Spoilers ahead for Anatomy of a Scandal.
We knew what we were in for when, at the end of Anatomy of a Scandal’s first episode, James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend) is accused of rape.
I’m not talking about the accusation itself; audiences knew that was coming if they’d paid any attention to the Netflix show’s source material, Sarah Vaughan’s book of the same name. Instead, I’m pointing to what happens immediately after the allegation is relayed to James: An invisible assailant leaps into the scene and punches him in the stomach, hard enough that he sails upward, then backward through the air. The screen cuts to black before we see his landing, but it’s implied that he falls quite unceremoniously on his ass, though no one around him seems to notice or care. Up until this moment, the tone of Anatomy of a Scandal—the new series from Melissa James Gibson and Big Little Lies’s David E. Kelley—has been dark and understated, a predictable choice given the subject matter. But this moment of inexplicable buoyancy, this profound bit of surrealism, encapsulates how Anatomy of a Scandal will repeatedly undermine its own point throughout the rest of the series.
In fact, we can skip directly to the finale to best illustrate the problem. By the time we reach the last episode, we’ve learned that barrister Kate Woodcroft (the excellent Michelle Dockery) is Holly Berry, former friend and Oxford study partner of Sophie Whitehouse (Sienna Miller), James’s devoted wife. Holly Berry has changed her ridiculous name not out of embarrassment but out of attempted reinvention: You see, James Whitehouse is accused of rape not only by his co-worker Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott), but also by a student he met at Oxford decades ago. That student was Holly Berry, and she is now attempting to prosecute him for his crimes under the guise of a different face and name.
Never mind that this is a wildly improbable turn of events and a conflict of interest that would derail any and all of Kate’s attempts at justice. The biggest issue is that, despite huge efforts by its talented cast, the show’s ending can’t seem to remember its purpose.
The episode opens with Sophie slipping into Kate’s office, where she confronts her former friend with the disarming line, “You look familiar. Have we met before?” In reality, Dockery’s Kate looks absolutely nothing like Nancy Farino’s version of Young Holly, to the point that some serious facial reconstruction would have been needed to pull off any resemblance. But we’ll overlook that detail.
Kate denies that she knows anyone by the name of Holly Berry, or that she and Sophie might share a mutual friend. Unsatisfied, Sophie leaves, but Kate panics, dashing over to her friend Ali’s home in the pouring rain, where she releases a torrent of anxieties: “What happens if they’ve found me out and I’ve tried my last case? Because that would fucking kill me.” If that’s true, why would Kate endanger her career in the first place? Why is she convinced she’s the only one who can adequately prosecute James Whitehouse?
Sophie goes home, takes a deep pull from a bottle of wine to signal her distress, and curls up on the couch to ruminate over a quarter-eaten anniversary cake. But James finds her there, at 1:30 in the morning, and decides this is the proper time to unload his secrets. “Holly Berry,” he starts. “What did she look like?”
Thus begins a conversation in which James reveals he might have raped Holly Berry years ago, but really it’s all so unbelievable, and, sure, Holly seemed “shaken” after they had sex, but it was only because she’d been a virgin! “It was…spontaneous,” he tells Sophie, who looks at him like he’s revealed something both disturbing and incomprehensible, like that he moonlights as the Tooth Fairy. “It was certainly 100 percent not rape.” The logical acrobatics are astounding, though Friend pulls them off with tact; through his delivery, we can almost gather how a man in James’s position might misunderstand things so completely.
But then James plops the cherry on top of the truth sundae: Turns out, when their fellow Oxford classmate Alec jumped (or rather fell) to his death the night of the Libertine end-of-term party, it was future Prime Minister Tom Southern who supplied the heroin that inadvertently led to Alec’s death. And it was James, Tom’s longtime best mate, who “disposed of the evidence” shortly before raping Holly. “I’ve told you everything now,” James tells Sophie, who retains a remarkable cool in the face of such damning evidence.
The next day is the trial; the gist is this: Kate implores the jury that “one of them is lying,” either Olivia Lytton or James Whitehouse. She repeatedly reminds the jury that they are “here to determine the truth,” yet offers virtually no reason as to why they should think James is lying, other than that he’s a man in a position of power. That might be enough to prosecute someone in the court of public opinion, but a jury needs evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, and though it exists, Kate doesn’t care to mention it. She doesn’t bring up Olivia’s bruised breast or torn underwear, both of which were photographed and documented. Instead, she chooses to repeat phrases that are entirely hearsay: That Olivia told James “not here,” and that he called her a “prick-tease.” Kate then appeals to, presumably, the jury’s morality by urging that “James Whitehouse’s privilege does not extend to rape.” This is an absolutely true statement, and an important theme of the entire series—except that it is completely undone by the paper-thin closing argument that preceded it.
Angela, the defending barrister, takes Kate’s argument (the truth!!!) and crumples it in her fist. She outlines what is agreed upon between Olivia and James: that spontaneous sex was a common theme in the couple’s affair, that it was often aggressive, and that neither Olivia nor James could confirm Olivia had told him “no,” only that she’d possibly said “not here.” Then Angela finishes her slam dunk. “Why would James Whitehouse force himself upon Olivia Lytton, a woman who still loved him, a woman who was willing to resume the relationship?” she asks. We, the audience, know why: because James Whitehouse is a presumptuous man who assumes what women want from him without bothering to ask. But the jury sees only what Angela insists, that “an affair is not a crime.” And so it becomes immediately obvious who will win the case.
Sophie returns home to her children and a cache of on-the-nose dialogue (“We’ll win because we’re Whitehouses!” “Air is crucial. You can’t survive if you can’t breathe.”) Meanwhile, the jury announce the verdict, and James Whitehouse is a free man. He smiles at Sophie, who can barely stand to meet his gaze.
Later that evening, Kate watches the news coverage of the verdict and seethes, smashing her television screen with her remote. But at the Whitehouse abode, Sophie demands the truth from James. Did he call Olivia a “prick-tease,” and if so, didn’t he know that implied Olivia was unwilling? James shrugs. “Olivia loved risky situations,” he says by way of explanation. Sophie turns away, hissing, “That is not what you said in court.” He seems almost amused by this conversation, thumbing his champagne glass as he tells his wife, “I told the core truth, which is that she wanted it.”
The core truth. Anatomy of a Scandal is fascinated by “the core truth,” and yet it spends so much time dancing around it with unnecessary visual theatrics, predictable plot developments, and multiple logical fallacies that it seems, at times, to miss the core truth entirely. The core truth is that men like James Whitehouse get away with sexual assault on a regular basis, largely owing to their privilege and the public’s intense desire to satiate them. Men like James Whitehouse can convince themselves that they did not assault someone, because the idea of that someone not wanting to have sex with them is incomprehensible. In fact, it’s manipulative! It’s a “prick-tease.” But Anatomy of a Scandal gets lost in the jumble of its own argument.
As Sophie finishes putting the pieces together, she approaches Ali outside the latter’s home, where she asks if Kate Woodcroft is, in fact, Holly Berry. Ali refuses to betray her friend by answering the question directly, but she gives Sophie what she needs to know to determine that it’s true. Kate soon learns what Sophie has surmised, and in a fit of desperation, she meets with her lover and former academic mentor, to whom she reveals that a) her name is Holly, b) she just tried to prosecute someone who’d raped her, and c) they can’t continue their affair. In fact, she only started the affair because he’s “unavailable.” Watching the end of this relationship is fascinating, given its similar power dynamics to that of James and Olivia. Is Anatomy of a Scandal trying to argue this relationship is healthier, because Kate entered and ended it willingly? Or is the show implying that Kate never had a choice at all—that this affair is similarly toxic due to the deceit and hierarchy involved? The audience can’t quite be sure.
But back to the Whitehouses, who are ripping at the seams. Sophie has decided to leave James, though she admits her own shame at having let him “curate the truth” for so many years. “I don’t know who the fuck you are anymore,” she says, moments after having admitted to helping him tweak, erase and reframe the truth since they first got together as students. She knows exactly who he is, but she’s only just realized she can’t stand him. “I can’t stay,” she says. “Because if I do, who will our children become?” It might be too late for such concerns—they’re Whitehouses, and they already know they win at everything. She promises to tell her kids “the core truth,” but what does that imply? That she’ll hide the details, that she’ll sugarcoat reality, as their father did when he told “the core truth”? She’ll shuttle them away from their privileged upbringing in the hope it sheds off of them like a second skin? Again, Anatomy of a Scandal can’t bring itself to answer these questions.
Finally, Sophie and Kate meet, where they iron out the details of what really happened that night in college. Kate gets in a barb about Sophie’s privilege, to which she replies, “If I have traded on the currency that I was told was mine, well…that’s what I was raised to do.” Kate asks if Sophie will expose her to the press, but Sophie reveals she has other plans: She’s instead told the papers about Alec’s accident, as well as who supplied the heroin and who covered up the evidence. “Merry Christmas, Holly Berry,” she says sweetly, moments before both Tom Southern and James Whitehouse are taken into police custody.
As instrumental music swells, Sophie and her children run off to live a charmed life on the coast of Sussex, while Kate is newly fulfilled at work, to the point that she smirks into the camera as a new trial launches. Such is how Anatomy of a Scandal ends—with a neat ribbon, an unusual choice for a series supposedly about blurred lines, the aftershocks of trauma, and the pervasive influence of privilege.
Anatomy of a Scandal convolutes its own thesis statement, first with overcomplicated visual effects, next by tossing in an obvious plot twist, and finally by giving everyone a happily ever after—except Olivia Lytton, whom the show has all but forgotten by the time she leaves the witness stand. We never again see or hear from the survivor, the woman courageous enough to tell the truth. That single omission is more emblematic of Anatomy of a Scandal’s “core truth” than anything the series commits to camera.
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