As adultery drama Doctor Foster bows out this week it ironically gives us the best episode so far.
Tightly constructed and with real tension, the five-part series ends on a high.
Mike Bartlett’s theatrical background is put to more solid use in the confrontation scenes between Gemma (Suranne Jones) and Simon (Bertie Carvel) but especially in the opening dinner party sequence, which is beautifully directed by Bruce Goodison.
“You don’t mind me opening up about the difficulties we’ve experienced. Well, not difficulties…betrayals.”
The tension is ramped up from this point onwards, as Gemma reveals all their secrets: the shady business dealings, the Fosters marital breakdown, her one night stand with Neil and of course, the baby that Kate had (supposedly) aborted, which is explained to her parents with an eerie calm:
“Kate got pregnant with Simon’s child. And because he messed her around so much she had it aborted.”
This is the kind of pay off that is normally supposed to ease a wronged persons suffering in the eyes of the audience. Yet it’s hard to decide if Gemma is actually deserving of a happy ending? On several occasions she seems unhinged, acting so recklessly it negated any sympathy we should feel for her. The smashed ornament in the episode’s pre-titles sequence and her cruel manipulation of Tom illustrate a volatile woman on the verge of madness, rather than a woman on a righteous path of revenge.
“You and Simon…you don’t know each other. Never have!”
Attempts are made to try and make her more sympathetic: the fact that she realises Anna was the one who made the online allegations against her, Simon’s brutal assault and Gemma being asked to re-join the practice, but it all feels somewhat hollow. Some would say she has gone too far, despite what she has been through, to be considered (at best) sympathetic and (at worst) sociopathic.
And then of course, there is that scene where we are genuinely meant to believe that Gemma has killed their son, Tom, in order to stop him growing up to be just like his father.
“He’s so beautiful Simon and you don’t deserve him.”
Suranne Jones performs this scene so beautifully, enabling Gemma with a barely contained intensity and emotional fragility but at its core is a coldness she has never exhibited before. So subtle, yet powerful. Bertie Carvel is also amazing here, as it sinks in that she may have offed Tom in some sort of cruelly justified mercy killing.
It is here the weight of Simon’s actions finally hits home and, while it is harrowing, it is genuinely compulsive to watch. Kudos should also go to young actor Tom Taylor, who plays their son, who plays it with such understanding.
As with all the episodes, despite some exceptional drama and performances, there are a few niggles. The Pierre Blanche/White Point connection with Kate’s Dad feels shoehorned in and some of the dialogue feels a bit off as well (“I’m a wolf tonight”). However, that doesn’t stop this finale being both a worthwhile pay-off to Gemma’s circumstances, as well as utterly compelling to watch.
Doctor Foster perhaps lost its focus by never really knowing what it was: was it a series about marital breakdown and dissolution? Was it a revenge piece? Was it a character study into the modern approach to maintaining marital values, albeit through the negative practices of secrets, lies and extra marital sex?
Arguably it tried to be all those things and its flat-out refusal to fit in a genre box provided us with some genuinely nail-biting tension with stunning, committed performances from all involved.
Aired at 9pm on Wednesday 7 October 2015 on BBC One.
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