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'The Handmaid's Tale': How Aunt Lydia's back story came together

Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

SHERMAN OAKS, Calif. -- "I really like the fact that it's a weakest link episode," Bruce Miller says. He's addressing "The Handmaid's Tale" writers inside their Sherman Oaks offices on a weekday in late November.

"It's like, you pull on the chain and the weakest link breaks and it isn't who you think it's going to be," Miller continues.

It's just after 10 a.m., and the team is working on the eighth episode of the current season. Titled "Unfit" and written by Kira Snyder, the episode picks up after the death of Frances, a housekeeper whom the series' heroine, June (played by Elisabeth Moss), had pressured into arranging a visit with her daughter Hannah. Another handmaid named Ofmatthew, having witnessed the exchange, reports the matter to Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) -- leading to Frances' hanging.

"Unfit" explores the ongoing power struggle between June and Aunt Lydia, as well as how Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop) gets caught in the crossfire. The episode also, for the first time, depicts Aunt Lydia's pre-Gilead back story.

The series' writers are executive producer and showrunner Miller, Eric Tuchman ("Alphas," "Eureka"), Snyder ("The 100," "Eureka"), Yahlin Chang ("Supergirl," "Shades of Blue"), Dorothy Fortenberry ("The 100"), Marissa Jo Cerar ("13 Reasons Why," "The Fosters"), Lynn Renee Maxcy ("Covert Affairs," "Alphas"), Nina Fiore and John Herrera ("Blood Drive," "Alphas"). Jacey Heldrich is the writer's assistant.

Does it hurt the story if Ofmatthew stands firm in her decision to snitch? What's another way to show the power struggle between June and Aunt Lydia? Why have Lydia sing "Islands in the Stream"? Here's a snapshot of some of the discussions surrounding the episode's pivotal moments -- as well as follow-up thoughts from Miller once the episode was completed.

 

'SHE'S LIKE KHALEESI'

Snyder: What I was really struck by was how different June is this season. She's like Khaleesi. That made me think: Does that change the way we start her at the top of (the episode)? And a related question is how much of the emotional processing of the loss of Hannah do we want to see? (Because) the boss-ness of her -- do we take her right to, "I want to burn something down and blow something up," or is she still in try-harder mode? She will need to kind of get knocked down from that. And she'll need to be reminded or told conclusively that Hannah is gone.

Miller: The thing I was trying to put myself in the place of is: For June, what's the most interesting thing for Ofmatthew to do? Is it more interesting to have Ofmatthew at this time really feel bad and really want to apologize? Because if she's still stubborn about it, then you're more on the side of the handmaids who are ostracizing her. ... Does it hurt the story if she's seeking to explain herself?

Tuchman: I think Ofmatthew has to be more upset about dead Frances than about losing Hannah. Because she snitched. She had no idea they were going to end up hanging this woman. I think that's what's devastating to her. And as a sidebar, yes, I'm sorry that your daughter is missing. But then she can point the finger back to June: If you hadn't been messing around with that, I wouldn't have had to snitch.

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