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Aunt Lydia's Straight and Narrow Path in 'The Handmaid's Tale'

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> Aunt Lydia's Straight and Narrow Path in 'The Handmaid's Tale'

Warning: This article contains spoilers for season 5 episode 4 'Dear Offred.'

Aunt Lydia has always been a source of intrigue among members of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ fandom. She had a way of evoking the pervasive dread that characterized the nation. She was also sadistic. She would mock the girls with a sickening grin and a warm tone, all the while rubbing in the horrific nature of their circumstances. She didn’t seem bothered by pain or disfigurement. It was spare the rod, spoil the handmaid.

She maintained an appalling level of control over the girls, monitoring their gaze, their posture, and their tone of  voice, and she didn’t necessarily instruct them. Sometimes she would watch for signs of hesitation or confusion, so she could drag them back into her torture chamber. 

It was impossible to imagine how anyone could be so cruel. Many fans believed her to be a secret dissident, hiding her true loyalty from the world. Some thought she might’ve been pressured to gouge out eyes and cut out tongues, but there was no mistaking that bloodlust or her passion. The way she barked out orders, shrieking and whacking things with her cattle prod. That was zealotry.

We finally got our answer in season 2, when she rang the bell announcing June’s pregnancy at the red center. She had tears streaming down her face. The fertility crisis was Gilead’s main talking point in the time before, and it seemed to  bother her quite a bit. She must’ve been an early believer in the regime.

Lydia in the Time Before

Our first glimpse into Lydia's past is in the season 3 episode 'Unfit.' She's not the type of person who can leave well enough alone. When she worked in family law, she was frustrated. She wanted to help more children, but the government wasn't allowing her to do so. Essentially, she wanted to rip more out of their homes.

She moved on to become a schoolteacher. She had no concept of professional boundaries. She was ready to take a child home with her one evening when his mother, Noelle, was late picking him up. Noelle arrives just before the building closes, and Lydia invites them over for a bowl of chili.

The two women appear to bond, and they do develop a sort of friendship, but it's twisted. Lydia believes that the  boy is a victim of neglect. He came to school unwashed and wearing dirty clothes. He'd go without breakfast and lunch. She wants to change Noelle to give her a chance to raise her son properly. 

Noelle is naive. She doesn't realize what Lydia is doing, or how monstrous she can be. She thinks that Lydia is just a nice, older friend who wants her to do well.

We later find out that Lydia has a complex. Like many religious women, she's been taught that sex is wrong. That message is so ingrained in her being that she can't allow herself to be intimate. She has an emotional episode after going on a date with the principal. She takes him back to her place where they make out. She reaches for his crotch, and he pulls away, leaving her there to rage at herself for what she's done. 

She breaks her bathroom mirror, unable to look herself in the eye. This complex goes further than we'd expect. She doesn't wear makeup. She doesn't believe in drinking. She's allergic to fun--the sins of the flesh. She loathes her human side, her instincts, and her desires, and it makes her defensive. 

She sees these things in people around her, especially a certain kind of woman--a stereotype, which she goes over in her propaganda slideshow in the first episode. They're harlots, loose, painted, and immoral--a parade of sluts--unwilling to serve their rightful purpose as mothers and wives. She hates them, because she knows that deep down inside, she's just like them. She's human, and according to her faith being human is wrong.

This has driven her to madness. It's why she intervenes in the lives of young women. We're not told why children are a part of her complex. But it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that she resents the fact that she's childless. Her marriage didn't work out. Being intimate is difficult. She's getting older. There could be more to the story. Hopefully we get a clearer picture later on. It's one of many unsolved myseries behind Lydia's character.  

A the end of 'Unfit,' we see her acting out what appears to be a habit she's picked up--something she's done many times while working in family law.

She contacts child services and informs them about the child's unwashed clothes, his lack of breakfast and lunch,  and his mother's behavior. She tells them that the mother 'goes around with men, one of whom is married.' They ask Lydia if the mother goes to church. Lydia has tried to convert Noelle, but it hasn't worked. 

Earlier in the episode, Lydia talks about how the system was fully privatized, making it easier to help children. Child services asked about the mother's religious affiliations, and they entered the home the second Lydia dialed their number. They didn't wait for an interview, which means they were taking children away en masse. More than likely, the boy was sent to live with a commander and his wife.

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Lydia Has Convinced Herself That She's a Mother Figure

Lydia thinks of herself as a maternal figure, doling out tough love like a schoolmarm with a switch. She gave Noelle a chance to raise her son right, turn her life around, and serve the Lord. She wasn't betraying a friend. She was doing what was best for the child. She has the same mindset in Gilead. 

Her handmaids are the lucky ones, chosen by God. They have a chance to do something amazing. They should be grateful and obedient. 

Her corrections are seen as a lesson, meant to give her victims a permanent reminder of the brutality of the regime. Better to lose an eye or a hand than to end up on the wall. She converts people, using propaganda to educate them and lead them closer to God. As far as she's concerned, all of these things are right and just. She doesn't see herself as sadistic. She is taking joy in doing the Lord's work.  

All religious fanatics believe in doing right thing, no matter how demented they are; if they didn't, they wouldn't care about what God wanted. They'd never follow a moral code, twisted or otherwise. 

They can't always be blamed for their fanaticism, either. We want to blame them so bad, but we have to be objective about that. Look at Mao, Hilter, and Stalin. They were able to sway entire countries, inspiring them to commit unspeakable crimes. People are malleable. That is our nature. Everyone reading this is malleable. We have ways of setting our human morals aside, and with the right techniques you can brainwash almost anyone. Lydia is no different. That does not make her a good person. It doesn't excuse the things she does. In fact, Lydia deserves more blame than most, because she's not just brainwashed or radicalized.

Her biggest problem is her low self-esteem, which leads to feelings of aggression and inadequacy. She tells herself she's doing what God wants, when really she's using her fanaticism as an excuse to hurt people. Quite often her beliefs have nothing to do with her crimes.

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Lydia Can't Hide From the Truth

We do see doubt start to take hold eventually. June seems to have a way of forcing others to see the light. When she’s taken in for questioning, she confronts Lydia about the way the handmaids were treated. 

She tells her that the girls were promised that they would be OK if they followed the rules and did what they were told. But Lydia was just shipping them off to be violated and abused. She turned Lydia’s blame tactic against her, saying that is was her fault. Her fault. 

Lydia couldn’t take it. She paced around, screaming for the torture master. She needed to get out of June's cell. It had come to the point where she couldn’t deny the crimes of her commanders. In the past, she was a firm believer in what Lawrence called window dressing. 

Every regime has a specific aesthetic, a style, a set of ideas, and principles they use to promote themselves to the populace. Gilead told its followers that they were creating a Godly nation. But the leaders were hypocrites. They did  whatever they wanted. They established brothels in every city, gorging on drugs and kinky sex. They twisted the Bible,  using fake verses and sayings to fit their own teachings. It wasn’t the Godly nation she thought it would be.

This is Lydia's original turning point. It changed her. She still fed herself the old lines about keeping her girls safe. She was still able to excuse her own behaviour, but it was obvious that somethig was wrong with her world.

Lydia Takes Action

To her credit, Lydia does not ignore the crimes of her superiors. Instead, it's revealed that she's collecting secrets--testaments­ to their abuses of power. She blackmails Commander Lawrence into putting her back into her former position, which she lost when the handmaids ran away. 

When he agrees, she alters her old propaganda, telling the new group of handmaids to come to her when they are tested by wicked men. 

This is a new development, but we’re not sure how long she's been gathering information. It might be a reaction to her talk with June. It might be something she's been doing for quite some time. She's always had reliable sources. She’s a slave master, and the commanders love to brutalize and confess their sins to their slaves. 

What she’s doing is extraordinary. It gives her the ability to influence votes on the council. She can also remove commanders or pit them against one another. It’s the perfect tactic. Gilead society is all about maintaining a pristine image. 

She’s not ready to wield that power, though. She’s unstable emotionally. She jabs another aunt with a cattle prod.  She tirades. She freaks out on the girls for no reason. Lawrence presses her to tone things down, and he turns out to be pretty good at manipulating her. He uses reverse psychology, accusing her of being a sadist.

He says everyone has to have a hobby. She objects to this. She's defensive, which he knows will cause her to tone down her behavior. She’s also vulnerable. She has no guard up. Normally she wouldn’t fall for this kind of tactic, but her worldview is shattering. 

He tells her that she should take her anger out on Janine, who was just picked up in Chicago. She melts at the sight of Janine’s picture. She doesn’t plan on hurting her at all, which was clearly his intention all along.

Something is Changing

We're starting to get a new picture of Lydia, one that nobody expected. She's really just an older woman that grew up in the church. She wants to do the right thing, and she expects the same from others, which makes her naive. She barely knows where she is or who she's dealing with. Lawrence sees it. He knows she's deluded, that she's completely out of her league, and he has every intention of playing he. We're not sure what he's planning. But he'll probably get away with it.

This destroys a lot of our expectations of Lydia, and it brings to light a roadblock in her path to redemption. She's emotional and angry. She can't control it, and we've seen that time and time again. She beat Janine in front of the Putnams. She couldn't handle being in the room with June. We hear constant tension in voice. Now she's shocking the other aunts and tirading with the girls. 

No matter how hard she tries to change, this is something that she will probably never overcome. It could require therapy, new coping mechanisms, maybe even medication. Anger takes people over. It causes them to do things they wouldn't normally do. There's a rush of biochemicals, and it's not easily quelled. There are no resources in Gilead for something like that. She would have to train herself, which can be done. But it takes an enormous amount of discipline and patience. We also have to consider the fact that Lydia is getting older. It's harder for someone her age to change. 

She will transform herself. But she's not likely to turn things around completely.

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Janine Is Lydia's Greatest Weakness

When Lydia visits Janine in prison, she is beside herself. It's like a mother visiting her daughter, only this mother is planning on putting her back into service as a slave. Janine won't have it. She would rather die. 

Here we come across a conundrum in Gilead society. A suicidal woman is of no use to the regime. They can't stop them from hurting themselves or their children. They do their best, but they can't always intervene. This is a problem with all women, not just handmaids. They can't be controlled when they're lying on a gurney in the morgue. Gilead will have to address this issues, but they haven't done so yet. 

Lydia will come up with an answer to this conundrum, and we will probably see it in season 5. 

When she realizes Janine can't perform her duty, she makes a strange decision. It's a sign that she's changing. She puts Janine in limbo at the red center, unable to bring herself to do anything else. The other aunts hate it, and it's easy to see why. Favoritism is a dangerous precendent in their world. It could get Lydia into trouble. It could also make the other girls angry. 

Aunt Lydia will not hear a word of it. She gives Janine odd jobs, until she realizes that Janine is good with Esther, the temperamental child bride that took in the handmaids at the beginning of season 4. Janine gets Esther to end her hunger strike. She even coaxes the girl into going to the Putnams to be interviewed for a new posting. 

Esther is forced to meet with Commander Putnam alone in his office, a disturbing experience considering his crimes against Janine. Lydia can barely stand it, but there's nothing she can do. He is a commander. While there, he force feeds Esther a piece of chocolate, making airplane noises like she's a baby. 

The imagery is disgusting, and many of the fans have commented on how grotesque it is. The actress who plays Esther said she had to step outside after filming the scene. 

They zero in on his elongated face and show him shoving something into her mouth. The sexual overtones, Esther's age, and her reluctance to open her mouth make it almost unbearable. 

While inside the office, she steals a handful of the chocolates and dips them in poison. She brings them to Janine. They eat them together, sitting cross-legged on Janine's bed like two best friends. Esther shocks Janine with a speech about how much she hates her. She announces that they're going to make June proud. Blood spurts out of their mouths, and they both fall over unconscious.

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Lydia's Meltdown

When Lydia arrives at the hospital where they're staying, she's completely out of her mind. We've seen her upset before, but this is different. Her eyes seem dark and beady, shifting around like she's looking for a weapon. Her cheaks are soaked with tears. She hauls off and bashes an unconscious Esther. She's so upset that she won't even try to control herself. Nothing could've stopped her from attacking that girl.

She falls to her knees at Janine's bedside, stammering as she begs God not to hurt Janine to teach her a lesson. She says she's made choices. She was just trying to keep her girls safe. He must understand. She even promises to do things differently. It's a solemn vow from a woman who would never break a promise to the Lord. 

We've been observing her brazen, unapologetic nature for five years. She's never admitted to doing something wrong, and she's never directly addressed her crimes against the girls. She couldn't, because if she allowed herself go to that place, she'd be forced to confront the woman she's become.

She seems to do exactly that, and it's moving. But Lydia can justify things that would make Chairman Mao sick to his stomach, and that requires an enormous talent for self-deception.

She is stuck in two realities. On the one hand, she finally allowed herself to voice her regret. She is aware that she has committed terrible crimes. On the other hand, she hasn't addressed any of her false beliefs. She's still a fanatic, and it's impossible to imagine a universe where she gives that up. 

Admitting guilt and abandoning your most deeply held beliefs are two very different things. Most people never make that journey. Their conviction softens. They make allowances for harsh truths they've observed. But over the years an individual's beliefs become a part of who they are. 

Lydia has spent her entire life learning about the world and making judgments, filtering it all through a Gilead tainted lens. It's like when a child first begins to recognize objects when they're born--a ball, a teddy bear, or a bottle--all of the things and ideas that make up their reality. Her names for those objects and her notions surrounding them are all based on her fanatical viewpoints, and she's built up more than 50 years worth of this, adding new layers, burying them deeper and deeper into her being. 

She would have to unlearn every bit of it. Forget learning to walk again; this is learning to think again. That process is impossible to fully complete. We see this in ex-fundamentalists and ex-cult members all the time. Brainwashing leaves an unwashable stain on the soul. 

Janine sees this. Their kinship is completely one-sided. Lydia seems to have expected a tearful reunion, hugs, and a  moment of joy--something to match the way she feels about the girl. Instead, Janine gets upset when she realizes that Lydia is angry with Esther.

Lydia says that anyone who would kill her sister deserves His retribution. Janine counters by saying that Esther was a child. She was hurt and abused. Lydia insists that she gave Esther a chance to live a life of service and grace.

Janine adds, 'Or else. Live a life of service and grace, or else you would let her rot in the colonies. I know you'd just pluck her eye out.'

Lydia seems hurt by that, but she quickly reverts back to her old rhetoric. 'I gave you the education you needed to live a safe and meaningful life, and here you are. Still with us.'

She's still deluding her. Lydia wants to change, but she honestly has no conception of what that means. Janine sobs, 'Just stop it. I know what you do, what you do to those girls. Your precious girls.'

Lydia's mouth drops open. 

'I see you,' Janine goes on. 'I see who you really are. I've still got one good eye, remember.' She gives Aunt Lydia a look of triumph, shifting around in her hospital bed. 'You gonna take that one too?'

Lydia deflates, clearly troubled by Janine's words. She walks out. Remember, she's always wanted to believe that Janine loved her. When June told her how Janine felt it was like being stabbed in the heart. Lydia thought they had a special relationship. She is so far gone that it didn't even occur to her that her crimes would get in the way of that. 

This is the first time Janine has ever been honest with Lydia. She was always subservient and sweet, seemingly innocent. She didn't show her pain. It was her way of pretending so she could survive. Now Janine doesn't care. She's injured and she's hurting, and she's finally telling Lydia how she really feels. 

We don't know what goes through Lydia's mind when she leaves. She could be ashamed, angry, sad, or maybe repentant. She seemed to want to prove herself to Janine. That much can be safely assumed. But mostly she just couldn't stand to stay in the room any longer.

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Lydia's Repentance

It's becoming clear that Lydia still moves through a world of her own creation. She's like many fanatics. She bought into the window dressing, and she still can't see past the shades. 

After all of this time and everything she has seen, she should understand that by now. But she doesn't. She doesn't know the first thing about Gilead or herself. 

She leaves the hospital to speak with Commander Lawrence, who wants the handmaid on handmaid attacks to stop. Gilead is starting to open it's doors, and the system needs to be palatable for outsiders. If they see abuse and scandals, it won't look good for them. 

Lydia agrees. She makes a bolds step, one that is clearly meant to honor Janine. She wants the handmaids to remain with her at the red center. They can have the commanders visit once a month. But the girls should be under her care. She thinks the system would be better served if they weren't kept in households. 

She's visibly angry and upset. She tries to talk over Lawrence, but he's not going to let that happen. He tells her that the commanders will never go for that. They want the handmaids in their homes so they can sniff the air when they walk by and whatever else. 

He says, 'These are pious men. They need a little kink.'

He might as well have been speaking Klingon. At this point, it's not even clear if she knows what the word 'kink' means. This is not the Lydia we thought we knew. This scene proves it.

He adds, 'You must know that.'

She gives him an angry look. 'Do I?'

'Do you?'  

She doesn't. She sees all of the abuse. She has a cache of secrets built up. She knows who's sticking it to who, who the baby daddies are, and who's killing who. She knows all about Jezebels. Yet, it never occurs to her that her own leadership--and their repressed views about sexuality--might be the problem. That goes against everything she's been taught.

Pious men do like kink. That is absolutely the case. They're taught that sex is the forbidden fruit. It's the one thing they can't have, which means it's the one thing they have to have--and a whole lot of it. To many of us, this is basic knowledge, but not for Lydia. She doesn't understand sexual repression. She represses herself.

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Who is Aunt Lydia?

It seems like the more we get to know Lydia, the less we understand. We used to think she was cunning and powerful. Now she's vulnerable, playing into mind tricks, and throwing fits. We thought she was faking everything. Now she's probably the only true believer on the show. We thought she was incapable of compassion and love. Now it's her main motivation. 

We can't compare her to other examples in the franchise. None of the source material fits. In the original novel she was bone thin, wispy, and lady-like. This Aunt Lydia is a brute with a bun. In The Testaments, nearly every line they wrote about her can be contradicted by the series. 

We don't know this woman. If we think about it, we haven't been given much to go off of, either. We only see a few minutes of her back story. They don't explain it. We never see how she lives in Gilead or what her life is like. We have no idea what the aunt systems looks like. Mostly Lydia just shows up, does something terrible, then walks off. The rest is a mystery. 

We might think that we have a roadmap to her future, but we don't. After she leaves Lawrence's office, she goes back to ask Janine for help. She wants to rule with compassion. That has never happened before in the history of the franchise. It is unique to the series. The showrunners are giving us something new, juicy, and fresh. They're throwing us off, and it's going to be wild. 

Lawrence told her that she is a glorified madam. She will scorch the earth over that, just to prove a point. It's written all over her face when she stamps out of his office. More than likely, we're going to see a battle.

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