'Handmaid's Tale' Season 3: Ann Dowd Explains Aunt Lydia's "Extreme Measures"

The Emmy-winning star speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about the traumatic beating in "God Bless the Child."
Elly Dassas/Hulu

[This story contains spoilers for season three, episode four of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, "God Bless the Child."]

In Gilead, faith is everything, flowing through the veins of survivors like June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss), but also powering the abusers in charge — like Ann Dowd's Aunt Lydia, for instance.

Both women find their faith at the heart of "God Bless the Child," the fourth episode of the Emmy-winning series, directed by Amma Asante and written by Eric Tuchman. The latest hour of the drama sees June, fresh from making major strides into the heart of the Martha network of resistance fighters, thinking back on her pre-Gilead life — specifically, the baptism of her baby Hannah several years ago. The memories mirror the modern circumstances surrounding a different child altogether: Angela, the infant daughter of handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer). Janine makes a public pitch to rejoin Angela's parents Warren and Naomi Putnam (Stephen Kunken and Ever Carradine) in their home as their handmaid, and it goes very poorly, thanks to a vicious beating from an unhinged Lydia. 

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Dowd says Lydia's breakdown was the culmination of recent events — specifically, her own beatdown at the hands of Emily (Alexis Bledel), right before the young woman escaped Gilead for Canada with June's baby Nicole in tow.

"It's a miracle to me she survived, given the extremity of the assault," Dowd says about her character. "It wasn't just shoving me down the stairs; there was a stabbing and a kicking, too. Physically, she probably should have stayed in bed for many, many months to recuperate, but she got up way too soon. She's physically vulnerable, and I think where she prides herself is an awareness on where each handmaid is in terms of their steadiness, how much more work do I need to do with them, which ones are not really on their game, who seems to be wandering from the path … but she missed the boat with Emily. I think she's very disappointed in herself. She's very embarrassed. How are the handmaids going to look at her now [after what happened with Emily], or the commanders, who maybe think she's not up to the job?"

"The other thing she never had to deal with before in her role as head aunt is an emotional fear," she continues, "things triggering her because of the intensity of the trauma of the attack. In other words, if she had not had that experience with Emily, she may have handled Janine very differently in that room. She's not afraid of those people in her normal state. She would have walked right over to Janine, put a firm hand around her waist, or would have said to another one of the handmaids, 'Give me a hand with Janine, we need to end this right now.' It never would have been such a scene."

After publicly beating Janine, Lydia excuses herself from the company of the commanders, their wives and all the other witnesses in attendance. Alone in a quiet corner of the Putnam household, Lydia cries to herself, overwhelmed with the enormity of her own actions. But if viewers read the moment as a crisis of faith — of Lydia questioning her own commitment to the ideals of Gilead — think again.

"She's still committed to what she signed up for," Dowd says, drilling deep into Lydia's perspective on the necessity of Gilead. "In her experience of the world before Gilead, as a teacher, seeing firsthand how youth was conducting itself in society — promiscuity, dreadful language, cursing, no respect for authority, no relationship to God, pollution, and most of all, the great gift of a baby and the lower birth rate — her take is that in order to right this very dangerous balance, she has to take extreme measures. She's not in it for the power. She's in this to get these girls to the right place so that their essential goodness, which God gave them, will come to the forefront and they will transform their lives from a wasteland into a meaningful and devoted life. That does not shift. I do think she's thrown off her game because of the fall, but it doesn't change her belief."

The incident with Janine at the Putnam house may not shake Lydia's faith — but another incident in the not too distant future? That may be another matter entirely.

Follow THR.com/HandmaidsTale for more season three coverage.