Spoilers ahead for The Handmaid’s Tale: Season 3, Episode 8: “Unfit”
Since the start of The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) has been one of the more compelling characters in the Hulu series due to her cruel, yet pious nature — and the simmering satisfaction she seems to derive from the torture and murder of the young handmaids. Of course, what makes her compelling is the fact that she does this as a woman. While it’s not so much of a stretch to understand the motivations behind the male elite of Gilead — or even their wealthy female counterparts for that matter — Aunt Lydia’s motives seem much more complicated.
As such, viewers have long since been anticipating the character’s backstory, which we finally learned in this week’s “Unfit.”
Pre-Gilead, Lydia Clements worked as an elementary school teacher, after having quit a job working in family law. It’s here that she observes one of her students named Ryan seemingly being neglected by his mother, Noelle (Emily Althaus, Orange is the New Black), who fails to pick her son up on time or provide him with healthy meals outside of potato chips and fast food. Sensing the young mother’s dilemma, Lydia takes the struggling family under her wing — despite the fact that Noelle’s promiscuous lifestyle seems to conflict with her deep-seeded religious beliefs.
Noelle and Ryan later wind up spending Christmas at Aunt Lydia’s home, where they gift her a makeup set that Noelle got on employee discount at her job. With the encouragement to put herself out there, Lydia goes on a New Year’s Eve date with the school’s principal, Jim (John Ortiz, Togetherness), on whom she had apparently been fostering a secret crush. Things go well — adorably so — until they go back to Lydia’s home, where they kiss and she makes a move to have sex with him.
Having just lost his wife three years prior and only just coming around to the idea of dating again, Jim freaks out and asks if they can slow things down. Lydia, on the other hand, takes this as a flat-out rejection and proceeds to have a meltdown as soon as he leaves. In a misguided retaliation, Lydia then goes on to report Noelle to child protective services, who remove Ryan from her care and put him in a foster home — as Jim looks on, horrified.