“Unfit” isn’t only The Handmaid’s Tale episode many fans have been waiting for, it’s the one they expected to be good. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) has long been one of the most complex characters of the series and unlike Serena, her backstory has never been explored beyond hints dropped here and there. In the episode “Unfit,” Aunt Lydia finally gets a story of her own, but not exactly her due.
Nor does anyone else for that matter. The other Handmaids are openly punishing Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop) after the pain she caused June (Elisabeth Moss) last episode, physically jostling her, spitting in her drink, with only Janine (Madeline Brewer) protesting. If it seems unlikely behavior in the midst of a tense environment that now includes regular hangings and silenced Handmaids, at least there are recognizable consequences, with Aunt Lydia leading them all in condemning June while she goes for the jugular herself and tells June just how much her daughter, “Agnes,” suffered because of her actions.
“Unfit” also sees June going to a much darker place than she’s ever been, far darker than her mental break last season, which culminated in a hospital stay. And it begins with June revealing to Aunt Lydia that there was a time span, if only for a second or two, that Ofmatthew didn’t want the baby she’s now carrying. In Gilead, there’s no greater sin than not wanting a child, so Ofmatthew is also blamed and shamed. And unlike June’s shaming, there’s real pleasure taken in it.
Flashbacks to just how Aunt Lydia came to this reveal her previous life and profession as a teacher, and her friendship with single mother Noelle (Emily Althaus) and her son Ryan (Ian Ho). Lydia was already a devout Christian who was firmly committed to helping the children under her care, staying late one night with Ryan to wait for his mother to pick him up, then inviting them both over to her home. She was also less judgmental, because she still is able to befriend Noelle even after she learns of her frequent relationships with various men, one of whom is married.
While the roots of Lydia’s future are clear, it’s hard to see exactly how they took hold in the first place, since she seemed close to finding real love with one of her colleagues, also a devout Christian. They connect at a New Year’s party, but once they head to her place, he says it’s simply too soon for him. Right after, Lydia is smashing mirrors, putting her hair up in a severe bun, and reporting Noelle to the authorities, leading her son to be removed from her care. This also costs her the relationship which was clearly on its way to the next stage.
As an explanation for just how Lydia became Aunt Lydia, it makes little sense on most levels. She clearly was unable to find happiness in the expectations for women before Gilead, also mentioning a marriage that was a mistake. She simply took refuge in a system that would reward her for a narrow worldview and an unwavering support for its rules. But she was also on a path to happiness, so why would a rejection that nevertheless held the promise of more very suddenly become a catalyst for Lydia’s extremism? There’s far more insight in the present scenes with other Aunts, which also showcases the process behind Handmaid assignments, not to mention the show’s first acknowledgment of race when Lydia offhandedly mentions a couple “don’t want a Handmaid of color.”
Similarly, Ofmatthew’s breakdown could’ve been a spectacular moment, much like Emily’s (Alexis Bledel) spontaneous decision to steal a car and run over a Guardian. It felt momentous, though not necessarily because of the act itself, which probably didn’t cause much of an effect on Gilead in the long run. We felt something because we had gotten to know and care about Emily, who is still one of the show’s most compelling characters. Ofmatthew’s big moment feels hollow because we don’t know her. She’s gone back and forth not due to development, but whatever plot twist was needed. Her mental disintegration is merely another big display without the emotional underpinning as support.
It means something more for June, who has descended so deeply that she enjoys the violence, whether it’s against Gilead’s villains, victims, or more horrifically, herself. Moss may come to the rescue yet again, but The Handmaid’s Tale has needed saving so often it’s starting to feel less worthy of the effort.