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.”
This week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, “Unfit,” flashed back to Lydia’s pre-Gilead existence as an elementary-school teacher. While the narrative jump wasn’t an attempt to fully explain how Lydia became the person she is, Miller has said, it offered up a reasonably succinct portrayal of her path from warm and caring to vengeful and bitter. In the flashback, Lydia is an educator after giving up family law and is caring for a boy named Ryan (Ian Ho), whose mother hasn’t arrived to pick him up on time. This version of Lydia seems like a different species from the one brutalizing handmaids in the show’s present: With her maternal affect, her twinkling eyes, and her long, loose hair, she’s as threatening as Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. As Lydia chats with the school principal, Jim Thorne (John Ortiz), she reveals that Ryan regularly comes to class without having eaten breakfast and with only a bag of potato chips for lunch. When Ryan’s mother, Noelle (Emily Althaus), arrives, Lydia is gentle rather than abrasive, inviting them both to eat dinner at her home.
A few months later, Lydia has forged a bond with Noelle and Ryan, even though she disapproves of Noelle’s lifestyle—her casual cursing in conversation and her chain of married or abusive boyfriends. Ryan, in a moment that sends shivers up the spine, refers to his teacher as “Aunt Lydia.” Noelle does Lydia’s makeup against her protestations and encourages her to start dating again. The scene is tender, as Noelle gently applies powder on Lydia’s cheeks, and Lydia seems to vibrate with happiness and gratitude at being touched by another person for the first time in too long.
While the Republic of Gilead hasn’t yet imposed its draconian regime on America, there are glimpses of what’s to come. In her semi-flirtatious conversation with Principal Thorne, Lydia quotes a passage from Hebrews 13:2: “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels.” Lydia left her job in family law, it’s hinted, because the “system” has “all been privatized,” a breezily vague allusion to the fact that lawyers for parents who struggle to take care of their children are no longer needed in a country that simply takes those children into custody. And when Lydia kisses Thorne with ferocious ardor after a karaoke date, and he gently rebuffs her, she takes out her humiliation on Noelle, reporting her to the authorities for being an unfit mother and having Ryan taken into foster care. “We are required by law to report moral weakness,” Lydia spits at a horrified Thorne. Her hair is now tied severely back, and she’s clad in a drab olive green that evokes her future uniform as a Gilead enforcer.
Lydia, “Unfit” seemed to say, was once good. The episode didn’t delve into some of the other formative moments of her past, such as her failed marriage or the death of her nephew, but it offered a window into a moment when Lydia made herself vulnerable and was shown up in return as someone whose desires belied her pious facade. Lydia’s ability to betray another woman she’d grown close to showed early evidence of a growing misogyny—her suspicion of women who, unlike her, follow their urges, and her willingness to harm even the women she professes to love. One of Lydia’s favorite handmaids is Janine (Madeline Brewer), whom she indulges with a doting manner and occasional treats. But in the third-season episode “God Bless the Child,” Lydia savagely beats Janine in front of hundreds of other people after Janine expresses a wish to see her daughter again.
The extent to which Lydia loses control shocks even the commanders and wives around her. The scene is a telling one. You can sense the lies Lydia tells herself: that she punishes the handmaids only to protect them, and that she’s trying to save Janine from the death sentence of refusing to give up her child. You can see Lydia’s mania once she lets go, no more capable of stopping herself from hitting someone else than she is of reining in her passion for Thorne. But you can also see Lydia’s sadism. She thrills at inflicting pain on people who are more vulnerable than she is.
This kind of cruelty—the kind that causes Aunt Lydia to look, with the unmistakable relish of the enforcer, upon a staged ceremony of handmaids thinking they’re about to be hanged—isn’t justifiable. “Unfit” sought to explore some of Lydia’s own damage, and how easily pain can fester into the need to project it onto others. Lydia’s shame about her own repressed desires, and her subsequent humiliation when she’s exposed, are what The Handmaid’s Tale theorizes have made her such a monster. Lydia, Miller told the Los Angeles Times, “ostensibly thinks that she’s helping this kid by separating him from the mom.” But I’d argue that she doesn’t. There’s no altruism in her eyes when she reports Noelle, not even a flicker of phony concern. Rather, Lydia is discovering that she can let loose her rage onto other people and enjoy doing so.
The show portrays Lydia’s sadism, but doesn’t really seem to comprehend it. In order to make Lydia more than a two-dimensional villain, it has to underplay her most crucial instincts. But either you’re a person who’s able to draw satisfaction from the pain of others, or you’re not. And in Gilead, Lydia has found a system where she can liberate all her vengeful feelings under the guise of institutional care. Like the real-life nuns of the Magdalene Laundries who violently abused unmarried mothers in Irish convents during the 1960s, Lydia has joined an organization so corrupt and so devoid of empathy and love that it sanctions even her most ruthless punishments.
Dowd seems to understand this about her character, showing how Lydia lights up in a horrific fashion when she’s torturing others. But in seeking to humanize her as a sometimes sympathetic character, The Handmaid’s Tale is also missing an opportunity to enlighten viewers about the cruelty on full display in our own news cycle: the arbitrary detention of children without soap, food, or toothbrushes; the draconian roundups of undocumented workers in which “the goal is to terrorize”; the alleged rape of a woman in a Bergdorf’s dressing room and then the maligning of said woman for not being hot enough to rape; the vindictiveness of those who find themselves, to their surprise, with significant power over others at their disposal.
During the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, after June had been captured while trying to escape, Aunt Lydia informed June that the man who’d helped hide her had been executed, his son had been taken away, and his wife had been forced to become a handmaid. The calm in her voice, the obvious pleasure she took in devastating June, showed her hand. Lydia, as Dowd plays her, isn’t a lonely woman whose pain is calcifying into maliciousness. She’s a sadist who’s finally found release.