How 'The Handmaid's Tale' Season 2 is Exploring Survivor's Guilt

Creator Bruce Miller and stars Samira Wiley and O-T Fagbenle speak with THR about Moira and Luke's struggles in Canada.
George Kraychyk/Hulu

[This story contains spoilers for season two, episode three of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, called "Baggage."]

"Gilead is within you."

It's the mission statement of The Handmaid's Tale's current second season, a sentiment often expressed by Ann Dowd's Aunt Lydia. The phrase takes on literal meaning in the story of June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss), currently pregnant, the world of Gilead expanding within her in the form of her unborn child. But it's represented even in the realm outside of the oppressive nation, as far north as Canada, where two series regulars currently reside: Samira Wiley's Moira and O-T Fagbenle's Luke.

June's best friend and husband, respectively, made their season two debut in this past week's third episode, "Baggage," which focused primarily on the titular handmaid's failed attempt to escape Gilead. In a parallel storyline, viewers were invited into the worlds of Luke and Moira, alive and free in Little America, a neighborhood in Toronto, Canada, where refugees from Gilead are granted safe harbor. The expats are provided with health care, jobs, and heartfelt reunions with family, at least when the case allows. In the case of Moira and Luke, at least they have each other — but both of them have lost so much along the way.

"We're reflecting what refugees have experienced, people who have been separated from their loved ones and not knowing whether or not their loved ones are going to survive or not," Fagbenle tells The Hollywood Reporter, speaking about Luke's journey this season. "How do you deal with the fact that you're okay, but your loved ones aren't? How do you deal with the fact that you're terrified, but you can't go back? And if you could go back, what would you do? Would you be of any use at all?"

These questions are front of mind for both Luke and Moira, within the context of "Baggage," and in the episodes beyond. The Handmaid's Tale creator Bruce Miller says these characters are at the forefront of the season's exploration of survivor's guilt, a reflection of what awaits June if she ever finds herself free from the confines of Gilead.

"You're kind of telling all aspects of what might happen to June," says Miller. "When things get out, things are not going to be easy. We're reflecting that back on our main character. This is not something where the drama gets away once you're out [of Gilead]. We want to show that this is still a struggle and this is still a real heroic effort on her part, just going through the day. It's not to feel that things are hopeless; it's that walking across the border won't solve the psychological damage a place like this has caused. You're going to have to deal with it."

In the episode, Moira, who has been working to help other refugees acclimate to life in Little America, goes out for a night and shares a passionate moment with another woman. When asked for her name, she identifies as "Ruby," the alias she used when she was forced to work as a sex worker at Jezebels in Gilead. To hear Samira Wiley tell it, the scene is one of many expressions of Moira's own difficulties adjusting to life outside of Gilead, having endured so much trauma during her time in the dictatorship.

"Adjusting to life in Little America, for Moira, is really hard," she says, "even if she seems like she's got it all figured out. I think the entire season is a self-identity question for Moira. 'Who am I?' The answer to that question gets you to the next question: 'Why am I here? What am I doing?' You can't even know that unless you know who you are, and I don't think she really knows the answer to that question. In episode three, we see her trying to go out and have a night. She introduces herself to someone as Ruby. She doesn't even know how to exist in this new land that's supposed to be the land of the free. She still feels trapped and like a prisoner, because she somehow can't get Gilead off of her. It lives within her."

"It's a horrifying statement," adds Miller, weighing in on the notion of Gilead always being "within you," even outside of the nation. "It implies you can never get rid of it." 

Wiley continues: "I think what's on the forefront of her mind all the time is: 'I'm here. I did it. But my family is there.' And I'm not just referencing June. While she was in Gilead, Moira was at the Red Center. She was at Jezebels. She had so many women that she was with every single day, and none of them are here. All of them are still there. I think she wakes up every morning trying to figure out, 'Why me? Why am I here?' She's a person of action. She's all about doing something. She's in a place where she literally can't do anything to save anyone. I think she feels really stuck, and really lost."

While Wiley describes Moira as "a person of action," Fagbenle describes his character as the exact opposite: "Luke is not an action man. He's not a man who knows how to fire a gun. He's not Bruce Willis or The Rock or whatever. He's just a dude who has lived his normal life and no real tools to battle, like a well-armed militia. He's left in Canada feeling inconstant, wishing he had acted more earlier." 

"I really appreciate the scenes with Luke and Moria and their developing brother-sister relationship, this love-hate relationship and how they're both dealing with trauma and not sure how to communicate that with each other," he continues. "Over the season, we'll get to see how that relationship develops and how Luke's struggle with being unable to fight the power progresses once he's given a better opportunity."

And what will happen once Luke gains the opportunity to fight back? As a means of teasing the future of the season, Fagbenle offers this glimpse into what's next: "It's almost an emotional attrition for Luke. He reaches a rock bottom where he decides: 'Enough is enough.'"

What are your thoughts on how the show is representing survivor's guilt through Luke and Moira? Sound off in the comments section below and keep checking THR.com/HandmaidsTale for more coverage.