‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Recap: Aunt Lydia's Backstory Is A Lesson On The Horrifying Power Of Shame
Previously, on The Handmaid’s Tale: June’s increasingly reckless attempts to make contact with Hannah were scuppered by Ofmatthew and Aunt Lydia. Here’s my recap for episode 7 if you missed it!
This week: we finally discover more about Aunt Lydia’s backstory and how the Aunts operate; June becomes a bully; Ofmatthew is pushed to her limits; and we all ponder the big, terrifying question: are we all just one bad date away from becoming Aunt Lydia? Spoilers ahead for episode 8!
I’m going to start this recap with a bit of Shakespeare:
“Where the offence is, let the great axe fall.”
Claudius’s line above, from Hamlet, wasn’t far from my mind during the ‘present day’ parts of episode 8. Sure, Claudius was deflecting and using the line ironically. But I wish June had remembered it anyway, because she’s targeting the wrong person this week, and it’s not a good look for her. She would do well to remember what Emily said back in season 1; Gilead excels at turning women against each other. Gilead, the system, is the enemy, but as a foe it’s hard to hit. “Gilead is within you”; it is an idea, an abstract concept. It’s hard to fight an idea. It’s much easier to fight people. Sometimes that’s OK; after all, Gilead is the product of individuals and the choices they make. But which people do you choose to fight? Some individuals within that system have more choices and can make more significant decisions. But everyone has a role to play, and decisions — however minor — are made at all levels. Some of these decisions affect the lives of others. In a world like Gilead, which strips away consent and weaponises complicity, any individual choice is a powerful thing. Where the offence is, let the great axe fall. Who do the handmaids choose to blame?
By shunning Ofmatthew, the handmaids turn into mean girls. June blames Ofmatthew for the death of Frances the Martha and the subsequent loss of Hannah. It’s a strange moment when you find yourself siding with Janine over June, but she sees the other handmaids’ treatment of Ofmatthew as cruel and it’s hard to disagree. Ofmatthew is one of the “pious little shit” handmaids, but there have been flickers of vulnerability from her, and rather than work on her, June practically abandoned her. Ofmatthew is a victim of Gilead too. She is not an instigator or an oppressor. She didn’t kill Frances. Book Janine was renowned for being a bit of a squeal and she never faced this sort of treatment. It’s punching down, which is the only ‘safe’ direction to punch in Gilead, but that doesn’t make it right. They can’t bully Aunt Lydia, so they bully Ofmatthew instead. It’s not a shining indictment of human nature.
But that is where we are at this week, focusing on the horrors that arise from the same human emotion: shame. June, Ofmatthew and Lydia all feel it, and it takes them all to a dark place. June lashes out, Ofmatthew breaks, and Lydia becomes Aunt Lydia.
June’s shame is exposed during the emergency Testifying session. It was her own recklessness that started everything last week, and Aunt Lydia knows how to use that against her. June’s recklessness led to Frances’s death, which will have made Hannah’s life colder and sadder. This is massively unfair of course, but it’s also still true. She didn’t put Frances on the gallows directly — Aunt Lydia did — but her actions set it in motion. Her hands were also on the rope. What happens when people are ashamed and in pain? They deflect. And so, a squeal for a squeal. We have seen Ofmatthew’s piety slip a couple of times, always when thinking about her babies, and June ruthlessly throws her under the bus: “Ofmatthew doesn’t want her baby.” And just like that, Ofmatthew is in the hot seat.
This was also cruel. Ofmatthew betrayed June because she thought she was helping her. June does this deliberately to cause pain. Last week, Ofmatthew desperately tried to claim that she doesn’t have “any thoughts” but June knew she was lying. She smirks when Ofmatthew admits she is worried about her pregnancy, and the other handmaids join in the chanting with glee. Crybaby, crybaby, crybaby.
Ofmatthew is isolated in the same way that all the handmaids are, but at least they have each other. She has no-one. As a (mostly) true believer, she is ashamed of the thoughts she tried to deny ever having. The handmaid solidarity shown at Ofandy’s birth scenes won’t extend to her. There will be no group hug. She has lost so many babies to Gilead already, and now faces giving away another, with only Janine to show her any kindness. Spying for Aunt Lydia didn’t buy her any favours. As she walks through the snow, without an umbrella, to go shopping, she must face them all again, knowing they hate her, knowing they blame her. And she feels it too. June may never see Hannah again. Ofmatthew is a mother; she knows that loss. She has faced it more times than June. And so, shame comes to claim her too.
Like June, she lashes out, but with Ofmatthew, it’s wild and desperate rather than tactical and cruel. Her shame is internalised, and it breaks her from within. She beats poor Janine, takes out a Guardian and then frantically waves around his gun. Who will she target? Who does she blame? For a moment, it’s June, her bully. But with a smile and a nod, June gives her a new target: Aunt Lydia. Where the offence is, let the great axe fall. Is she just trying to prove her loyalty to the handmaids, to placate her bullies? Or is she trying to break the system? If so, does she have a better grasp of who to blame than June? Either way, she is stopped in her tracks by a bullet. As she is dragged from the store, June clearly couldn’t care less. When ‘Que Sera Sera’ kicks in, June’s nonchalant expression suggests more ‘whatever’ than “whatever will be will be.” Aunt Lydia is far more upset, though that is likely to be out of concern for the baby rather than for Ofmatthew. It’s worth noting that in those last tense seconds, she called her by her real name, Natalie, which might be the only time in recent memory that anyone treated her like a human being.
In the present then, shame is destructive. Where this takes an even more significant turn is in the flashbacks, which were an absolute delight because of the sheer power of Ann Dowd. Her performance this week was a masterclass in nuance, in finding the humanity in a character that could easily be a pantomime villain with less interesting writing and a less accomplished actor.
Pre-Gilead, Lydia is a schoolteacher. She is warm. She smiles. She is respected and admired. When a potential crisis looms, she has a choice to make: should she be kind, or should she take punitive action? She chooses kindness. One of her students, Ryan, is being raised by Noelle, a single parent. They are struggling. In a world where any possible parental ‘deficiency’ can be sufficient cause to call in child services, as we saw when June was criticized for sending Hannah to school when she was unwell, Lydia takes a different approach, befriending the young family, feeding them and supporting them. They become close. They spend Christmas together. Ryan calls her Aunt Lydia. Noelle encourages her to date and to find happiness again after her failed marriage.
There were flashes of present-day Aunt Lydia, but on their own, these weren’t entirely worrying. She was judgemental and critical of Noelle’s choices in language and sexual partners. She quoted the Bible, but focused on passages to do with charity, not fire and brimstone. She used to work in family law, and thought the field improved when it was privatised, because it was able to ‘help’ more children. I’m inferring that ‘help’ here means remove more children from their homes, because when you turn human life into a business, the more people you process, the more you get paid, right? But even then, she stuck to her choice: kindness. Her last name, Clements, suggests mercy and leniency, and she lives up to it.
But shame comes for her as well, and for Lydia Clements, shame comes from desire. Under Noelle’s influence, she goes on a date with Principal Jim. It goes well for a long time! There’s chat, flirting, sequins, karaoke, slow dancing… They head back to her place, and there’s kissing with intent. Then suddenly, it is over; Principal Jim isn’t ready for That Sort Of Thing, and Lydia is mortified. Principal Jim scarpers and Lydia is left with her shame, which burns savagely. Suddenly, she feels like a sinner. In the present day, she asks, during Testifying, “Whose fault is it?” You can practically see those cogs whirring in her mind in the flashback. Whose fault is it that you feel this way? Evidently, she lands, unfairly and brutally, on Noelle. Her fault, her fault, her fault… Influence is a two-way street, after all. Whose idea was this? Who else behaves like this? Is she a good person?
By blaming someone else, she can externalize this shame and excise it. To banish it forever, all she has to do is make a different choice. And so, she reports Noelle to child services, and Ryan is removed from her care. By punishing Noelle, she is punishing the part of herself that acted under Noelle’s influence, and the transformation is immediate; suddenly, her hair is pulled back, and she’s wearing a cardigan reminiscent of the khaki-green uniform of the Aunts. She’s wringing her hands with discomfort, but she’s on the path to Aunthood. She feels that what happened between her and Jim was mortifying because it was wrong. And even though it pains her to hurt Noelle and Ryan, she has to believe she’s right, because that’s the only way she can rationalise her shame.
And like that, Aunt Lydia happened. Just in time for Gilead.
Wait, hold on. She claps on the 1 and the 3? I take it back. She was always a monster.
Callbacks and References
Do you remember Aunt Lydia’s Red Center lectures about ‘sluts’? Don’t those feel different now?
How about the time when handmaids were so determined to stick up for each other that they risked everything NOT to hurt Janine?
The pre-Gilead world — Gilead-Adjacent, if you will — has really weaponised Safeguarding and Mandatory Reporting processes, huh?
It was interesting to see the Aunts at work, pairing up handmaids with elite households like some sort of hideous matchmaking service. Also, hi there, world’s most pointless lazy susan!
And hi there to you, Gileadean racism! Haven’t seen you for a while! Some of the local households don’t want a handmaid of colour, and even though Aunt Lydia disapproves of this attitude, she still accommodates it.
The Aunts are very suspicious of the Lawrences… It is almost comical how Aunt Lydia blames the Lawrences for Emily getting all homicidal, rather than recognising anything she did to contribute to that situation. Whose fault was it?
June spent most of the episode set apart from the rest of the handmaids. She’s barely playing along to survive any more. Although she thinks (rather foolishly) that being part of an international PR campaign grants her immunity from harm, this won’t last forever, and she’s playing with fire.
Back in Season 2, we heard about Aunt Lydia’s nephew and godson. He died after four days. “It wasn’t my fault,” she said. Episode 8 made me think of this twice — once when Ofandy’s baby was stillborn, and again when Ryan called her Aunt Lydia. How much that must have meant to her… And yet, she caused Ryan pain. She made his life colder, which is what she accused June of doing to Hannah. Was that your fault, Lydia?
It is a bold choice making June so unsympathetic this week, and even though it’s infuriating, I think it works. If the villains can be sympathetic at times, it’s interesting to flip that around. I just hope she snaps out of it soon. It’s hard when you can’t root for someone…
It’s also interesting to compare Lydia’s backstory with Serena’s. Serena was always a bitch; Lydia, not so much. Huh. Damn your brilliance, Ann Dowd.
Until next time: Don your sequins, fire up the karaoke machine and let’s sing along to ‘Islands in the Stream’! For the love of Dolly, clap on the 2 and the 4 though, or I will flag you as a psychopath. Oh no, I bet Aunt Lydia does Greased Lightning arms the wrong way as well…
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