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Spoilers below for The Handmaid's Tale Season 1, so be warned if you haven't watched through the recently released finale.
With more TV shows than ever currently vying for everyone's attention, there are also almost necessarily more TV characters than ever for viewers to grow to love or hate, and it takes more than ever to stand out in the crowd. But standing out is something that the phenomenal Handmaid's Tale star Ann Dowd does so well, especially when the crowd is all wearing the same wings and capes. Speaking with CinemaBlend about the stellar drama's recently wrapped first season, the actress explained to me why Aunt Lydia is the way she is, and why it doesn't read as villainous.
I think she's a believer. I think the Bible is her nightly read. This, what she's doing in Gilead, is from her perspective making sure these girls survive and that they contribute something to this world, and that God has chosen them and kept them fertile. And my job is to make sure they get what is expected of them. Because if they don't, they're not gonna survive. I think she loves them. I think that's her whole take on life is "how can I prepare these girls for the life they're going to live, and the life they will have in the afterlife in heaven?" I think she goes straight there, and she feels as if she's their shepherd. That takes the villain out of her, to me. Do I think the way Lydia thinks? Certainly not, but I can embrace her effort to improve the lives of these young maidens.
Easily one of Hulu's best original series right out the gate, The Handmaid's Tale takes on some of the most socially and morally reprehensible acts and plays out both sides of the coin, though obviously painting the Waterfords and other privileged characters in harsher lights than the ones that shine on Offred, Moira and the other Handmaids. And towering above is Aunt Lydia, whose no-nonsense approach to discipline in the Red Center immediately marks her as an evil scourge, though it's a distinction that appears to get watered down with time, as her successes with formulating and cementing the Handmaid cycle have seemingly placated her. But through it all, Lydia's faith runs as strong as a river, not allowing her to see all the damage being caused.
When Ann Dowd gave me that answer during our talk, something clicked in my head, and I could more easily understand why Aunt Lydia was capable of doing all this heinous shit to a group of people that she continually expressed love for. Perhaps the only way the religiously driven Lydia could possibly justify all of the Handmaid's physical torture and trauma is not by focusing on the future of humanity on Earth, but the future of the girls' souls in Heaven (or wherever).
When I expressed my joy in discovering Lydia's afterlife motivations, Ann Dowd was almost as surprised and intrigued as I was. Here's how she put it, while gloriously dipping in and out of her Lydia voice.
It's very interesting. You know, I've never said that. It never came to me until just thinking then, about the afterlife. But of course that's part of it. You know, you can go to purgatory for 50 years -- for 50,000 years, girls! Not to mention hell. There's a quicker route here, and redeeming your ways and seeing the light. And whatever I have to do to make you see the light is what I'm going to do. . . . But after she [takes Janine's eye], I think she takes a sincere position as caretaker, even it's from a distance. Keeping an eye on the stability of those girls who have been damaged and making sure that she can step in and say, 'Come on now. If you do this, this will happen. Come on now, you can do it.'
Lydia is at the heart of a strange juxtaposition during The Handmaid's Tale Season 1, as the woman we see standing agog at Offred dropping her stone is not at all the same woman who brutally disciplined Janine years earlier. That said, it's not hard to grasp that removing herself from such in-your-face situations could lead to a desensitization and acceptance that would have been harder to achieve if she was still the one dealing out physical punishments. It isn't a hero's journey by any stretch, but the road to redemption has to start somewhere. Not that she'll definitely take it.
It's not clear where things will go in Season 2, since the TV series wrapped up right where Margaret Atwood's modern classic novel left off. But we're betting that Aunt Lydia either starts to crack and regains her moral foundation, or she accepts that small defeat and plans an ever more devastating form of revenge. Whichever way it goes, Ann Dowd is going to deliver the powerhouse performances we've come to know and love.
The entire first season of The Handmaid's Tale is currently available to stream on Hulu, and as I'm sure you're all aware, this one needs to be viewed with immediacy. When you're done watching and speculating about Season 2, you can head to our summer premiere schedule to see all the new and returning shows hitting the airwaves soon. And to see what other cable and streaming shows have been renewed or cancelled, head to our big rundown.