'Handmaid's Tale' Season 3 Episode 8 Spoilers: Aunt Lydia's Backstory Fails
Aunt Lydia’s backstory was finally revealed in Season 3, Episode 8 of The Handmaid’s Tale, but the jury’s still out on what that will mean (if anything) for the remainder of the season. While there was definitely a lot of intriguing plot points to mull over, none of them were necessarily important to the overall story and proved that one episode dedicated to exploring Aunt Lydia’s history simply wasn’t enough to be satisfying.
Fittingly titled “Unfit,” Season 3, Episode 8 expanded upon the long-awaited backstory of Aunt Lydia. Though she was never a particularly mysterious character, others, like Serena Joy and Emily, had a couple of episodes devoted to their pre-Gilead lives. And so it seemed fitting that Aunt Lydia should get one too, especially after three seasons.
Her background working as a teacher and in family law provided a clearer picture of her worldview, even though the events leading up to her final actions made less sense. Known previously as Lydia Clements, it’s easy to see the hints in her story that ultimately made her into the Aunt Lydia we know now, but the progress was surface-level at best and wasn’t sufficiently developed for it to be earned.
Early on in Episode 8, Aunt Lydia admits that she was married, but that “it was a mistake”. The episode sets up the idea that she’s relatively lonely, with no family or friends to speak of and no love life either. Her focus is on educating the children in her class and ensuring their welfare and safety. If that means reporting the “moral inadequacies” of Noelle, a mother to one of her students, to what is presumably Child Protective Services (privatized in a pre-Gilead world), then so be it.
However, the episode doesn’t explore any of the main reasons for her beliefs. Instead, it leans on the notion that her rejection by Principal Jim Thorpe (Jim Ortiz) ultimately drives her to sell out Noelle, who Lydia’s befriended despite their differing values. Principal Thorpe revealed he’s widowed, and his not being ready to jump into a relationship with Aunt Lydia made for a strange turning point (or villain origin story) in her arc. The change in demeanor is then immediately represented by way of an updo hairstyle, which is the same one she’s been donning as an Aunt since Season 1.
“Unfit” cuts corners to explain Aunt Lydia’s story and align it with her Gilead persona, but it isn’t enough to be satisfying or paint a detailed picture of her mindset. An example is when Ryan, the student she’s seemingly sworn to protect against the actions of his own mother, calls her “Aunt” Lydia instead of Ms. Clements, as one would usually address a teacher. This seems to be the origin of the title assigned to her in Gilead, but it isn’t made clear whether she’s the one who suggested it because of Ryan or if it happened under wholly different circumstances.
Perhaps it’s that Aunt Lydia has been an antagonist for three seasons that the idea of her having had a life pre-Gilead is difficult to grasp. Either way, her storyline definitely deserved more time than the episode allotted.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 airs Wednesdays on Hulu.