The Handmaid’s Tale feels more dedicated to Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) than ever in season 3. Her “God Bless the Child” beating of poor Janine (Madeline Brewer) revealed the enraged heart of a woman who has no idea where she belongs. She was given the most touching moment in “Household.” And now, with “Unfit,” the Hulu series has finally gifted Aunt Lydia the backstory episode fans have long wanted.
What we find in Aunt Lydia’s flashbacks isn’t always shocking, but they do give us tons of insight on Lydia — and the world before Gilead.
First, let’s get into the two facts in “Unfit” that do qualify as unexpected. The first is that Lydia — full name Lydia Clements — was married to a man at one time. It was “a mistake,” she tells Noelle (Orange Is The New Black’s Emily Althaus), who is Lydia’s scene partner for much of the installment. It is unclear why Lydia and her husband broke up, but it seems evident she hasn’t been with a man since the relationship ended. This is the most we’ve heard about Lydia’s family history since “Smart Power,” when she told June (Elisabeth Moss) she was godmother to her sister’s child, who died.
The second detail “Unfit” subtly drops is that Lydia, a Bible-quoting fourth-grade teacher at this time, was a family lawyer first, possibly on behalf of the government. Now the industry has been privatized, which seems like another sly piece of fascism sliding into Handmaid's Tale's America. “The system now is better ... But then it was very frustrating. Because you couldn’t help as many children as you wanted to,” Lydia says of her time in family law (it’s a mystery if she was forced out of the profession for being a woman). This is a sentiment that suggests Lydia is fine with mysterious individuals having shadowy and unchecked control over sections of the government as long as it “helps” children.
No wonder she is so supportive of Gilead in the present Handmaid’s timeline.
The main chunk of Lydia’s “Unfit” flashbacks also help illuminate this idea, albeit in a far more obvious way. The story centers around Lydia’s growing relationship with Noelle, a striving young single mom, and her smart son Ryan (Ian Ho), one of Lydia’s students. One day, Noelle is three hours late to pick up Ryan from school. Lydia immediately judges Noelle, criticizing her lunch packing skills and tardiness. In an effort to get Ryan a hot meal, Lydia invites him and his mom over for dinner and the relationship warms (you can still tell Lydia judges Noelle’s job, speech, and queer-friendliness). Soon enough, the trio is spending Christmas together and Ryan is calling his teacher “Aunt Lydia.”
Then New Year’s Eve comes and ruins all of this kindness. Lydia rings in the holiday with her principal, Jim (John Ortiz). After drinks, dancing, karaoke, and a nightcap, she and Jim make out on her couch. Lydia is noticeably very frisky. Jim, a widower whose wife died three years prior, cuts things short explaining the lusty hookup is too much for him — too soon. Lydia, embarrassed and hurt, says she understands and urges Jim out of her home. He wants to go out again. She says she’ll see him at school. It’s all very upsetting. Once Jim is gone, Lydia goes to her bathroom to cry and repeatedly punches her mirror, getting glass everywhere.
As Lydia stares at herself, she sees makeup pouring down her face. It’s the makeup Noelle got Lydia for Christmas from her new retail job. In a show of mental gymnastics, Lydia blames Noelle for her romantic mortification. This is no longer just a sad twist of events — that really could have a nice ending. Jim is clearly into Lydia — it’s Noelle’s fault.
So, Lydia decides to punish her. In the next scene, we see Lydia in a meeting with the latest version of Child Protective Services. While the investigator is interested in whether Noelle is properly feeding and clothing her son, there is another layer she is judged on: morality. Lydia is asked if Noelle takes her son to church. The answer is no, no matter how much Lydia tries. Noelle’s romantic life is brought up, and Lydia criticizes her for seeing three men over a period of months, adding, “one of whom was married.” When Jim asks if all of this is necessary, Lydia responds, “We are required, by law, to report moral weakness.” It’s another important reminder the American government was backsliding into religious authoritarianism long before Gilead took over.
The investigator confirms Lydia is right in the eyes of the law, Ryan has already been taken from his mother, and he is now in foster care. “There is a long list of wonderful couples who are desperate to adopt,” he continues. This system of taking lower-income women’s children away and giving them to “wonderful” couples amid the backdrop of piety sounds like a prototype for the handmaid system. Lydia is elated by it.
The flashback ends with Noelle confronting Lydia in the school hallway. Her son has been taken from her and she won’t even have a trial for six weeks. Lydia claims she’s protecting Ryan, but it’s clear she is being spiteful. Noelle is dragged away screaming and Jim walks away from Lydia with disappointment in his eyes. Lydia Clements is, as always, alone.