s so exciting to be able to explore those things and share them with people who I’m sure can relate.

Hulu has renewed “The Handmaid’s Tale” for a second season. What are you most eager to see as the series moves beyond Atwood’s book?

There are so many questions raised in the book. I want to know ― and this is personally, I don’t know if this will be in the second series ― I want to know about the colonies. I want to know more about the outside world. I want to know more about Canada and the world outside of Gilead. And, of course, just give me more Elisabeth Moss, please. Because I could watch her for weeks, months.

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