You know — like this. How did Lydia become a woman who enthusiastically shouts “heave” while her handmaid progeny collectively execute a Martha? Why is she so devoted to bringing children into this awful society? What fundamental part of her heart is missing, allowing her to wholeheartedly embrace Gilead’s policies? How is she so easily fooled by June, over and over? How do her feet balance standing on the two constantly separating tectonic plates that govern her life: That she “loves” these women, and that she wants to erase them?
The questions go on and on. Aunt Lydia is a mass of contradictions. Long before Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) was even an idea in the writer’s room, Lydia was the Handmaid’s Tale principle baffling figure. Lydia is a meaty, complicated role that has won Ann Dowd many well-deserved Emmys.
It was time for a peek behind the Aunt Lydia curtain. It had been time for a while.
But instead of giving us an answer as to how she got this way, “Unfit” gives us an anecdote. Once upon a time, Aunt Lydia was an elementary school teacher named Lydia Clements. Before the education system was privatized, she’d been a lawyer — it’s always fascinating to track America’s slow erasure. Gilead didn’t happen overnight.
Pre-Gilead Lydia’s fundamental personality traits are familiar: judgmental, condescending, capable of compassion that has strings attached. Back then, though, she was still capable of getting off her high horse to form a bond with a woman she considered “lacking” in the feminine arts. Essentially, religiousness had yet to manifest completely in strict insanity.
Noelle (Emily Althaus), the mother of one of Lydia’s students, is real handmaid material. She is a single mother. She works at a bar and rarely has time to fulfill her “motherly duties,” like cooking elaborate meals and scrubbing the house clean. So, Lydia and Noelle’s relationship begins reluctantly. Lydia clearly disapproves of Noelle’s behaviour, and Noelle is clearly aware of that disapproval. But their love for Ryan (Ian Ho) bridges their ideological divide, and soon Lydia is part of a little family. Two single women, two lonely women, finding solace in one another.
Unexpectedly, some of Noel’s freewheeling spirit rubs off on Lydia. Lydia puts on makeup, her Christmas present from Noel, and puts herself out there. On New Year’s Eve, Lydia goes on a date with the foxy school principal (John Ortiz). This could really be a thing. They’re both religious! They can sing duets together!
Lydia, on the date, is distracted by joy. So maybe that’s why she takes it “too far” with him on the couch back in her dingy apartment. She pulls a Noel. She reaches for his crotch. Warren freaks out and essentially calls Lydia a jezebel with his eyes. Is finding a glimmer of transgression in herself what causes Lydia to do what she does next? She reports Noel to the authorities as a corrupting influence, and has her child taken away and put in a more “fit” home. Did Noel awaken something in Lydia? Did it call her own moral weakness into the picture?
I’m not sold that “Lydia Clements” calcified into “Aunt Lydia” due to what essentially amounts to a romantic rejection from Warren. It’s deeper than that. Lydia must know that she’s not so fundamentally different from the handmaids. She must hate herself — the part of her that wants pleasure, and love, and to use her body. That’s why she strikes it out of her “girls” so desperately — because she can’t strike it out of herself, although she does make a noble effort of shattering a mirror.
Lydia “learned” her lesson in that flashback. “It is a wicked, selfish fool who chooses another wicked, selfish fool as her example,” Lydia says while berating June. “Especially when there are the godly and joyful among you.” This episode shows the one time she chose the “selfish fool” as her example.”
Unfit is really Lydia’s showcase episode. The action pirouettes between a damning, merciless moment in her past, to her present day in Gilead where she struts around with the self-importance of a war general. She takes her job seriously. She plays musical chairs with handmaids’ postings. She holds court during a birthing ceremony with one of the quotidien disappointments of Gilead: The baby is stillborn.
Lydia’s mourning for the child, and everyone who lost her, is real – she feels her duty as a baby whisperer deeply. It’s a calling. Her earnest devotion to this calling is part of what makes her so discomforting for us, and for the handmaids.
There’s always the threat that the handmaids are going to lash out. They’re angry at Gilead. And Lydia, the cheerleader of oppression, is the easiest person to take down. And in this episode, OfMatthew (Emily LaThrop) comes damn close to finishing Lydia off.
The trouble starts when June (Elisabeth Moss), queen bee, turns her handmaid posse on OfMatthew in retaliation for what she did to the McKenzies’ Martha last episode. Then, June ratchets her bullying up a notch: She tells Aunt Lydia that OfMatthew doesn’t want her baby.
After that, OfMatthew cracks. The full breakdown comes at Bread and Loaves. First she attacks Janine, who had approached her as an ally, with a huge can of food. Then she takes down an Eye (clearly not expecting an attack) and grabs his gun.
Typically, this is June’s show. But here, the camera shows us the world from OfMatthew’s muddled perspective. The world slows down in her final moments. She knows this is it. She points the gun at June. But June, without blinking or without showing fear, tilts her head toward Lydia. She reminds OfMatthew who the real enemy is — the one who made them feel like this, do this. June nearly becomes a psychic assassin. Before OfMatthew can fire the trigger at Aunt Lydia, she’s shot by an Eye.
OfMatthew’s body is dragged out of Bread and Loaves in a prolonged, unrelenting shot. In her final moments, OfMatthew revealed herself to be as unhappy and trapped as the other handmaids. Her piousness was a survival mechanism. At least she got her way: She’s not bringing a child into this awful world.
It’s important to note a troubling trend within the last few episodes. The Handmaid’s Tale has long been criticized for being a white feminist’s worst case scenario. People of colour exist in Gilead, but almost exclusively on the margins (except for OfMatthew).
In this episode, The Handmaid’s Tale tries to “explain” Gilead’s lack of diversity this episode. While Lydia was sorting handmaids, she offhandedly mentions that a certain commander didn’t want a handmaid of colour. Gilead clearly has a racial hierarchy.
But owning up to the show’s optics doesn’t excuse them. In the past two episodes, the show killed off two characters of colour. First there was Frances the Martha. Now there’s OfMatthew, who was shot before we even knew her real name.
Both deaths both point back to June. She’s certainly still protagonist. But is she still a hero?