There’s no shortage of tyrannical—yet nuanced—villains in The Handmaid’s Tale, from Bradley Whitford’s Commander Joseph Lawrence to Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy. But Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia, whose ironclad grip on power in Gilead seems to be weakening this season, is perhaps the most unsettling character to watch. She’s capable of horrific and unspeakable levels of cruelty, has devoted herself wholeheartedly to enforcing the systematic rape of hundreds of women, and has no qualms about mutilating and torturing those who cross her. But she’s also capable of genuine affection, and seems to truly love at least a few of her Handmaids—none more so than Janine (Madeline Brewer).
In last week’s episode, Lydia seems to be unraveling. She’s almost fired by Lawrence after viciously beating a Handmaid without provocation, which crosses a line even in Gilead. Yet when Lawrence casually notes that she clearly enjoys inflicting pain, Lydia seems wounded. When Lydia is later reunited with Janine, whose fate has been up in the air ever since the Chicago bombing, they share a painful and emotionally loaded conversation in which Janine essentially begs Lydia to have her executed rather than send her to become a Handmaid again.
Below, Dowd speaks to ELLE.com about the ways Lydia is starting to question her devotion to Gilead, her complex and deep love for both June and Janine, and her fantasy of a scene in which Lydia gives Lawrence a verbal smackdown.
Lydia really seems to be spiraling. She’s so desperate to get back to the position of power she had at the Red Center, but also sabotages herself with this outburst. What’s happening?
In this season overall, she’s having to somehow both answer to herself, and answer to these pain-in-the-ass commanders who have such a nerve! Survival has always been the name of the game for her. When Gilead took over, it wasn’t for the weak. It was for those who said I’m all in, and I’m not only all in, I’m not going to be number two. And I’m going to show you that I will never need to be number two. I know what I’m doing and I’m in charge. That mindset is how she’s survived. So to have this thing happen at the end of last season… I mean, if you could come up with a fairytale nightmare for Lydia, what happened with those children escaping is by far the worst thing that could have happened.
Right, it’s her worst-case scenario.
And she holds herself responsible. So do the commanders. She knew something was happening. She knew it. She knew it. And she did not follow it to its core. And June, whom she has a tremendously complicated relationship with, pulled it off. So there’s that personal factor where she’s being tough on herself because she knows all of that, and also desperate to prove that, “No, no, no, I’m not irrelevant.” But the trouble for Lydia is not to do with those obvious obstacles. It has to do with the feeling of love, which I think one can’t always trace in oneself, except something is expanding and it’s making life more complicated.
Yeah, her love of June is profound in its entirety, and of course it’s complicated because she wants to take June and just say, “Will you, for God’s sake, ever listen to me?” But at the same time, she has profound admiration for her strength. The odds of that plan being successful were so low, and the risks, I mean, are you kidding? And even if you pull it off, “Honey, you’re doomed.” But that’s not what happened. June did it.
Is there any part of Lydia that has doubts about Gilead, or about her role in it?
Well, I do think there’s a part of her that is having to come to terms with the reasons why she jumped in so deeply. Yeah, maybe she bought into the religious concerns, et cetera, the world is going to hell, which I think is supported in the way the Handmaid’s series has unfolded. But if you look to Margaret Atwood, it’s really about survival. It came down to very much, in a split second: Get it together now. If you don’t, you’re dead.
And now, I do think Lydia is questioning, though she’s a long way from admitting it, What do I believe? Do I really believe this? And what’s surfacing along with that, with regard to Janine, is “I love this person, my little girl, she’s precious to me and I made a mistake with her.” She acted too harshly, she took Janine’s eye out, and I think she feels enormous regret about that. I can’t imagine what Lydia did to herself afterwards, saying, You did what we have been trained not to do. You acted emotionally. You were pissed that she said the word fuck too many times and you could not handle it and you took her eye out. And so now, I will watch over this creature from now until the end of time.
But at the same time, she still can’t hear what Janine’s saying to her. When Janine says, “I’d rather be dead than be a Handmaid again,” Lydia almost seems to be in denial.
Yeah, it’s, “Stop that nonsense right this minute.” Her attitude to Janine is, you had a wretched life before, you were sleeping with another man, you did this, you did that, you had an abortion, all of these things. And now, your life has been renewed here! And the interesting thing with Lydia is, we know where she came from, and what her job was prior—family court. This is not a woman who’s far, far, far to the right, but she’s had to adapt to that way of thinking or she’s done.
I want to dig into Lydia’s lashing out at the new Handmaids in this very violent way which almost gets her fired. It almost made me wonder if she’s sabotaging herself. Is there some part of her that wants out?
I don’t think consciously, but what rules the day? The unconscious. I think what she’s struggling with is the fear of being replaced, and what that could ever mean. Can you imagine anything worse than being in an old age home for old Aunts? No. No and no. But I don’t think it’s a wish to be [fired], it’s just, there’s too many things coming at her. There’s too many conflicting impulses: “I love these people.” “No, no. I don’t.” Yes, you do, honey. Come on. She’s so busy batting real emotions away, real true feelings, and just trying to stay afloat and stay on top.
Right, she’s just sort of scrabbling desperately to get some control back.
Yeah. And also, Bruce Miller said something extremely helpful in season 1, which is: She was a teacher before. And boy, she was born to teach. Some people are. They can get command of a room, they have a passion to bring the people in that room forward in their learning with their gifts. That’s powerful.
Lydia and Lawrence develop a pretty interesting uneasy rivalry this season. What common ground do you see between those characters, and what divides them?
Such great characters. Love Bradley. Love working with him. And there’s something in the two of them, which they would not openly identify because perhaps at this point it’s unconscious for both of them, yet creeping towards consciousness. Which is: They have hearts that still function. But with that being said, Lawrence treated her so disrespectfully all along, and I used to really wish for Lydia to just turn around and say, “You know what, Lawrence? Shut your mouth. Look around this place full of your ghastly art.” And if she really dropped down to the gutter, she’d say “You can’t get it up, and that’s why you’re not doing the job here. So let’s get real. You can come up with any damaged piece you want. You’re a man who can’t function.”
Lydia getting down in the gutter would be immensely satisfying.
He just thinks he’s so clever! I wanted her to say, “No you’re not. You’re not that great. And your wife went insane, so you’re not that great a husband, clearly!” But because of the power hierarchy, she can’t do that. She’s not in charge charge. The men are in charge. Let’s never forget that.
The idea of justice, and what it means to different characters, really looms large in this season. What would justice look like for Lydia?
Well, I don’t go to what she deserves, because that’s not my territory. But I can go to situations in real life, where atrocities have been committed, and I mean, every single person involved should head straight to prison before their execution. You’ve harmed too many people in a profound way, and they will never recover their lives. As we see when June is in Canada, trauma has long-lasting effects and you do not come back to who you were meant to be in your early life before Gilead. That does not happen. Those pathways have been destroyed. And boy are there consequences emotionally and otherwise. So, what does she deserve? I mean, if Lydia is honest with herself, what does she decide needs to happen? Well, I don’t know if you’ve read The Testaments, but if you have, you have your answer. And she knows: slow, meticulous, stay alert, keep your mouth shut, pay attention, play the game.
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