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The Terrors of The Woman in the Wall Are Both Fantastical and All Too Real

Ruth Wilson and Daryl McCormack venture into the dark history of Ireland's Magdalene laundries.
  • Ruth Wilson in The Woman in the Wall (Photo: Chris Barr/BBC/Paramount+ With Showtime)
    Ruth Wilson in The Woman in the Wall (Photo: Chris Barr/BBC/Paramount+ With Showtime)

    Early in The Woman in the Wall, Showtime’s limited series focused on the horrors of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries, the local guard of a sleepy Irish town named Kilkinure shares a bit of lore with the city-slicker detective assigned to investigate the murder of a priest. The younger man asks about the presence of sculpted combs across the town, prompting the older man to spin the tale of the wailing woman, a ghost whose existential terror and rage can only be soothed by the tender act of having her hair combed. At first, this moment seems like a bit of deftly written and performed atmosphere-building, meant to capture the pathos and perpetual gloom of life in the isolation of the rural countryside.

    But it holds a darker truth bound in its own tight shroud: Kilkinure is haunted by its own wailing women, survivors of a laundry right in town. Only their lot is to scream in silence. Holding down menial jobs in town, regarding the world with dead-eyed bitterness and bemusement. Tucking themselves into the overprotective embrace of well-meaning family. Or losing the grace of a good night’s sleep, becoming a sleepwalker whose nightly rituals — waking up bloody in country roads and taking an axe to religious iconography — have branded her the local madwoman.

    That madwoman is Lorna Brady (Ruth Wilson), who spends her nights in fugues fueled by memories of the tortures she endured as a “wayward mother” in the laundry — culminating in the loss of her infant daughter. Until a stranger connected to her past appears, offering a slip of paper bearing the simple yet infinite words “I know what happened to your child.”

    Lorna’s fateful encounter with that stranger will intersect with the investigation lead by Detective Colman Akande (Daryl McCormack), tasked with finding the killer of the priest who “recruited” girls for the laundry — and who played a consequential role in his own adoption, decades earlier. But The Woman in the Wall is too sophisticated a thriller to simply let the relationship between its two leads play out as a mere cat-and-mouse: Over six tightly constructed episodes, penned by Joe Murtaugh (with one episode co-written by Margaret Perry), Lorna and Colman forge the powerful bond of two people who can speak a shared language of trauma. Whose sense of being disconnected from the world — her, through her “episodes” and him, through tightly coiled perfectionism that only finds release in panic attacks — shades depth and humanity into a part of Ireland’s history that’s often willfully forgotten.

    Running from 1922 until 1996, the Magdalene laundries were another chamber of Hell for girls and young women deemed troubled or inconvenient by their families or communities, forced into unpaid labor on behalf of the church while enduring all manner of abuse from the nuns. One of the Lorna’s fellow survivors, Amy Kane (Hilda Fay) is given two incandescently heart-shattering monologues that escalate the depictions of her torment: In a meeting with an advocate who will supposedly escalate the Kilkinure women’s case to the Irish government so they can receive a settlement for their suffering, she slaps a pair of nail clippers on the table, describing how the nuns would cut her nails so she’d bleed on the sheets, allowing them to administer a “proper punishment.” Later, she’ll rail at the man whose well-connected father had her shunted off to the laundry about how “they didn’t even sew me up” and sent her back to work after she gave birth to their child.

    Murtaugh’s scripts wisely let the true horrors of the laundry come through via his actors in present action, with only a few strategically planned flashbacks. While it would be easy enough to allow the subject matter to become untenably heavy, Murtaugh’s writing is assured. Rather than deflate the power of his subject by going showily overwrought or maudlin, he understands the insidiousness of trauma is how it bonds onto even the smallest aspects of his characters’ lives. Amy referring to herself and Lorna as “the mamas,” trying desperately to maintain an identity that has been taken from them both. How Colman, through McCormack’s choices in body language, holds himself with a precision that still betrays hints of lingering sadness. The brittle, almost inchoate huskiness in Lorna’s tone, as if all she’s endured has made her forget how to use her voice.

    While the series is an actors’ showcase, with Fay in particular delivering a memorable performance, it unquestionably belongs to Wilson. Her Lorna is alternately feral and vulnerable, a woman capable of driving an axe into her wall with muscular ferocity and also being easily humiliated and manipulated during an attempt to confront one of her abusers.

    In every gesture, Wilson conveys the severity of Lorna’s fatigue, giving her walk a slumped leadenness that only gains speed and alacrity when she’s sleepwalking — on her way to take her axe to the statue of Mary, or set a car on fire. When we first meet Lorna, she seems like a mudbound specter, akin to the Wailing Woman, coming to on the road in a white nightgown, barefoot and bloodied. While Wilson articulates the eons of simmering grief and stunted rage befitting a mythical wraith, she also endows Lorna with a wry wit. Coming home to find that she’s driven a steak knife into the eye of a painting of Christ, she intones “Sorry, Jesus.”

    If Lorna is the heart pulsing both meaning and venom into the series, then Colman’s quest to uncover the truth about the priest’s death and his own origin as an adoptee, gives it a sturdy architecture of bones. McCormack holds the screen as a man learning to release some of his own rigidity, allowing emotion to help guide him in his investigation.

    His scenes with his adoptive mother are especially affecting, as he cyclones through an interrogative bluster forged on the job, to anger that he strains not to direct at her (though she’s the only one involved in his adoption who is there to receive it), and finally to an abiding sadness when he realizes she was misled about the conditions of his birth, and another victim of the church in her own right. His shift from snapping to Massie (Simon Delaney) that convent survivors should be “treated like everyone else” toward closely allying with Lorna is wholly believable, suffusing hope even in the bleakest of stories.

    While reserving righteous ire for the church and its enablers, The Woman in the Wall still shows great nuance toward the other people whose choices enmeshed them with the suffering of the laundry survivors. Though the subplot involving Massie’s redemption as a small-town cop challenged to overcome his own inertia in service of actually seeking justice runs the risk of seeming overly tropey, the way that Massie’s culpability — willfully turning a blind eye to the goings-on at the convent — is teased out over episodes makes his redemption feel complete and earned. Delaney’s overarching sadness, barely pinched behind a smile, and the subtle hint of “I’m a good guy, no, really I am,” neurosis in his paternalistic “protection” of the laundry survivors also adds depth to one of the series’s more compelling subplots.

    For a six-episode series, The Woman in the Wall manages to thread a lot of intricacy through a fairly compressed storyline — one that makes a seamless shift between the murkier, more darkly ethereal mood of its early episodes to become a more conventionally taut conspiracy-unraveling detective drama. If anything, Murtaugh and co. could have added an additional episode to allow the series to breathe a little deeper in the aftermath of its final resolution. Still, The Woman in the Wall is a harrowing, highly rewarding watch that may shed light on one of the church’s greatest evils without losing its faith in the grace of people.

    The Woman in the Wall premieres January 19 at 3:01 AM ET on Paramount+ With Showtime and January 21 at 9:00 PM ET on Showtime linear. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    When she's not watching TV, Laura Bogart is writing books or tweeting at @LDBogart.

    TOPICS: The Woman in the Wall, Showtime, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, His Dark Materials, Daryl McCormack, Joe Murtaugh, Ruth Wilson, Magdalene laundries