The editor-in-chief of the daily newsletter Best Evidence, Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime TV.
[Content warning: This article, like the docuseries it discusses, contains references to sexual violence. Please read with care.]
Allen v. Farrow is well made, worthwhile, and very affecting, but like recent projects on the predations of R. Kelly and Jeffrey Epstein, the relative quality of Allen v. Farrow is almost beside the point. The point is to hear the testimony of a survivor who has lived most of her life at the center of a story she couldn't control — and to look at our own reactions to that story over time.
The case at the heart of Allen v. Farrow — specifically, legendary director and New York City institution Woody Allen's petition to get custody of his three children with actor Mia Farrow — is a complex one, even if you think you know what happened between Allen and Farrow, or between Allen and Dylan Farrow. A quick Google search will return the facts and timeline of the collapse of Woody and Mia's relationship in the wake of his liaison with Mia's daughter Soon-Yi Previn, and of then seven-year-old Dylan's subsequent report that he had sexually assaulted her during a visitation. One of Allen v. Farrow's strengths is understanding not just how complicated the story is, but also how the intervening decades have compressed the story to headlines and soundbites. Filmmakers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick take us carefully through the history of Allen and Farrow's relationship, of Farrow's previous relationships, and of Allen's relationship to the culture and particularly to his home city, not just to remind us of nuances to the narrative that those of us who were surrounded by it at the time may have forgotten, but to give viewers context. Why did Dylan's accusations create such a furor? And given that furor, why was it so hard for us as a society to accept?
Part of it is that, as Dylan herself notes at the very beginning of the docuseries, we didn't know everything. Allen v. Farrow is thorough almost to a fault, bringing in reams of evidence that the general public has never seen. The docuseries has excellent interview access to Dylan, Mia, Ronan Farrow, family friends, Connecticut prosecutors, film journalists, and family-law experts. Carly Simon and Gloria Steinem also participate, and while their comments feel credible, it's hard not to think that they were included on the basis of sheer name-recognition — a way of stacking the deck on the Farrow side. We also hear audio recordings of contemporaneous phone calls between Mia and Woody, and excerpts from his 2020 memoir. Both are chilling in different ways, the tapes because of how placidly threatening Woody sounds, and the memoir for how deeply Woody believes he is the wronged party, and Mia a scorned hysteric bent on vengeance.
Some of what we didn't know involves Woody Allen's "inappropriate" "intensity" in his relationship with Dylan. Some of it lurks in the form of his ongoing obsession with barely-of-age love interests in scripts made and unmade. But a lot of it is the extent to which Woody leveraged his power and position to cast aspersions on his longtime partner (and "incentivized" siding against Mia for his other children; Ronan Farrow asserts that Woody paying for his college education was "contingent upon" Ronan publicly supporting Woody's version of events). Allen v. Farrow skillfully brings forward the idea that the reason culture didn't condemn Woody was because his team made sure it would be costly for those closest to him.
The docuseries also wants us to think about our relationship to, as Claire Dederer of The Paris Review puts it, "great art made by bad people." Allen v. Farrow is bookended by commentary from critics as well as counselors on why fans reject the idea of a beloved artistic figure as a sex offender; why we become so invested in people we don't know personally, and why rejecting them for monstrous behavior is perhaps a rejection of our own judgment and taste. The series stops short of drawing a conclusion, in favor of noting that the reaction to Dylan's speaking out in 2014 was much different from when she spoke out four years later. It's just one of the things that stayed with me after I'd finished watching.
Dylan's continued struggle to move forward and to integrate what happened in her childhood into her sense of self is another. Allen v. Farrow leaves in the moments when she blames herself, still, for fracturing their family; in one scene, Dylan is physically triggered by a topic, and the filmmakers leave that in too. It's heartbreaking, and a timely reminder after the discussions of how to contend with the ethics of Woody's films, that, in the end, at least we have a choice in how we react to Woody's behavior. Dylan didn't.
If you have a choice, I recommend watching Allen v. Farrow one episode at a time, not all in a row as I did. It's difficult material, and you'll want the breaks. But do watch it: it's tough, but it's an expertly constructed indictment of how power lets survivors suffer in isolation.
Allen v. Farrow premieres on HBO February 21st at 9:00 PM ET.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.