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HBO's Rain Dogs Is a More Traumatic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The bleakly comedic series from Cash Carraway refuses to make things easy for anyone, including the viewer.
  • Jack Farthing in Rain Dogs (Photo: James Pardon/HBO)
    Jack Farthing in Rain Dogs (Photo: James Pardon/HBO)

    There are two kinds of violence in Rain Dogs. One is the standard type, with punches and kicks and a face getting smashed by a door. But another, subtler brutality is the show’s true speciality. HBO’s bleakly comedic series follows two friends struggling to survive in modern England: They’ve both left their families and been abandoned by society, and now they’ve got nothing but their sharp wits and their dark rage. They can be funny and even charming, but that mostly helps them deliver an insult in a soothing tone. They also know how to frame a public humiliation as a joke, and present a manipulative ploy as a vulnerable cry for help. They turn those spiritual weapons on each other with terrible skill.

    Series creator Cash Carraway may very well be writing from experience. She rose to fame in 2020 after publishing Skint Estate: A Memoir of Poverty, Motherhood and Survival, in which she reflected on her time as a poor single mother in London, trapped in a world of violence, addiction, and desperate lack. That’s not far from where we find Costello (Daisy May Cooper). She dreams of being a writer, and according to an app on her phone, she’s been sober for almost 100 days. But nevertheless, because her job dancing at a peep show barely pays, she and her daughter Iris (Fleur Tashjian) are on the edge of the abyss. In the first two episodes alone, they get evicted from an apartment, break into a friend’s car so they can sleep in it overnight, and accept an offer to crash with a stranger, only to discover he expects grotesque favors in return.

    The experience of watching the show is distilled by what happens next: Realizing she’s in a pervert’s flat, Costello calls Selby (Jack Farthing), a friend she met when she was still a promising university student. Selby is wealthy, gay, and stylish, and he’s also just finished a yearlong prison sentence for nearly beating a man to death. When Costello asks him to come assault the creep she’s staying with, he obliges, partly because he loves Costello and Iris, and partly because he uses violence to numb his own self-loathing. Once he’s gotten his friend to safety, he then turns that violence on her: He insults her for getting herself into a terrible situation. He grabs her by throat and pushes her against the wall. She smacks him hard across the face. Eventually, they swear they love each other.

    Versions of this cycle repeat for all eight episodes. Over and over, Costello and Selby do increasingly horrible things to each other until they both break down sobbing and swear they’re family. It’s like watching George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, filtered through the gay man-straight woman friendship of Will and Grace.

    For some, this might feel like a documentary. Those who have experienced an emotionally abusive relationship may recognize the way these characters break each other down until they’re weeping. Those moments of exhausted vulnerability can produce something like kindness, which can almost feel nice. Cooper and Farthing capture the disgust their characters feel while this is happening, their faces twisted with the shame of it. They also throw themselves into the aftermath, when it’s finally time for sweet words. The look of relief on Farthing’s face, when Selby extracts yet another confession of friendship from Costello, is devastating.

    Yet for all these hysterics, Carraway, who writes every episode, also fills this relationship with nuanced details, like the way Selby sometimes refers to Iris as his daughter, even though she isn’t. Those touches demonstrate that somewhere beneath the abuse, these two really do have a strong bond.

    There’s more than enough in their fraught story to fill the series. However, Carraway has socioeconomic arguments to make, and when she does, she abandons subtlety altogether. Mostly, she heaps an almost laughable amount of misery on her main characters, as though that’s the only way to make us see how classism, sexism, and institutional corruption contribute to their agony. More than once, Costello gets a chance to be a professional writer, only to have the opportunity yanked away. Meanwhile, every single one of her housing situations ends in disaster, including a building collapse caused by careless, wealthy people. As for Selby, he reveals that when he was a teenager, he had a borderline-abusive sexual encounter just 10 minutes before he learned his father died by suicide. When he seeks mental health treatment, he lands in a facility with patients who immediately try to debase him.

    This makes Rain Dogs the latest example of the trauma plot, in which writers employ outsized suffering that’s rarely mitigated by hope. It’s no great spoiler to say that by the end of the series, very little is different for anyone involved. The apartments and the seasons might change, but nothing, the show suggests, can help these people shed their burden. Instead, they must try to make the best of it, smiling through lips that their best friends split open.

    “It’s completely normal to hate the people you love,” Selby says, and though another character weakly disagrees, Rain Dogs itself is structured to suggest he’s probably right. Some viewers might agree, just like some see the brutal finale of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as the only logical outcome. However, this conclusion may seem bleak and dishonest to anyone who has shed the shackles of an abusive relationship, or who is trying to shed them now.

    But even when it’s beholden to the trendy tropes of suffering, the show is too alive to simply be dismissed. Costello and Selby have the fire of people with lingering hope and the fury of people who feel trapped. The show doesn’t just observe their pain: It uses it as an organizing principle. This makes the series hard to watch but harder to shake. It practically dares us to endure what these characters endure, then decide if we’d be any better at getting on with our lives.

    Rain Dogs premieres March 6 at 10:00 PM ET on HBO and HBO Max, with new episodes out on Mondays.

    Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.

    TOPICS: Rain Dogs, HBO, Cash Carraway, Daisy May Cooper, Fleur Tashjian, Jack Farthing