Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers from the third season of The Handmaid's Tale, and detailed discussion of this week's episode, "Unfit."
When The Handmaid’s Tale premiered on Hulu back in 2017, a few things were immediately clear: this is the only show of its kind, and you’d be hard-pressed to find better performances anywhere else. While Elisabeth Moss is the show’s rock, few others have been able to match TV vet Ann Dowd, whose endlessly interesting (and usually infuriating) Aunt Lydia has fueled some of the series’ most memorable moments. Season 2 ended on a cliffhanger for Lydia, leading us to believe that she might not resume her position (or possibly worse) following a violent attack from Emily (Alexis Bledel). Luckily for us (and perhaps unluckily for the Handmaids), Lydia has returned in near-fighting form for Season 3, and she’s more fascinating to watch than ever.
Dowd has deservedly earned critical acclaim and awards for her performance, and this week’s installment, "Unfit," finally gives us a glimpse of the life she lived before Gilead. It’s stunningly normal — and heartbreaking. With a powerhouse performance from Dowd and help from perfectly-cast guest star John Ortiz, the eighth episode of Season 3 manages to serve another surprising gutpunch.
"This particular story we had actually been talking about for a while," says writer and producer Kira Snyder. "It was a matter of finding the right episode to actually tell that story." Surprising viewers after three seasons might seem like an impossible feat, but with this episode, The Handmaid’s Tale manages to do just that. As Snyder explains, tthe Handmaid’s team likes to integrate flashbacks with complementary present day storylines, and "Unfit" provided the perfect opportunity for a deep-dive with Lydia. "It was really a June vs. Lydia story with poor Ofmatthew caught in the middle, and it really made a lot of sense to dive into Lydia’s side of things. Like this woman who does all these things that are really horrible, but she believes that she’s doing the best for her girls. She believes she’s giving them the tools they need to succeed in the world, and the storyline in the flashback is a little piece of the person who thought that way in the past and what Gilead weaponized that into."
"Unfit" is certainly one of the most devastating episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale to date — but it’s tempered with intermittent glimpses of joy Lydia once experienced. June (Elisabeth Moss) is morphing into a wicked, vengeful person following the death of Hannah’s Martha, and as she wages war against Aunt Lydia, the Handmaid responsible — Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop) — is caught (later literally) in the crossfire. Firm as Lydia may be about most of Gilead’s practices, even she was shaken by her visit to Washington D.C., and she’s further disturbed by Ofmatthew’s eventual demise — because she realizes she may have contributed to it. "You see in the past, this life that Lydia could have had if she had just let herself, if she wasn’t so self-sabotaging," says Snyder. "Then you see in the present day, this utter horror of her coming to terms with — is it actually her fault, is it not the girl’s fault, is it not society’s fault, did she have a hand in pushing that girl to this state?"
We’ve known something dangerous is lurking beneath Lydia’s surface for some time now; no matter how much she seems to care about the Handmaids, relatively small incidents have caused her to snap. She’s beaten Janine senseless (much to the horror of the wives), shocked June after they shared a tender moment, and in her flashback, smashes a mirror with her bare hands. Here, though, we finally get the chance to see Lydia let loose — and even open herself up to the possibility of romance. She sings karaoke and flirts with a coworker, she drinks bubbly, she gets all dolled up with the help of one of her student’s mothers. It all comes crashing down, however, when she loses control for just a moment and can’t face rejection, and the Lydia we’re familiar with begins to make herself known.
"Lydia this season is struggling with the lack of control, and that’s the other reason we wanted to go to the flashback story," explains Snyder. "Because it’s a moment where she felt out of control, and how untethered and upset that made her, and she lashes out not at herself, but at this young mother instead. She sees this young mother as what caused Lydia to lose control." And this season, Lydia only continues to lose control following her own trauma at the hands of Emily and her continued butting heads with June. Doubt inevitably begins to creep in as she sees the unfathomable darkness that lives at the heart of Gilead.
Three seasons in, it’s easy to question Aunt Lydia’s place in the series when there are so many horrifying things happening to our characters without her help. She too is a victim of Gilead (albeit on a different level), but her ultimate fate could well be worse than anyone else’s. Because she has actually believed everything she’s done to advance this tyranny is for the greater good. "We talk a lot about this extremist movement, and different people, different characters getting different things out of it," says Snyder. "Some people are in it just for the power, some people are in it because they’re idealogues, some people because they want a baby so desperately, and they go along with all the other pieces because it’s the means to an end. But Lydia, as we see in the flashback here, has always been driven to protect the vulnerable, to protect children in particular, so she is all in."
All of this wouldn’t be possible without Dowd, and Snyder is grateful for such an incredible creative collaborator. "I think part of the reason why people have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Aunt Lydia is because — well, she doesn’t think she’s a bad person, she’s doing what she thinks is right — but Ann’s intrinsic warmth, which you actually get to see in Lydia in this episode, has a lot to do with that. She as a person is just incredibly warm and loving… And I think that warmth really allows Lydia to have that dimension, and you’re not really sure how to feel about her." Villainous characters like Aunt Lydia can often become cartoonish or one-note, but in the hands of a performer like Ann Dowd — and a writer like Snyder — the pieces of Lydia revealed in "Unfit" make it feel like we’re only getting started with her.
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Jade Budowski is a freelance writer with a knack for ruining punchlines and harboring dad-aged celebrity crushes. She was previously a reporter/producer at Decider and is a member of the Television Critics Association. Follow her on Twitter: @jadebudowski.