Is Aunt Lydia secretly a good person?
Fair warning: This article contains spoilers for episode nine of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale (and drops some heavy-handed hints about what’s to come later, too).
Smart Power is an important episode, in many ways. Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) turns down an opportunity to escape Gilead and her abusive husband, instead resigning herself to a life of knitting and misery. June (Elisabeth Moss) asks Rita (Amanda Brugel) to teach her unborn baby the value of kindness. Luke (OT Fagbenle) and Nick (Max Minghella) come face-to-face for the first time – and, in the process, seemingly determine which of them will end up with June come the end of the show. And Luke and Moira (Samira Wiley) work to expose Gilead’s crimes to the Canadians, putting a hard stop to any diplomatic treaties and weakening the theocratic state in a very big way.
The most vital scene, though, comes when June reaches out to Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) for help, insinuating to her that the baby won’t be safe in this household without her.
“Did anyone ever ask you to be a Godmother, in the time before?” asks June.
Aunt Lydia, surprised at June’s “insolence”, bristles and refuses to answer the question. But, not to be deterred from her mission, June continues: “Any man who would hurt a woman would hurt a child.”
June doesn’t go into detail, but she doesn’t need to: Lydia puts the pieces together herself. Cattle prod still strapped to her belt, the Aunt guarantees the Handmaid that no harm will come to the child on her watch. Good news, we suppose. However, it isn’t until later in the episode that Lydia decides to answer June’s original question.
“I was godmother to my sister’s child,” she says softly. “He died when he was four days old.”
When June expresses her sympathies for the loss, though, Lydia shuts down once again. And, in just four words, she completely upends the plot of the show.
“It wasn’t my fault.”
Read more: The making of The Handmaid’s Tale
So why is this such a big deal?
Firstly, in accepting the role of unofficial ‘godmother’ to June’s baby: Lydia has broken a sacred Gileadean rule. This much is underlined by her insistence that she isn’t to blame for her nephew’s death because, in Gilead, it’s always the woman’s fault. The many castes of women ensure the blame will usually always fall upon a woman – and Lydia literally beats this message into her charges whenever she has the chance. “My fault, my fault, my fault,” June said, as she temporarily lost her mind back in episode four. As devout as Lydia is, we imagine that she plays this same tune in her head every single day – which explains why she always blames herself for the “bad behaviour” of her Handmaids, even as she punishes them.
Lydia knows that it is forbidden she share details of her past with June: we know this, because she herself tells us this is the case. However, she goes on to tell the Handmaid about her nephew’s death – and immediately adds that it wasn’t her fault.
As one Redditor puts it, this is “the closest Lydia has come to saying ‘this is all bulls**t’ in her whole life. She dropped the mask for just one moment. She wasn’t telling June, she was telling it to herself.”
Does this mean that Lydia’s zealousness is atonement for something she knows, deep down inside, wasn’t her fault? Is her confession indicative of a change of heart? Quite possibly. However, there is another – far more viable – theory working its way around the internet.
When Aunt Lydia took June to the wall and forced her to look upon the mangled body of Omar, she asked her whose fault his death was. June, horrified, whispered “my fault” – but Lydia gently informed her that this did not have to be the case.
Eyes wide, she informed the Handmaid that it was June who had killed the drive, that it was June who had sinned, that it was June who deserved to be punished. Offred, however, had a chance at redemption. Offred could be a ‘good girl’, a valuable asset to society, a better person than June ever was.
Perhaps Lydia is, similarly, hiding behind her new identity?
In the original book, Margaret Atwood informs us that the Aunts’ names are “derived from commercial products available to women in the immediate pre-Gilead period, and thus familiar and reassuring to them.”
Think “the names of cosmetic lines, cake mixes [and] frozen desserts,” to name just a few examples.
This means that Lydia is not, in fact, the Aunt’s real name. Could it be that her former self, long before she found redemption in her new identity, was responsible for the death of her godson? That the guilt ate her up from the inside, driving her mad in the process? That Lydia only ever embraced Gilead and all of its ‘soul cleansing’ properties because it allowed her to separate herself from her past?
That, for Lydia, Gilead’s “babies first” policy is the ultimate cure-all to her overwhelming guilt?
“I am Aunt Lydia, Aunt Lydia is innocent,” she might tell herself on a daily basis. “Former Lydia is the guilty one.”
It is a theory which Dowd herself would no doubt approve of: the actress previously suggested that Lydia’s commitment to Gilead is born out of shame.
“Did she [Aunt Lydia] have so much shame that she just promised, ‘Listen, God, if you give me one more chance, I’ll never ever ever let you down,’” Dowd mused during an interview with The Wrap.
“And she just shut off all sides of her except devotion as a way of saying, ‘I’m sorry. It will never happen again.’”
So, to answer the question posed at the beginning of this review, Aunt Lydia definitely believes that she is a good person. Indeed, if you asked her, she’s doing exactly what this country needs, sacrificing and working hard to make the system work (babies, after all, are the most important resource).
However, if you asked her about the woman behind the brown coat… well, then you might get a very different response. And we wonder if this woman, this source of unending guilt and shame, might just be the ally that June needs.
Something to think about, eh?