Anatomy of a Scandal takes us through the court proceedings of a man accused of rape. The man in question is James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend), a likeable minister, who was caught having an affair with one of his employees. What started as a scandal escalates to a crime when Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott), the woman he was having an affair with, accuses him of raping her after they ended their affair. The show dives into the issue of consent, how yes can turn into no very quickly, and the difficulty in proving a crime when it involves he said/she said testimonies. She says it’s rape, he says it isn’t – who’s lying and who’s not?
The series portrayed each testimony through flashbacks to the moment in question, giving us both James and Olivia’s diverging accounts of the event. Scott’s performance while on the stand is heartbreaking stuff, and she does an incredible job of bringing us into Olivia’s interior. We feel her conflicting emotions, to love the man she’s accusing, yet also quite unable to accept that he could have done this to her. As for Friend’s James, his testimony is quite the opposite – it stinks of artifice and lies, but as the show demonstrates, his charm and good looks allow him to get away with things frequently.
Along for the ride is James’ wife Sophie (Sienna Miller), who had just weathered the news of her husband’s affair before now getting sucker-punched with this new information. Her world has spun off its axis – which the series charts quite literally, in a bizarre falling sequence – and she comes to see her husband in a new light, as well as recognise the role she played in the grand scheme of things. Now, even an innocent game of Monopoly isn’t quite so fun anymore, for if James can cheat so cavalierly in front of their children, and condone such methods as well as doing whatever it takes to win, what else is he doing away from her view? Miller delivers a riveting performance of a suffocating woman, trapped in a situation of her own making to some extent.
Oftentimes in these types of shows when the husband is a philanderer – HBO’s The Undoing comes to mind – the wife takes on the role of suffering victim, who was completely blind to her husband’s true character. This isn’t the case here:Sophie knows what kind of man James is, and she enables his behaviour because she believes that he’s different with her. He lies to everyone, just not her.
Sophie herself is no picnic, as we are treated to flashbacks of some of her sketchy, manipulative behaviour during her university years. The series employs effective match-cuts to shift us from past to present, as we move towards an understanding of why Michelle Dockery’s Kate Woodcroft took the case in the first place, when it’s usually the kind of case she avoids. Kate herself is in an affair of sorts with her former mentor, which is the show’s attempt to say something about power dynamics between male superiors and female students/employees and the ethics involved, but doesn’t really go anywhere with this conversation.
The show’s strength is fleshing out the moral greyness in everyone’s characters: Sophie keeping James’ dark secret because it benefitted her, Olivia having an affair with a married man, James’ indiscretions and various deceits, and Kate herself far from the sanitized prosecutor image we assume her to have. Where things take a dive is the surreal falling sequences we are treated to not just once but twice, portraying both James and Sophie’s inner turmoil in a visually predictable way. He’s just been accused of rape, so now let’s show him being jerked backwards into the air, since obviously the news has knocked him off his feet. There are better ways of showing that than a literal portrayal of this – it’s as if he was suddenly punched and flying through the air. Last I checked, this is a drama, not an action TV show. I understand the intention, but the execution is a tad lacking.
One of the show’s main points is how privilege allows people to get away with things, and we see this in regard to James, who can survive a scandal and a criminal accusation. What it fails to do is offer us insight into what happens on the other side of things – how were things for Olivia when news about the scandal broke? Did the news have any repercussions on her job? What is the fallout now that she’s made this accusation? Besides her moment in court, Olivia is largely missing from the narrative. We spend most of our time with Sophie, who’s trying to come to terms with her husband’s decrepit character. The show is very intent on villainising James, to the point where we barely spend time on the women that had to endure his sexual assault.
To the show’s credit, it’s highly bingeable, since we’re eager to know the outcome of the trial, and whether or not James is culpable. Then, it spoils everything with it’s unrealistic ending. The conclusion would be more haunting if things had remained more status quo. Instead, the end result is a show that’s a bit of a mixed bag.
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