Warning: "Handmaid’s Tale" season 3, episode 8 spoilers ahead.
"The Handmaid’s Tale" fans will get a glimpse into Aunt Lydia’s life pre-Gilead for the first time this season and actress Ann Dowd says it’ll change the perception of her character.
The time-jumping dystopian series has given us plenty of flashbacks in its previous two seasons on Hulu, but little has been revealed about what life was like for the often-cold Aunt Lydia — until now. The eighth episode of season 3 will devote an extensive amount of screentime to the keeper of the handmaids’ past, series EP Warren Littlefield says.
"It’s something fans have been waiting for: an Aunt Lydia flashback. We spend quite a lot of time. It’s a lengthy sequence," Littlefield teases.
Interest in the twisted mind of Aunt Lydia has only grown after the second season finale scene which saw her being tossed down the steps and stabbed by Emily (Alexis Bledel). Her fate was left unknown for months, and her season 3 return was met with mixed response from fans. Some on social media wrote they’d "never been so excited" to see Aunt Lydia, while others said their "hearts sank."
In the early episodes of season 3, Lydia appears to unravel as she returns to her post at the Red Center in a fragile state, both physically and emotionally.
"Aunt Lydia feels like she needs to assert herself. She’s back. And, no one’s quite ready for that," Littlefield says. "The incredible Ann Dowd delivers her strength and intensity with this sense that makes us want to understand what’s going on with Aunt Lydia."
Dowd, who won an Emmy for her role in 2017, says her character’s flashback episode will help fans better understand the troubled Lydia, who’s tortured and brutalized handmaids.
"That’s the hope, isn’t it? When we see why or where a person hurts, things change, don’t they?" Dowd says.
The upcoming episode will reveal that before Gilead, Lydia was employed as a schoolteacher — a role she carried over into Gilead by grooming new captures for lives as prisoners under the regime. Lydia, one of her students and his single mother are the focus of the flashback.
"I can tell you without exaggeration it was eight of the finest days of my life," Dowd says of filming the sequence. "If I talk, I’m going to cry. You see what could have been. The writers chose a beautiful way in. It’s not everything, of course, but it just says, if only shame did not rule her life, what could have been. I’m so grateful."
As a mother of three children, Dowd says she’s experienced firsthand how one’s perspective can change when the time is taken to explain the source of pain.
"My oldest is on the autistic spectrum and when he was a little boy on the playground, sometimes it was a nightmare because if somebody bumped into him, he absolutely said, ‘you have to say you’re sorry’ and launch at them," Dowd says of her son, Liam, who’s now 26.
She continues: "I remember a grandmother coming over to me and saying I have never seen a boy treat another child with such venom and she flipped out, furious. I understood why. I said I just want you to understand he’s a child with disabilities and he cannot manage. He doesn’t know. She said ‘I’m terribly sorry,’ right away. She did it on a dime. I wanted to hug her, but I didn’t. But, she saw him."
Littlefield says the episode is "just the beginning of a glimpse of her past," and may even serve as an indication of what’s to come for her storyline.
"I think the Aunt Lydia fan base is going to go crazy for that," he says.
"I’m so excited," Dowd adds.
The episode isn’t expected to fully explain what led Lydia to her Gilead post, but it can help fans fill in some gaps. In the regime, she holds one of the highest working posts and ensures "her girls" are successful by conceiving. Aunts are often women who are past childbearing age, and are strict followers and enforcers of the teachings of Gilead.
To date, Aunt Lydia has been behind a handful of the series’ most disturbing moments, including the shaming "it’s her fault" Red Center training sequence with Janine (Madeline Brewer), the stonings, the mutilation of Emily and the second season’s Fenway Park mass hanging stunt. Dowd insists Lydia has a complicated relationship with the handmaids, and that her disciplinary actions are all carried out with a twisted sense of love.