What We've Learned About Aunt Lydia in 'The Handmaid's Tale'

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> What We've Learned About Aunt Lydia in 'The Handmaid's Tale'

Warning: This article contains spoilers for season 5 episode 6 of 'The Handmaid's Tale,' which aired October 12, 2022. 

Blessed Be the Fruit Loops!

It's become abundantly clear that 'The Handmaid's Tale' is never going to let us do things the easy way. They want us to think, translate facial expressions, and decode the quiet pauses between words. The best stuff takes time, and there's always a caveat--some moral dilemma or letdown. They'll throw us a bone, give us a win, then snatch it away the second we grab onto it. There is no victory, just a long, hard path filled with torment and suffering. 

But we don't mind. It's a labor of love. We'll rewatch, pause, take things in, then keep going. We'll turn on the subtitles and latch on to every word. We don't let anything--not even the background chatter--pass us by, because the closer we look, the more we learn, and there's more to 'The Handmaid's Tale' than just religion and politics. Behind that icy shell of a world, there's love, vulnerability, compassion, and a constant struggle for freedom--not just from Gilead, but from their beliefs and their ways of thinking.

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For a long time, things were simple. We watched a slave move from one household to another, struggling to rescue her daughter Hannah from the throes of a totalitarian dictatorship. Each power figure was flexible in their own way. Some were lenient. They made exceptions and did whatever they wanted behind closed doors. They revealed themselves to be hypocrites, unwilling to compromise their human nature for the sake of the nation they had helped build.

But Lydia wasn't like that. From the first moment she took the stage, whacking desks with her cattle prod and ranting about the evils of the time before, she was a singular force--the essence of Gilead embodied.

Most of us remember her in the first episode barking, 'They made such a mess..' going on about Tinder, contraception, and sexual promiscuity. She went through slides on a projector as old as she was, ranting nonsense. In the original novel, Offred couldn't believe how ridiculous her propaganda was. It was all lies, and they were lying about a world that they toppled just a few years ago. How could anyone believe what they were saying?

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Gilead Has it Ways

There have been countless examples of strange cultural beliefs throughout history, from mythical creatures to infant-devouring witches. We tell ourselves that these ideas belong to the past when people didn't know any better. They were just going off of the information that they had. But superstition and falsehoods have a way of getting around. They are just as contagious as any disease, and they're more intuitive than scientific findings. That's because they come from the minds of men--often leaders, storytellers, and clergy members. It doesn't matter how strange those stories are; they spread like wildfire, and they stick. There are many modern examples of this. We see it with cults, political groups, and religions, and it has nothing to do with logic. It's about learning how to manipulate human nature, either for fun, for gain, or for control. 

There's a reason these stories take different forms in different regions. Anyone who has traveled extensively has seen the way ideas seem to confine themselves to borders. This is because information is transmitted socially. Our morals, our beliefs, and our general conception of normalcy come from those around us. Society has a way of reinforcing those beliefs, as well as instilling them in others. Some people are taught how to reach a congregation, how to teach children, and how to make a sale; there are well-established, effective techniques, known to break down the best of us. That's how political leaders have been able to convince entire nations. That's how cult leaders build a following. Brainwashing is a science. People can be made to believe.

Like many people who brainwash others, Lydia did so unwittingly. As we've heard her tell Janine, she just wanted to give her the education she needed to live. There are countless examples of people brainwashing others by simply setting out to teach them or convince them of something. Brainwashing is rarely labeled as such. But her methodology was a standard totalitarian toolkit taken from other major examples throughout history. Everything in the franchise is based on something that has happened before. Blame circles, for example, are an old technique. They're a repetitive, in-depth practice where a person's faults are listed over and over--usually every day at a specific time. People will sit around picking away at the target, telling them they're stupid for the way they think--their loyalties, their refusal to accept Gilead, or how they'd cling to the time before. It's not something that can be fought. Over time, everyone in the blame circle begins to question themselves. That's the power of social reinforcement. People absorb what they're told, and they accept the logic they are given. This reinforcement is paired with reward and punishment, sleep deprivation, starvation, and torture, In Gilead's case, they paired it with religion, making it even more effective. Adding God into the mix makes the subject believe that what they're doing is both good and obligatory, and it adds an imaginary form of punishment and reward into the mix.

Everything was done in the context of the social structure--a basic source of human knowledge. Punishment and reward would be handled like a parent punishing their child. Acting out would be disappointing. Propagandists would say things like, 'This hurts me just as much as it hurts you.' By building a parental dynamic, the subject would develop a sense of loyalty. They'd also be conditioned to avoid breaking the rules, like a rat in a cage who refuses to step on a button because it shocks them. It's dark psychology. 

Many of us have heard how cults will separate people from their families and friends. They'll talk about how it's best to disconnect from the rest of the world, avoid outsiders and their false beliefs. Members are often told that the rest of the world will taint them, hold them down, and keep them from enlightenment. They'll gradually become convinced that everyone outside the cult is bad. This builds a cloistered social structure based on loyalty and trust. When we trust the other cult members--and not the outside world--we're more likely to reject our old beliefs and take on those of the cult. This is where things get weird and all of the strange beliefs start taking hold. People who get brought into this kind of dynamic will worship a rainbow unicorn if they're led to do so. This is because our beliefs are intrinsically tied to our relationships with others.

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Brainwashing is often used in conjunction with hypnotic techniques, something to break down the barriers in the mind. LSD has been a favorite over the years. Alcohol and marijuana have also been used. The psychedelic mindset is perfect for this, because a brain in this state absorbs things. There's a sense of awe and wonder that can come along with it. There are many famous examples of this. 

Music, chanting, and ritual are probably the most common tools of the trade. They're great because they're versatile, and they integrate emotion, which really helps to drive the point in and make it stick. Imagine standing in a church sanctuary filled with people. There's a band playing and words up on a screen. Some congregants have their hands in the air. They're reaching up to heaven. They're swaying, mouthing the words. The rhythm has a hold on them. Maybe they're clapping, having fun, singing their praises. Anyone sitting down or refusing to clap and sing will get funny looks. If children don't join in, they might be spanked. There's a lot of pressure to clap and sing. 

Now imagine this performance began with a simple ensemble, something to get the room going and pull people out of their early morning exhaustion. Soon the rhythm picks up. The song lyrics start to take hold. They're more poetic. They're fun. People are smiling. That could go on for quite some time, but at some point, the music will slow down. The songs get more serious, and for some reason, people start to cry. They're reaching up into the air. There's a guy on a microphone urging everyone on with an 'Amen!' or 'Praise Him!' Praise and worship helps to break us down. It makes us more pliable. That way we'll more likely to accept the sermon afterward. It's an emotional roller coaster for many. They'll be told to give in. Show their appreciation for the Lord. Worship and feel his love. It's not necessarily brainwashing, but it is the perfect brainwashing technique, and it's something that Lydia probably experienced every few days--if not every day. It's not the only way religions break people down, though. In season 2 when June is captured after her initial escape attempt, she's forced to undergo a ritual where her hands are bound to Serena's. These types of practices--especially when mixed with social reinforcement--can be just as powerful as praise and worship. It's the same with chanting, which calms the mind and makes it more likely for practitioners to believe what they're told next.

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The actor who plays Aunt Lydia, Ann Dowd, was born in 1956, and it's safe to say that Lydia is about the same age. Back then, most people had some sort of church affiliation. They might not have attended church every Sunday, but there was consistent pressure to do so. People might be missed if they stopped going. There could be gossip. It wasn't Salem. But it was still a very different dynamic. It's likely that Lydia was born in the church, and that she had been attending praise and worship sessions her entire life. That doesn't make her a mindless drone. But it does mean that the church had influence over her, and it held a special place in her heart.  

Now imagine those praise and worship sessions got longer. The guy on the microphone started to get more intense, and words like global warming and the fertility crisis started to come up. After years of hearing about the end times for decades, this would've felt like the moment the world has been waiting for. Church would turn into a daily affair with five-hour praise and worship sessions and four-hour sermons. They would talk about saving America and building a righteous nation, promising to ensure the survival of the human race. They'd even add background music during the sermons to drive the message home. This wouldn't have just been one church or one form of Christianity. People would've been hearing this across the world. How's that for social reinforcement? It would've felt normal--obligatory, even. 

It's not hard to imagine what the rise of a theocracy might look like, and it's not hard to imagine a sixty-year-old woman who just wants to do the right thing getting caught up in it. Her staunch loyalty to her faith was manipulated into something horrific. Her emotional nature, her temper, and her imbalanced moods were used against her, twisted with a guitar and a drumset. She didn't have a chance. She wasn't perfect, but like all of the believers on the show, her story is complicated.

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The Journey

Bradley Whitford recently did an interview where he talked about June's magical ability to pull out the decency in others. She basically grabs believers by the scruff, finds their weakness, and rubs their noses in it. It works. Lydia's first revelation was truly powerful. It happened in season 4. June was in prison after being picked up at Esther's ranch after Angel's Flight. Lydia was trying to convince her to tell them where the other handmaids that escaped were hidden. June chose to come at Lydia instead. 

Lydia had been telling the girls for so long that they would be fine if they just followed the rules, but that wasn't true. They were being beaten and violated. June said it was Lydia's fault. Her fault. It was the first time anyone had ever used Lydia's blame technique against her. 

Lydia could not take it. She started pacing around the cell, screaming for help. June knew exactly what to say. Lydia was never the same after that. She fought with the other aunts, and she yelled at the girls when they didn't deserve it. There was something rotting inside her, begging to be let out. Lawrence recognized it. He's incredibly insightful. She shocked her fellow aunt with a cattle prod by accident and got called into his office. He used reverse psychology to convince her to tone things down. It worked like a charm. She took in Janine, telling herself that she'd find her a posting, but she didn't have the heart to do it. She couldn't hurt the girl, and it was clear that something was starting to bother her about Gilead.

What June said stuck. Lydia told the new group of handmaids that they would be tested by wicked men and that when they were she would be there to help them. For a long time now, many have seen Lydia as intelligent and shrewd. If she was going to say something like that, she must've found a way to help them, but that wasn't the case. 

She was smart enough to realize that what June had told her was true. She had testaments to the crimes of the other commanders. She knew that they were hypocritical and disgusting, but she didn't understand the nature of Gilead. She was an old woman who had been going to church her entire life. She had been sheltered, warned away from unbelievers, and indoctrinated. 

This was never more obvious than when Janine was poisoned. Esther was raped by Commander Putnam, so she stole a handful of chocolates and dipped them in some unknown chemical. She tricked Janine into eating them and they both fell over unconscious. When Janine woke up, she confronted Lydia about her human rights abuses. Lydia was floored. She used the old excuse about how corrections are meant to teach them and keep them safe. She treated Esther's rape like any respectable aunt would and suggested that Esther might've led Putnam on. She couldn't see past her indoctrination. Only someone who had undergone years of brainwashing would've reacted that way. Lydia wanted to do the right thing; she genuinely cared, but she talked like some archaic conservative. She didn't know how to handle the situation either. She believed that these problems could be remedied by fair, honest men. So she went to Commander Lawrence and demanded that he reform the handmaid system and keep them out of the home. He refused. He said pious men need their kink. She was completely shocked. She couldn't even fathom the idea that faithful men would have an increased libido. Never in her wildest dreams did she think she'd be relegated to a glorified madame, sending sex slaves out across the district. She might not have even known what a madame was. That is where Lydia's at. She can barely see in front of her nose, and it's because she was brainwashed. She still thinks she's in church.

The Problem With Lydia Clements

Lydia is going to try to change her ways. But she has a longer way to go than most realize, and in real life it would be much harder for her. Gilead used a brainwashing technique called semantic stop-signs, among other linguistic methods. Semantic stop-signs are often referred to as twisted Bible verses. To most, they're a sign that Gilead wasn't actually Christian, but it's more than that. The human brain operates on a linguistic basis. We have a word for everything, and we have trouble understanding concepts that can't be put into words. By controlling the language, Gilead controls our breadth of knowledge and our manner of thinking. They can also put a stop to certain trains of thought. The best example of this is 'Blessed are the meek.' They taught Lydia that obedience and humility were sacred concepts, and whenever the idea of rebellion or talking back came up, she would say that. It was a cognitive leash attached to a collar around her neck, and that is just one example. There were forbidden words--things Gilead wanted erased from the mind. She had a Bible verse for every situation. She was constantly quoting scripture, and it's often pointed out that it's twisted. 

All of these techniques dip deep into the soul. They become habit, muscle memory, and cognitive boundaries, beyond which Lydia is incapable of moving. Giving up Gilead for her would be like trying to give up smoking. She's conditioned to think and act a certain way just like smokers are conditioned to pull out a cigarette when they get bored. Their slogans, their beliefs, and all of the old emotions they've embedded inside her could come up involuntarily, like neurons firing out of habit. That's what it means to be indoctrinated for decades. She wouldn't even be able to see the extent of that corruption. She wouldn't know when Gilead was talking. That's why many cult members have to see a therapist. They have a different normal, and they don't know how to find their way back to our own. 

Everything in Lydia's being will try to stop her from changing. The brain doesn't like to give up on old habits. It fights back. If she saw something that went against her beliefs--something impossible--she might have a physiological response that causes her to disregard it. If she saw scripture that went against Gilead, the words would scramble in her mind. She might even have trouble reading it aloud. It literally wouldn't make sense to her. If she tried to push past that effect, she would get frustrated or her eyes might get tired. If she did find a way to understand it, she would come up with an explanation that would allow her to believe two contradictory things at once. It might be the most ridiculous explanation in the world; it probably would be, but to her, it would be obvious. A flat earther could be flying in space staring at the globe, and they would still cling to their delusion. It's uncanny. When it comes to belief, our brain will betray us at every turn, especially when those beliefs are attached to emotional stimuli, like the music they play during praise and worship. That's what Lydia is fighting.

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Lydia is like a newborn who just pushed herself out of the womb. She barely opened her eyes. She's confused, and she sees things that she doesn't understand. She knows that she has a voice. She's screaming. She's demanding change, but she doesn't know how to achieve her goals. 

She doesn't even know that she's in a totalitarian theocracy. Gilead has a vicious, cannibalistic power structure. Everyone is stepping on everyone to get ahead, declaring themselves to be more righteous than the rest. Putnam's death would have been one of many. Early on in the series, we saw Commander Price, who recruited Nick, rounding commanders up and throwing them in the brig, saying he was going to clean up Gilead. That behavior defined Gilead's leadership. If they found out that an aunt was bringing handmaids on field trips to see commanders hanging on the wall and telling them to report when they are tested by wicked men, the commanders would do something about it. They would see her as a threat. These are the kinds of things that Lydia is going to have to understand. 

She does not know how to play the game. She doesn't even know that a game exists. Everyone else is smiling for the surveillance camera and putting up a facade because they know Gilead is aggressive. They've seen Gilead thin the population, frame people, and step on them. Commanders know. They enacted a holocaust, and she's walking around talking openly about coming after them. That would not go down well. It might get her into trouble.

The Handmaids Tale Season 5 Episode 6 Aunt Lydia Shows Handmaids Putnams Body, Calls it Justice

Like everything worth seeing in the franchise, Lydia's journey is going to be arduous and long. She'll climb mountains and cross rivers. There will be shock, mishaps, and even more naivety. She'll likely face grief, sorrow, and plenty of harsh truths. She can't just change overnight, and she won't. But eventually, she will become the cunning, powerful dissident we're waiting to meet. 

Hopefully, we'll be able to stick around and watch the best parts of the struggle, because she is a wonderful woman. She'll probably blossom into an extraordinary figure, and she will accomplish great things.