It's time we talked about twists on television. They're certainly not a new thing, on television or in fiction in general. A writer, director, or showrunner pulling the rug out from under the audience with a reveal that upends your perceptions of everything that's come before it is a tactic as old as time. More recently, the twist has become so ubiquitous, especially in limited TV series, that it's bordering on a requirement. The famous twist in the middle of Gone Girl primed audiences to expect a twist in the Gillian Flynn-penned Sharp Objects, and oh boy did we get it. Ditto with the ending to HBO's The Outsider. We've arrived at the point where a twist is so expected on these prestige-y limited series that when a show doesn't deliver the twistiest conclusion possible, as with The Undoing last fall, it's perceived as a complete letdown.
I say all this as a preface to Netflix's new limited series Behind Her Eyes because the twist in this show — multiple twists, I'd say — is something I cannot and will not reveal. The series is based on a novel, so it's out there if you want to go seek it out, but I'll be keeping it vague in this review. Except to say that so much of what is infuriating, preposterous, deflating, and, ultimately, pretty offensive about Behind Her Eyes lies in said twist(s).
A six-episode limited series from executive producer Steve Lightfoot (who was a writer/producer on NBC's Hannibal and Netflix's The Punisher) presents its audience with a juicy enough setup: Louise (Simona Brown) is an unlucky in love single mom who, by chance, meets a man at a bar one night, and they hit it off. Only for her to be shocked the next day when she discovers that this guy, David (Tom Bateman) is for one, married, and for another, her new boss. He's a psychiatrist, which already tells you that we're into psychological thriller territory, and that intrigue deepens when we find out that his wife, Adele (Eve Hewson), appears to be heavily medicated and largely confined to their home.
What might have remained an infidelity drama complicates itself further when Adele and Louise have a chance meeting on the street one day and strike up a very unlikely friendship. It's not just that Adele is the wife of the guy Louise flirted with at the bar, but the two find an odd kinship between them. Louise has a history of night terrors and anxieties about her son, while Adele has a whole backstory, told in piecemeal flashbacks, about the time she spent in a mental hospital after her parents died in a house fire. There, she befriended a boy named Rob (Robert Aramayo), a gay heroin addict with whom she formed a quick bond.
This is all fertile ground for twistiness: is David controlling Adele, adhering to the "bad husband" trope of many of these books/films/shows? (It helps that Tom Bateman gives off a verrrry Jamie Dornan vibe.) What do Louise's night terrors mean? Why does Adele think she can control her dreams? And why is she taking so many pills? Whatever happened to Robbie anyway? And what's with this troubled young patient of David's who keeps coming around? This is all happening against the backdrop of Louise still being drawn to David, yet increasingly bonded to Adele. Psychosexual thriller! Who doesn't want that?
But again, we arrive at that twist. The series is based on Sarah Pinborough's novel Behind Her Eyes, which was essentially sold on that twist. The social media marketing even had a #WTFthatending trending topic going. It all had a very The Crying Game feel to it, where keeping the secret of the ending was paramount, yet all anybody could talk about was the twist ending. Without revealing what happens, I'll say that the twist pulls the story off its rails in ways that feel both cheap and incredulous. And, when you take a step back to look at the whole picture, post-twist, it's also cynically homophobic, and if that's revealing too much, well, it's something that didn't deserve secrecy in the first place.
Unfortunately, it ends up squandering a pair of good performances by Simona Brown and Eve Hewson. Brown has appeared recently in roles on Grantchester and Outlander, and had a recurring role on the British/American miniseries The Night Manager, opposite Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie. Hewson, meanwhile, played Maid Marian in the most recent Robin Hood film, starring Taron Egerton and Jamie Foxx. She's also played James Gandolfini's daughter in the film Enough Said and the role of Lucy Elkins in the Steve Soderbergh TV series The Knick. Both women build on a deep and twisty chemistry between their characters and do their best to power through what ends up being a psychological thriller gone off the rails.
Whether Behind Her Eyes is a victimizer or a victim of TV's twisty new normal is up for debate. Regrrdless, it's undone by its own desperate need to upend itself, and that's a truth that's pretty hard to keep secret.
Behind Her Eyes drops on Netflix February 17th.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.