Ann Dowd scares me more than any chainsaw-wielding, blood-sucking, or brain-devouring monster I could encounter. Of course, I don’t mean that Ann Dowd is actually a monster. If I ran into her in the street, I wouldn’t run away screaming. Of course not; I would ask her for her autograph and tell her what a big fan I am of her work.
No, it’s the characters that she plays that terrify me - two characters, in particular. Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale and Patricia (Patti) Levin from The Leftovers. I think it’s meaningful that she has received numerous award nominations for her portrayal of these roles. In fact, in 2017, she was nominated for Emmy Awards for both roles and won the award for her performance as Aunt Lydia.
When Ann Down plays someone scary, she clearly excels. It isn’t difficult to conclude she loves these roles, and I think it’s because, while occupying these characters, she gets to commit the most outrageous atrocities, all while working to convince us that she is perfectly sane and that everything she is doing is perfectly reasonable. These are characters that call for 100% conviction in their portrayal, and Dowd is more than up to that task.
Dowd played Patti Levin in The Leftovers from 2014 through 2017. She moved immediately from that role to Aunt Lydia and will presumably continue to play her in The Handmaid’s Tale's upcoming third season. It is significant that these characters have followed each other in immediate succession in her career. In many ways, these characters are very similar. They would certainly understand what makes the other tick, so to say.
Both characters belong to larger societies and wear the uniforms respective to them. They are adherents to the complex rules of those societies and thrive on enforcing those rules. They see themselves as teachers, mentors, and confidants. They believe wholeheartedly that they are making their worlds better places and that they are serving a larger purpose.
And just why are these ladies so terrifying? Their demeanor and physicality aren’t particularly menacing. While each wields a certain amount of power in their own circles, neither of them direct large armies or has access to weapons of mass destruction. Neither appears to possess any particular skill in physical combat.
They are terrifying because THEY BELIEVE.
Aunt Lydia believes in the world order of the Gilead society. She believes in its espoused Biblical principles, in its caste order, and in its rigid strictures and rules. She believes that the births she facilitates through slavery, imprisonment, and torture are worth all of these “regrettable” actions. She believes absolutely that her actions are righteous.
Patty believes in nihilism. For her, the world has ended and the greatest sin is to act in a way that denies this. She believes that moving forward with everyday life is fake and disingenuous. She believes society is broken and needs to stay broken. She is suicidal and believes absolutely that the whole world should go with her.
In their absolute belief, these women are completely liberated to achieve their ends. There are no lengths to which they will not go. They will sacrifice and manipulate and cajole. They will harm others and themselves. They will inflict brutality and call it mercy. They will never stop, never waiver.
Ultimately, it is this unwavering conviction that is so terrifying - not just because it makes them seemingly unstoppable, but because one is always scared that they will convince you that what they’re doing, what they stand for, is right.