This story contains spoilers for Season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Ann Dowd is one of the most gifted character actors of this TV age, and yet I’ve always struggled with Aunt Lydia, the authoritarian, Bible-passage-spewing antagonist she plays on The Handmaid’s Tale. Bruce Miller’s Hulu series loves, above all things, to humanize its most horrific characters, and so Dowd’s Aunt Lydia—much like Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Waterford—switches modes between ruthlessness and vulnerability at a dizzying pace. In a recent episode of Season 3, “Household,” a visibly chastened Lydia wept at the sight of handmaids whose mouths had been sewn shut. “When I get tired,” Lydia told June (played by Elisabeth Moss), “I try to think of all the good I can do in God’s world. And if I can help just one person, one soul, that’s enough.”
And yet. Just a few episodes earlier, Lydia had tased June in the stomach while struggling to climb a flight of stairs—an act of sadistic retribution for Lydia’s physical frailty. The scene echoed a moment in Season 1 when Lydia tased a pregnant June for quoting a Bible passage in protest. Aunt Lydia has cut out handmaids’ eyes and tongues and, as a form of ritualized punishment, chained one of them to a gas stove so her arm could be burned. Lydia has emotionally, mentally, physically, and sexually tortured the handmaids in her care, under the auspices of “saving” them. And the character has done all this, Dowd’s performance makes clear enough, because she enjoys it. The cruelty, as my colleague Adam Serwer wrote in an influential 2018 essay about the Trump administration, is the point. And many of the president’s supporters, Serwer wrote, find not just comfort but also community in cruelty—“an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.”