Aunt Lydia has always been one of the toughest authority figures on The Handmaid’s Tale. But here’s how the show hints at her turning against Gilead.
Season 4, episode 5 of The Handmaid’s Tale throws Aunt Lydia a curveball and also hints at why she might eventually turn against Gilead. Things haven’t been good for the austere handmaid mother figure (played by Ann Dowd) as of late. The rebellion at season 3’s end happened on her watch and, judging by her cuts and bruises earlier in the current season, it seems she paid dearly for that perceived failure. To make matter worse for her, June and some other handmaids recently escaped–yet again–under her supervision (despite only two of them making it out alive).
This all seems to weigh heavily on Aunt Lydia’s shoulders. Despite her brutal behavior and the harsh nation she dutifully serves, she seems to genuinely care about the handmaids and what she perceives to be their wellbeing. After all, she wholeheartedly believes in Gilead’s values. But that doesn’t stop the nation’s higher-ups from putting her out to pasture. In episode 5, she tells her superior that she’s fully recovered and ready to get back to work. But, to Aunt Lydia’s dismay, the woman tells her that the handmaids “aren’t her concern anymore.” Condescendingly, Aunt Lydia is told to continue with her period of rest; Gilead seems to be done with her service.
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Naturally, Aunt Lydia is shocked and offended by this; it’s clear she won’t blindly submit to her new orders. Being boxed out provokes a dramatic shift from her previous behavior in The Handmaid’s Tale. She blackmails Commander Lawrence for collaborating with June and various “abuses of power,” as well as his involvement with Commander Winslow’s disappearance in order to have her position reinstated. This is wildly incongruous for someone who aims to be as pious as possible (or so she believes). She’s said before that “only in suffering will we find grace,” but she doesn’t seem to be applying the argument to herself. In addition, she’s deciding to sit on information about treasonous behavior against Gilead, as long as doing so serves her. It’s an unforeseen twist for her character, and it begs the question as to what other convictions she might be willing to modify.
In Margaret Atwood’s 2019 sequel novel to The Handmaid’s Tale, titled The Testaments, it’s revealed that Aunt Lydia has actually been working against Gilead from the inside during the series’ entire timeline. With what’s been shown of her on the show thus far, it’s hard to imagine pulling off this kind of twist, even with these recent developments. But, then again, if The Testaments is going to become a show as well, this would be a perfect way to set up what it could reveal about Aunt Lydia’s character.
This wouldn’t mean that Aunt Lydia is necessarily anti-Gilead. As previously shown in her backstory, Lydia’s character seems to genuinely believe in the type of “traditional” values that the nation holds dear. In addition to being about her own self-preservation and resentment regarding being disenfranchised, the seeds of her turning on Gilead toward the end of or after The Handmaid’s Tale could also be an attempt at doing what she sees as best for the nation, even if that contradicts what her leaders see as right and correct.
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