The Dizzying Hairpin Turns of “Behind Her Eyes”
It is hard to tell who is warden and who is prisoner, who is crazy and who is sane, and the Netflix show revels in this uncertainty.
March 1, 2021
In Steven Lightfoot’s twist-heavy miniseries, the violence is largely psychological.Illustration by Bianca Bagnarelli
It can be tricky to pull off a double twist. “Behind Her Eyes,” Netflix’s new nail-biter of a miniseries, is thematically chaotic, and its characters are messy, but its ending has an effect like breaking the seal of a ketchup bottle—a startling, satisfying pop. Many viewers were outraged by the finale; shortly after the show’s six episodes dropped, disturbed fans took to Twitter with the hashtag #WTFThatEnding. But, much like the “sensation fiction” of the Victorian era—those cleverly plotted “novels with a secret” intent on revealing the bonkers impulses beneath the respectable surfaces of ordinary people—“Behind Her Eyes” manages to be both over the top and efficient. It’s the kind of show that rewards a rewatch, if one is able to stomach it.
Louise Barnsley (the excellent Simona Brown) is a young Black single mom who works as a part-time secretary at a posh mental-health clinic in London. As the series opens, we see her leaving her seven-year-old son, Adam (Tyler Howitt), with a babysitter for a rare night out. Cue the meet-cute: in the next scene, at a bar, Louise bumps into a handsome, thick-maned Scot named David Ferguson (Tom Bateman), spilling his drink all over him. She insists on buying him a new one, which ends up being out of her price range. (“Bloody Macallan?” she asks, in disbelief. “I’ve never heard of it!”) One drink leads to another, and the flirty evening ends with a kiss, which David breaks off, looking tortured, before apologizing and leaving. What a coincidence it is when, the next day, he turns out to be Louise’s new boss.
David is a psychiatrist. He is also married—to the hyper-composed Adele (a spooky Eve Hewson), a white woman perennially draped in white clothing. The couple just relocated from Brighton to a leafy corner of Islington, where, as Louise says knowingly, “the local M.P. lives.” In what appears to be another coincidence, Louise bumps into Adele on the street and is drawn into a friendship with her, which she keeps hidden from David. Soon enough, Louise and David embark on a steamy affair, which she keeps hidden from Adele. David has his advantages, among them the physique of a Calvin Klein model, a face that is strikingly reminiscent of Roger Federer’s, and the appealingly brooding air of a hangdog puppy. So why, Louise wonders, does his wife seem so lonely, and terrified that she might miss his calls, which arrive every day at predetermined times? Why is her cupboard crowded with pill bottles? Who gave her the shiner she’s suddenly sporting? Why, for God’s sake, does she only have a flip phone? And why is it that she always seems to know things that she has no logical way of knowing?
“Behind Her Eyes,” which is based on Sarah Pinborough’s best-selling novel of the same name, has been adapted for TV by Steven Lightfoot—a writer on the NBC thriller “Hannibal,” and the creator of the Marvel crime series “The Punisher,” on Netflix. Unlike the splatter-core violence of those shows, “Behind Her Eyes” is more of an inner simmer: its violence is largely psychological, like if Hannibal Lecter were a repressed housewife. The show also has supernatural elements, which reminded me of such series as “Stranger Things” and “The OA,” in which the real is dappled with the mystical in order to throw the characters’ innermost desires into high relief. In tone and genre, though, the show is closest to twist-heavy cinematic thrillers like “Diabolique,” from 1955, or “Deathtrap,” from 1982, or even “Wild Things,” from 1998—films that focus on a tight cluster of heated, passionate characters locked in a world whose rules keep changing. “Maybe his wife is crackers,” Louise’s friend Sophie says, when Louise expresses concerns about Adele’s well-being. “Proper Jane Eyre-in-the-attic stuff.” Sophie misspeaks: in Charlotte Brontë’s novel, it is not Jane Eyre who is locked in the attic but her rival and shadow double, Bertha Mason. And yet the comment is apt. In “Behind Her Eyes,” it is hard to tell who is warden and who is prisoner, who is crazy and who is sane, and the show revels in this uncertainty. Part of the fun for the viewer, too, lies in just letting go and seeing where the series’ dizzying hairpin turns will take you.
In flashbacks, we see Adele in a mental institution, whose verdant meadows and wandering white-clad patients bring to mind scenes from HBO’s “The Leftovers,” with smidges of Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls and Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe” tossed in. Her parents died in a mysterious fire, and she has gone to the institution to cope with the trauma. She bonds with another patient, Rob (Robert Aramayo), a gay working-class junkie from Glasgow, who is delightfully irreverent and suffers from night terrors. Adele, who is skilled in the art of lucid dreaming, teaches him how to take control of his dream life. In the show’s present, she offers to help Louise, who has night terrors as well. With Adele’s instructions, Louise is able to escape from the images of her recurring nightmares (her dead mother’s limp hand, a screaming Adam, the oily, heaving walls of a hallway) and into a dreamland that, with its bright-blue skies, lily pond, and sunny, gingerbread-esque house, has the generic pleasantness of a Target commercial or, perhaps, “The Good Place.”
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The two-pronged mystery of the series—What is the secret at the core of Adele and David’s unhappy marriage, and how might lucid dreaming be connected to it?—is taut and effective enough to bundle together a jarring collage of moods and environments. Flashbacks to Rob, as he narrates his slummy days shooting up in the Glasgow projects, took me straight back to Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting,” with its menacing rhythmic soundtrack thumping beneath a voice-over’s burr; meanwhile, the scenes set in Louise’s modest, knickknack-filled flat, with snatches of “The Great British Bake Off” and “Ab Fab” on the telly, seem to belong, not just in milieu but also in tone, to an entirely separate stratum of life, as does David and Adele’s upper-class domesticity. The spouses circle each other stiffly at home, like actors in an avant-garde play. (In one bone-chilling moment, as Adele chops herbs with machinelike precision, she cracks her neck so audibly that I half expected her head to keep spinning on its axis, “Small Wonder” style.)
This patchiness might be read as a comment on class and racial differences, and their tendency to create discrete worlds of experience. Adele’s conventional beauty and wealth—her upper-class English whiteness—is the planet that the other characters orbit around. “What is it like to be so fucking rich and so fucking pretty?” Rob asks her, adding, “I’ll swap you.” Louise, too, is awed. “Fuck me,” she murmurs when visiting Adele and David’s home, taken aback by its grandeur. But, although the show might aspire to make sociopolitical points, its agenda is ultimately murky. It’s never clear, for instance, how Louise, who works three days a week, is able to stay afloat in a costly city like London, or how her Blackness in a predominantly white environment affects her. We also don’t learn how Rob the urchin ended up in the same institution as Adele the heiress. The show’s focus is psychic: the human desire to break free from one’s own limiting narrative, whether in dream life or in real life, by becoming someone other than oneself—a craving that is increasingly explored as the series nears its end.
Now, about that ending. (Here’s where I arrive at the spoiler alert that I’ve been working up to since the beginning: Reader, beware!) In the fifth episode, the show takes a hard turn toward sci-fi, and astral projection enters the chat. “I’ve always just called it ‘travelling,’ ” Adele tells Rob in a flashback. Her lucid-dreaming lessons are a gateway to learning how to project oneself into other people’s waking experiences—hovering, N.S.A. style, unseen but all-seeing, as they go about their private lives. Rob suggests to Adele that they use the technique to project their souls into each other’s bodies. (“It’d be such a total mindfuck!” he muses.) Bad move, Adele: once Rob enters her body, he likes it there just fine. He also likes her money, and the prospect of being married to David. He kills her and dumps the body—his own—in a well on the grounds of her estate. Unbeknownst to David, the gorgeous shell of his partner now houses the soul of a murderous junkie, which might go a long way toward explaining the couple’s marital problems.
That’s only half the twist. When Rob, as Fake Adele, learns of David and Louise’s affair, he grows increasingly hopeless at the prospect of recapturing David’s love for Real Adele, and comes up with a new plan. He tricks Louise, who unknowingly learned how to astrally project while she was practicing lucid dreaming, into swapping bodies with him. Once his soul is in her body, he kills the real Louise, who is now trapped in Adele’s body. Rob lives on, now in the form of a Black woman.
If this seems like a lot, that’s because it is. It is also difficult to know what kind of message we are meant to glean from a white upper-class woman displacing a Black single mom, not least since that white woman is in fact a working-class gay man. But, though the ending is ridiculous and perhaps a little cheap in its excess, it works. As I watched those final moments, the horror felt not just pleasurable but also well earned. David, poor boob, has married Fake Louise, and we can’t help but feel sorry for him. Even more unsettling is the fate of Adam, who can just tell that something has gone awry with his once loving mum—there’s a new impatience in her voice, a brusqueness in her gestures. “You’ve always said you hate boats,” he says miserably from the back seat of the car, when Fake Louise suggests that she and David book a Caribbean cruise for their honeymoon. “Maybe I’ve changed,” she says, facing Adam, her eyes startlingly cold. Is there anything more terrifying than a bad mother? ♦
Published in the print edition of the March 8, 2021
, issue, with the headline “Wildest Dreams.”
is a staff writer at The New Yorker.
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