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Aunt Lydia's Backstory Heats Up With John Ortiz In 'The Handmaid's Tale'

In a season filled with close-ups of June and a million loose ends, it was interesting to see The Handmaid's Tale Season 3 take on Aunt Lydia's backstory — something fans have been anticipating for the past two years. Although most fans were frustrated that the storyline didn't actually drive the Hulu series forward, it was still compelling to see Aunt Lydia interact with other characters pre-Gilead, including a date with Jim Thorpe, her school's principal. But who plays Jim on The Handmaid's Tale? John Ortiz has been in the business long enough to match the acting skills of the great Ann Dowd.

Although it looks like Ortiz will only appear on The Handmaid's Tale for this small guest starring role, the flashback sequence required someone who could stand on his own in a scene with Dowd. Luckily, Ortiz fit the bill. According to his IMDB profile, Ortiz has been involved in projects since the late '80s. The 51-year-old actor has starred in shows like The Job as Ruben Somarriba, Clubhouse as Carlos Tavares, and Luck as Turo Escalante. However, you probably recognize Ortiz from his roles as Ronnie in Silver Linings Playbook, Javier J. Rivera in American Gangster, or Morales in Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem.

In The Handmaid's Tale episode titled "Unfit," fans learn that pre-Gilead Aunt Lydia was a divorced family-court-lawyer-turned-schoolteacher, and she seemed softer than the Aunt Lydia viewers came to love and hate. During the episode, Lydia went out on a date with Jim, and it goes well enough that the two end up making out on the couch. But Jim, who is a widower, stops the hookup and explains that it's too much, too soon — at least for now. It's clear that Jim wants to continue seeing Lydia, but the damage was done. Humiliated, Lydia is then seen breaking down in the bathroom as she shatters the mirror with her bare hands.

Speaking with Vulture, showrunner Bruce Miller explained that the writers wanted to convey how big of a role shame had in Aunt Lydia's life. He said:

So much of this season with Lydia is about losing control, and in those moments where she feels like she’s lost control, she’s humiliated. What I was looking for in her past was, 'What does feeling humiliated do to her?' These are core things that don’t really have anything to do with Gilead. In some ways, what I wanted to show is that Lydia is just as unforgiving to herself as she is to everybody else. That doesn’t make her a good person. But it certainly is interesting.
Sophie Giraud/Hulu

That said, Lydia transforms into the authoritative character fans have known since Season 1. After the incident with Jim, Lydia took out her feelings on Noelle and her son, a struggling family who Lydia took in at the beginning of the flashback. Lydia called family services and had the boy taken away from his mother. In the Vulture interview, Dowd revealed that Lydia connected her humiliation to Noelle. She said:

I was raised in a loving home, but there was huge shame around sex. You have to wait for marriage. It’s the work of the devil. Women take a backseat. So this made so much sense to me, the fact that she went a little further than he was ready to go. There’s shame that she did it because she’s the woman and she shouldn’t have done it. If it hadn’t been for Noelle, Lydia wouldn’t have taken those steps, so I think she connects those things. I better stick to the original plan. I will continue to teach. I do not want romance, sexuality in my life, and I will not allow half-baked mothers to keep their children.
Sophie Giraud/Hulu

Although the Handmaid's Tale episode added a few more layers to Aunt Lydia's character, the Hulu series just confirmed what fans already know. Aunt Lydia is a character who is driven by shame, humiliation, and fear. Now, fans — including myself — are just itching to see what she does in the present. But hey, at least we got a few beautifully acted scenes featuring Dowd and Ortiz.

The Handmaid's Tale Season 3 airs Wednesdays on Hulu.