'The Handmaid's Tale' Star Ann Dowd Explores Aunt Lydia's Season 5 Journey to Change Gilead

'The walls crumble and she has doubt, and doubt is the gateway to the truth,' the actor tells Metacritic.
by Danielle Turchiano — 

Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia in 'The Handmaid's Tale'


Warning: This story contains spoilers for the sixth episode of The Handmaid's Tale Season 5, titled "Together," . Read at your own risk!

The wool has officially been pulled off Aunt Lydia's eyes.

Once a staunch proponent of Gilead's ways in The Handmaid's Tale because she believed them to be following God's will, the cog in their machine saw the error of her ways, first because her beloved Janine (Madeline Brewer) was almost killed at the hands of another handmaid (Esther, played by Mckenna Grace), and then because she learned that Esther had been raped by her commander.

Lydia (Ann Dowd) was genuinely shocked to learn this latter fact, which resulted in a pregnancy. Pregnancies and new life in general are what Gilead is supposed to be doing everything for, since the infertility rate of the world fell so low, but because of the way this one came about, not even Lydia can celebrate. Suddenly she starts to learn (or finally be willing to acknowledge) the evil truths behind all of the rules Gilead imparts. And she's out for change. And maybe even her own kind of justice?

"I think she will do whatever she can do, but she's only in the awareness stage now, coming to see what is really the truth about Gilead and what she's been supporting all these years. That's incredibly scary," Dowd tells Metacritic. "There are moments in the day, perhaps when she's praying, when she has the confidence, and then that parts of the day she says, 'What am I thinking?' I think she meant what she said to God, 'I will change' — I think she is profoundly committed to having the world at Gilead change — but it's not the kind of thing that happens overnight."

Lydia's first idea is to impart a new handmaid system wherein the young women spend the majority of their time under her care at the Red Center, rather than living in homes with commanders and their wives. This is swiftly shut down by Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), leaving Lydia to take matters into her own hands and ask Janine to work with her in secret to make sure the women are doing OK. But now that she understands the depths of the dangers in the homes for the women, she may have to make bigger and faster moves.

Here, Dowd talks to Metacritic about the turning point in Lydia's journey, how she'll continue to fight for change, and what kind of success to expect her to have.

If the audience has read The Testaments, the followup novel to The Handmaid's Tale, they know at some point Lydia starts to do things differently within Gilead. Earlier this season, after Janine was almost killed, she proposed as much to Commander Lawrence. Now that she received more terrible news — that Esther was raped — do you feel there is a different turning point for her between when she says things have gone too far and when she will try to force real governmental change?

To be honest with you, I think it began in Season 1 but was so subtle and unconscious for her that it would not have occurred to her that things were shifting. It was, as I say, subtle and quiet, and I think you have to be very in tune with your gut in order to really hear that voice of, "What are you doing?" And as we get to know her, we see her past and we see that she was essentially raised on shame and anything around sex is the Antichrist. So I would say that I it was clear in Season 1 that this woman is traveling down an alleyway, which is very, very narrow: the walls are strong and tall. Her belief in God is real, and thinking the world is falling apart and these girls are living a reckless life without any relationship to God ,without any respect for the Earth, she she signs on to this world of Gilead with full commitment. I think what begins to happen for her is she starts to attach to these girls — that is to say, beginnings of love come in to the story. I think holding on those walls and keeping them strong becomes harder and harder when love comes into the picture.

When she takes Janine's eye, I think she regrets it deeply. I think she reacted emotionally to this girl who keeps saying, "F---," who would have known better. I think Lydia snaps; it's of those days when she's not in control of her temper, which I think is very important to her to not react emotionally. These girls are messed up and we know that. When she goes too far with Janine, she feels responsible and watches over her as the seasons move forward and of course, over time, she she comes to love Janine. And when Janine almost dies, she realizes, "This is my child and I will do anything — anything — to keep her alive, and God please, I will change my ways."

And then she realizes Esther got pregnant in that room with that creep commander.

This is hardly the first time a handmaid has been raped outside of the ceremony, though. What do you feel like changed for Lydia to now finally understand what that means and why it's so terrible?

I don't think Lydia realized that they were raping. She doesn't think that the ceremony everyone month is rape. But that they go outside of it and that he did that in that room to her — I knew I shouldn't leave and he knew I shouldn't leave, but that's what happened. I think that turns her in the most profound way.

Her job that she signed up for was to protect them, but you can keep those blinders going as long as it serves you — meaning Lydia. Now, the walls crumble and she has doubt, and doubt is the gateway to the truth. You say, "What have I been doing?" And if you're going to travel that path and not shut it down, she's coming to know who she is and what is really going on.

Lawrence has been so reluctant to work with Lydia thus far. Has anything changed now?

What gets them into trouble, of course, is the pregnancy of Esther and the clarity of when it happened. And also, he wants something, and Lydia knows this: He wants Putnam out of the way because Putnam is in the way of what he wants to have happen. "You didn't just have him on the wall, Mr. Lawrence, because you thought he should be punished for raping this handmaid. You can hide behind it all you want, but guess what? I'm seeing it." They can play this game, and she will play it very well because she has no choice; men are in charge.

So, they come to a place where he needs her and she needs him. So, they have this pretend relationship. Lydia is no fool; she's watching now, hugely alert and aware, and she's going to write it down. And she's gonna take her time — she has patience — because that's the only way. To me it's a remarkable journey. I'm also proud of her.

As much as Lydia railed against Esther for trying to kill herself and Janine, she did find compassion for her when she learned she was raped. She told the handmaids Putnam's death was justice, but is it enough?

I would have sent him to the Colonies. If you just shoot him, OK, but what I want you to do is go away to the Colonies, suffer the way all of those people are suffering. So no, I don't think so.

Would you say then that Lydia doesn't want to just change the handmaid system, but rather the Gileadian system overall?

I think it's in the early stages for her. She's coming to know herself for the first time really because those walls are coming down and it's like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, what have I been doing?" Her allowing Janine to affect her, to let the handmaids work alone and not watch them 24/7, it's a huge change, really.

While we'd never wish Gilead on anyone, it does seem like Lydia is finally becoming a better person here, and I don't know if she would have had that growth if she had just continued living her regular life. I think back to what she did to that single mother when she was a teacher, for example, and then I look at the compassion she's finding now. How do you feel about that?

I think almost losing Janine was a huge gift in the way of growth for her. In Compliance, which I did a few years ago, it's based on a real story of this creep who says he's a detective on the phone with her convinces her to do certain things that end with sexual assault. I watched the actual woman [it is based on] in an interview, and she sat there and said, "You would have done the same thing. You would have believed it." She just was in profound denial. There's a profound denial based on what, fear? Blah blah. So, when you're confronted with who you have been and who you really are, you can put the walls up higher, which the woman in Compliance did, or you can let it shatter. Your life ends as you know it, and you realize you can start over. I think Lydia's in the latter category.

The Handmaid's Tale Season 5 streams new episodes Wednesdays 


Get to know Ann Dowd:
Dowd won an Emmy for her performance on The Handmaid's Tale (Metascore: 81), but she was also nominated for her performance on The Leftovers (76) in that same year (2017). An acclaimed actor across film, television, and theater, Dowd is also known for work in Olive Kitteridge (89), Masters of Sex (83), Hereditary (87), and Mass (81).