Bringing new life into the world is complicated in the Republic of Gilead. There are the handmaids, who are tasked with breeding children; the Commanders, who father said children during brutal bedding “ceremonies”; and the Wives, who mother the children once the handmaid gives birth. It’s a sick cycle, one that questions consent and the sacredness of motherhood.
At the end of ”The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2, Commander Fred Waterford’s (Joseph Fiennes) wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) — knowing Gilead is no place for an innocent baby girl — decides to help her handmaid June (Elisabeth Moss) get their daughter Nichole to safety. (Editor’s note: Nichole, birth name Holly, is actually fathered by Guardian Nick (Max Minghella), with whom June had a secret romantic relationship.) But June, wrecked that her other daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) is still in the Republic, makes the unpopular choice to stay. She gives Nichole to former handmaid Emily (Alexis Bledel) and urges her to head to Canada, where June’s husband and Hannah’s father, Luke Bankole (O-T Fagbenle), is waiting for them.
In Season 3, Emily reaches Toronto, but she grapples with the trauma she endured at the hands of a totalitarian regime, all while June is recaptured and given to a new, mysterious power player: Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford).
Luke, meanwhile, is in shock over the responsibility of raising June’s daughter ― a child who is biologically not his own ― without her. It’s very complicated, but O-T Fagbenle sort of understands the situation, he explained to HuffPost over the phone last week. The British-born actor found himself connecting with his character on a whole new level this season, being raised by many family members as he moved between England, Nigeria and Spain.
“For me, it was meaningful,” he said of Luke’s storyline. “I come from a very non-traditional family where people have been brought up by people who are not their parents — aunts as mothers and uncles [as fathers] and all sorts. And so it kind of resonated with me a lot — this idea of taking on a child who is related to you not by blood but, in some ways, something deeper. The quote ‘blood is thicker than water,’ the full quote, I was told, is, ‘the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,’ which I always took to mean the blood of the promises you make, the blood of your connection, is deeper than just genetics.”
It isn’t lost on Fagbenle, however, that the children of Gilead come about through such “horrific violence,” making it hard to compare it to his real-world experience.
“That has to factor into what is best for the child and where the child should be,” he said. “I don’t really have an answer to [what being a parent in Gilead means]. I think, definitely, if you give birth to a child then you’re its mother, on some deep intrinsic level. Beyond that, I think being a parent is about what kind of care and opportunity and love you’ll provide the child.”
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According to Fagbenle, Luke isn’t so much worried about raising Nichole as he is about June not coming home. Although viewers know the tragedy she’s faced, Luke has no idea what happened to his wife under the Waterford’s roof. And that’s terrifying.
“Luke is in the dark when it comes to what it means to receive this baby and what it means for her to turn her back on an opportunity to come back and look after the baby with him and get back together,” the actor said. “So it takes quite a bit of work for Luke to basically get over himself and have faith in June and take this baby on as his own.”
It’s also difficult for Luke to be around Emily, who avoided contacting her own family despite being beyond the confines of Gilead. As Moira (Samira Wiley) tells Emily, “He looks at you; he sees June.”
Luke begins to wonder if June would be acting the same way if she were to make it to Canada, Fagbenle said.
“What Emily has been through is just indescribable, really. Lots of people experience dissonance of having been through a trauma and not being able to properly express that trauma or fully explain how that trauma is affecting their lives to other people, whether that be refugees or war vets or victims of domestic violence. It’s quite agonizing for people because how do you sum up or express all the horrors that you’ve been through to other people?”
“But from Luke’s perspective,” he added, “a lot of his anxiety is toward, ‘What happened to June? What is left of June?’ It’s kind of pathologizing him.”
Hannah, their daughter who’s around 8 years old, was separated from them after Gilead came to power, and is still living in a society that controls every aspect of her life and future. For Luke, it’s even worse picturing her experience ― since he’s not sure if Hannah even remembers he’s her father.
“Hannah had very few conscious years — I don’t really know what years you truly start recognizing your relationships to other people. And so she’s had a couple of years in Gilead, and I’m a stranger to her. And that’s a really frightening thought,” Fagbenle said.
Like with the previous iterations of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the story of Season 3 eerily relates to the politics of our world today. Women’s bodies are being controlled by the government, and their rights are being questioned. The fear of climate change is real. But Fagbenle thinks it’s powerful when art can transcend nations and connect people from all walks of life, even when it’s as harrowing as this show.
“There is frustration, in America mostly, that some things are being rolled back,” Fagbenle said. “But more than all of that, [’Handmaid’s] is about the relationships between mothers and daughters and co-workers and the power deferential — a lot of people feel they don’t have all the power they would like in their lives.”