The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Episode 8
Family law was Lydia’s first career and teaching was her second, which makes prison governor in hell her third. Next on the CV? Nuremberg Trial defendant and inmate, with any luck, but for that we’ll have to wait.
We’d been waiting for “Unfit” ever since The Handmaid’s Tale unleashed the monstrous Aunt Lydia. (What an ironic joke to name her pre-Gilead self “Miss Clements” – a less clement character would be hard to find). Lydia’s a fortress of self-righteousness who apes the language of maternal affection while meting out violence and psychological cruelty to her “girls”. She’s the direct descendant of Annie Wilkes, Nurse Ratched and Margaret White – classic female villains and warped carers all.
Until now, she’s been a question mark. Where did Lydia come from? Who was she before? What made her such a thoroughgoing traitor to her gender? In short: how could she? How could she?
Deep personal shame powered by a divine mission of judgment, is this episode’s answer – your basic recipe for lunatic zealotry. After being gently rebuffed by Jim, Lydia was mortified by her own display of sexual desire and took out the humiliation she felt on Noelle – a woman leading a shame-free sex life. Following the shift in laws immediately pre-Gilead (see also: the hard time June was given when work commitments meant she couldn’t pick Hannah up from day-care), Lydia separated a loving mother from her son in the name of child protection and presumably … got a taste for it.
Blessedly free of the muddy Waterfords and the interminable Nichole saga, the episode was driven by Ann Dowd’s magnetic and formidable performance. Lydia’s move from fourth grade teacher to cattle prod-zapping drill sergeant clearly wasn’t a straight line. It takes more than one romantic embarrassment for a sanctimonious but well-meaning busybody to turn torturer.
“Unfit” didn’t fill in all the blanks about Lydia – remaining coy about the failed marriage and the baby nephew we heard about in season two – but gave us a thumbnail sketch of the Aunt Lydia we know. The woman we met was judgmental, pious, blamed women for exciting male desire (instead of telling Noelle to lodge a complaint about being groped at work, she told her to get a job away from men, putting the onus on her to avoid assault rather than stopping those committing it), and worshipped the sanctity of the child above all else. By the time she was testifying to Noelle’s moral weakness – hair now tied back in a proto-Aunt style – she was on her way to becoming the character as is.
Is it a satisfying explanation for why Lydia does what she does? Not especially, but it does make the worthwhile point that evil starts small. The relatively cosy, undramatic origin story (Lydia could have been a cult member or serial killer pre-Gilead for all we knew) repeats this drama’s constant warning: an infringement of rights here … an unchallenged fundamentalist view there … is what it takes to build a Gilead.
Once built, a place like Gilead makes its own monsters. And so to June.
The importance of environment can’t be underestimated, Lydia told the other Aunts this week (a conversation notable for acknowledging in the Carvers’ request not to have a Handmaid of colour, that race and racism exist in Gilead for what felt like the first time on this show). Lydia was dead-on about that. “Sometimes it’s the apple,” she said, “sometimes it’s the barrel.”
June’s ‘barrel’ has made her a sadist. She revelled in Natalie (Ofmatthew’s real name screamed by Lydia as the Handmaid’s body pirouetted from the bullet impact) being bullied and was unable to contain a smirk at the pain she caused Commander Lawrence telling him he was destroying his wife.
It’s said that prison changes a person, and Gilead’s nothing if not a prison – Emily and Moira said as much in last week’s discussion of the crimes they committed there. June, top dog in the Handmaid yard, has hardened. In season one, Elisabeth Moss’ straight-to-camera expression conveyed terror and dread. In season three, it’s more likely to convey schadenfreude. If June ever makes it out of this ‘barrel’, can she go back to what she was before, or are we now watching her Walter White-like descent?