The Handmaid's Tale season 4, episode 9 spoilers follow.
As inevitable as it was, June's escape has shaken The Handmaid's Tale to its core. And it's not just her story that's changed in season four either. All of Gilead is reeling from the aftermath of June's getaway, although perhaps no one has been impacted by it more than Aunt Lydia.
Actor Ann Dowd herself points out (via Elle) that what June did is Lydia's all-time worst-case scenario:
"She holds herself responsible. So do the commanders. She knew something was happening. She knew it. And she did not follow it to its core. And June, whom she has a tremendously complicated relationship with, pulled it off. So there's that personal factor where she's being tough on herself because she knows all of that, and also desperate to prove that, 'No, no, no, I'm not irrelevant.'"
That "tremendously complicated relationship" has complicated things for Lydia too, even though June is no longer in her grasp. In fact, it's safe to say that Dowd's character is unravelling, and as fans of the source material are already aware, this could prove to be Gilead's undoing.
If we're being honest, Lydia has never really been of a sound mind, but in the most recent episodes of season four, she's definitely struggled more than usual to retain her composure.
Following June's "betrayal", Lydia got a bit trigger-happy with her taser and ended up sizzling a fellow Aunt. But then, just after Lawrence warned her that things could get ugly, Lydia found hope again when Janine reappeared in Gilead, alive but not exactly well.
Janine is perhaps the only person who means even more to Lydia than June did. And despite all the horrific abuse that she's put Janine through, she and Lydia still share a special bond, like mother and daughter (if the mother plucked out her daughter's eye for "bad behaviour").
When Janine begs to be freed from life as a Handmaid, Lydia lets out a few tears in a surprisingly human moment for the odious Aunt. Does this mean that Lydia has begun to see the cracks in Gilead's supposedly flawless system?
In episode nine, we hear that Lydia has gone "soft" on Janine, or at least as soft as an Aunt can be. While the other Aunts push for her to be sent away, Lydia stops Janine from ending up at a breeding colony, despite her rebellious past. And Lydia also listens when Janine suggests a new way of breaking down Esther's own disobedient streak.
When the other Aunts see that Lydia's plan has worked, Lydia herself takes great pride in proving them wrong. June betrayed her, but Janine has pulled through in ways that reaffirm her trust isn't misplaced entirely.
For now, this means that Lydia's faith in the entire system has also been reaffirmed to some degree... but when you know exactly where this story is leading, it's easy to see how The Handmaid's Tale is planting seeds for Gilead's downfall, and perhaps even the end of the show as a whole.
The Testaments, a sequel published by Margaret Atwood in 2019, takes place just a few years after the first book and explores the impact of June's legacy. Without spoiling too much, the story reveals that Aunt Lydia plays a crucial role in bringing down Gilead once and for all.
For a long time, this future version of Dowd's character has been difficult to reconcile with the one we see on screen, but now that Lydia's humanity is starting to come through, it's becoming more and more likely that the show is indeed building towards the endgame that we see play out in The Testaments.
How that's going to work exactly remains unclear though because an adaptation has already been signed by MGM Television and Hulu, which means that this could become a separate series entirely.
When asked if Lydia does indeed have doubts about Gilead, Dowd said: "I do think Lydia is questioning, though she's a long way from admitting it, What do I believe? Do I really believe this? And what's surfacing along with that, with regard to Janine, is 'I love this person, my little girl, she's precious to me and I made a mistake with her.' She acted too harshly, she took Janine's eye out, and I think she feels enormous regret about that."
If these doubts eventually lead to Gilead's end, what does that mean for the future of The Handmaid's Tale? June's escape has shifted the show away from violence and torture porn, reframing her story into an examination of trauma and what it's like to carry on living once you're finally free of that torture. Because of this, Gilead is no longer as present as it once was, even if its impact is still felt in every single frame.
Between June's getaway and Gilead's impending doom, it feels like The Handmaid's Tale is winding down, and that seems especially likely if The Testaments is indeed adapted within the framework of a new series. Showrunner Bruce Miller once said that The Handmaid's Tale will "keep going" as long as Elisabeth Moss remains involved, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will keep going much longer.
"I mean, we talked about it, and [Elisabeth Moss] and I have talked about it, and the writing staff and I have talked about it extensively about where we're going precisely, but I do feel like after this year, it's a good time to reassess."
Until we hear more, keep a close eye on Aunt Lydia, because if we're right, her trajectory is intrinsically connected to the show's future and Gilead itself.
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