There’s something satisfying about being tricked by a show. When a show leaves a trail of breadcrumbs for you to follow, allowing you to build up confidence in your theories, but then artfully reveals what you missed – you got me there – you feel grateful to the writer, not because you’ve been deceived, but because of the sense of discovery that you’ve just experienced. That moment feels like a distillation of the power of storytelling, of how words and narrative can build up a reality so convincing yet in a few pen strokes, change that reality and show you a new one.
Behind Her Eyes is a Netflix miniseries based on a novel by Sarah Pinborough that revels in tricking audience members, and it’s a thrilling ride that has both its share of these pleasant twists… and quite a few disappointing ones as well. Although these twists rely on a gimmick that I find questionable, it was an enjoyable watch that was well-produced.
The first episode introduces us to Louise Barnsley, a woman who works as a secretary at a psychiatrist’s office. In a scenario that’s reminiscent of Shonda Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy, she falls for a man in a bar, David Ferguson, only to find that he’s her boss. Quickly learning that he’s married, the two of them try and fail to restrain their growing affection for each other. These tropes are conventional, but the story gains traction when Louise secretly befriends David’s seemingly generous wife, Adele. This functions as a powerful plot device because now, Louise has two sources of information about David and Adele’s marriage, and she learns that the couple share a dark past that both seem intent on hiding.
Louise’s forbidden relationships with both David and Adele make for a captivating watch, especially as the show enters darker territory. The first half of the miniseries masterfully feeds the viewer just enough information so that we can theorize, but not enough for us to feel like we understand everything that’s going on – if we did, we wouldn’t still be watching. In my opinion, Behind Her Eyes makes excellent use of intentional camera shots, color, and music to leave these hints. From the way the camera cuts back and forth between David and Adele’s testy glances at each other during a dinner party, to the just-there, unsettling ambient score that creeps in as Adele seems to analyze every detail of Louise’s apartment when she first visits, the show communicates – without any clunky expositional dialogue – that something is very wrong with David and Adele’s seemingly perfect marriage. At this point, the viewer doesn’t know if David or Adele is the perpetrator, or if they are both hiding something, and the show takes advantage of that. Through flashbacks, we also catch glimpses of Adele’s past in a mental institution, where she became best friends with a man named Rob, who clearly isn’t in her life anymore. Neither David nor Adele really talk about Rob to Louise, even though it seems like he was a significant part of their lives. Naturally, we as the viewers become morbidly curious. We want to know what’s wrong, and that desire will keep viewers watching for episodes on end.
Thematically, the show dances around the conflict between dreams and reality and the conflict between an individual’s ideal and real selves. All the central characters are unsatisfied with the reality that they live in, and the show keeps coming back to this idea that dreams can be both an affliction and a cure. For much of the series, a tantalizing question is posed: What if you could control your dreams? This concept of lucid dreaming, the power to escape a reality that you can’t control yourself, is a constant in this series. Although the role of dreams in fiction is well-explored, the way that these conflicts were presented in the context of Louise’s forbidden relationships and the mysterious secrets hidden by David and Adele makes it feel new.
Unhappy characters in a cruel reality, escapism by way of dreams, mysterious pasts, and forbidden relationships – this all makes for a great viewing experience, and I was looking forward to seeing how these elements would tie together. However, it was at this point that the show introduced a gimmick that disappointed me and tarnished my initial impression of the show. In my opinion, this gimmick also makes the show thematically grind to a halt, because it explains previously mysterious events in a way that removes the internal conflict that I saw in a couple of key characters.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead. Skip to the “SPOILERS END HERE” tag if you intend on watching the show.
Astral projection. As Wikipedia defines it: “Astral projection is a term used in esotericism to describe an intentional out-of-body experience that assumes the existence of a soul called an ‘astral body’ that is separate from the physical body and capable of travelling outside it throughout the universe.” This is the gimmick that Behind Her Eyes introduces, and it’s revealed that Adele uses this unique ability of hers to find information about her husband and manipulate him into never leaving her. We learn that she’s the one who’s controlling her husband and making him miserable with this supernatural ability, effectively erasing the amazing trail of breadcrumbs the show had given us, which left us with plenty of dirt on both David and Adele and no clear sign pointing to who was abusing who.
This reveal felt undeserved because it doesn’t quite align with the breadcrumbs that the show sowed. More accurately, the reveal explains the information we received but doesn’t make sense in the realm of possibility that the show set before us. It’s not a good “aha, we got you there” moment, because the viewers up to this point had no idea that anything close to supernatural was going to be introduced in the show. All this time, any viewer’s theory about the true nature of David and Adele’s marriage would have centered on the perceived flaws that we were being fed about each of them – David’s potential duplicitousness and Adele’s unstable grip on reality are both very human flaws that could have serviced the themes about identity and reality mentioned before. However, by showing that Adele had been using astral projection the whole time to manipulate David, it absolves David’s character of flaws and makes Adele the sole villain, effectively destroying the subtlety of their characters which the show had so painstakingly established in previous episodes. In short, this is a cheap way to subvert viewer expectations with a plot gimmick. It’s surprising but unfulfilling, because this messes with the ground rules of the world that we thought had been set in stone at the beginning.
After this gimmick was revealed, I felt disappointed in the direction the show had gone, especially since all of the mysteries seemed to be solved. It was my nagging sense of needing to know how the characters ended up that kept me going, and the show rewarded this loyalty and actually managed to change my opinion of it in the last 10 minutes of its runtime.
In the leadup to the show’s climax, Adele has been backed into a corner. Louise knows about her astral projection ability and has mastered it herself, and threatens to reveal to society at large of Adele’s manipulation of David and her other crimes, which involved threatening another woman in a fit of jealousy to keep David all to herself. However, in one final supernatural twist, Adele swaps bodies (yes, this actually happens) with Louise, and kills Louise, who had been forced into Adele’s body. She takes over Louise’s life and weds David again, and has seemingly won – she got what she wanted all along, which was to own David all to herself. When I saw this, I was confident in my disappointment, because the characters seemed to have gotten too simple: David was the oblivious but well-intentioned man, Adele was the scheming and villainous madwoman, and Louise was the hapless bystander who was unlucky enough to get involved with both.
My disappointment was turned on its head when, in one final flourish, we learn that Rob, Adele’s ex-best friend, mastered astral projection as well after being taught by Adele. Conspiring to escape from his own dead-end life and acting on a deep-seated sense of envy for Adele and her loving relationship with David, he swaps bodies (yes, this is what happens again) with Adele and kills her, assuming her identity and erasing all traces of his own existence. It was Rob, in Adele’s body, that married David. And it was Rob, in Adele’s body, that killed Louise. Rob had the last laugh. This felt more satisfying because although it didn’t really do anything to make me believe that the characters were more complex, this story note was a true shock that I didn’t see coming, and it delivered that moment of discovery that the first astral projection twist didn’t.
The question here is why this penultimate plot twist felt satisfying even when it relied on the same gimmick that felt disappointing before. After wondering to myself for a while, I think this one works because it relies on something that we now know to be true about this fictional world. It is in the realm of possibility that body swapping can happen if astral projection was previously established to be possible, but it wasn’t in the realm of possibility that astral projection could happen if no other supernatural elements had been introduced before. My resulting satisfaction with this twist doesn’t erase the problems I had with how the character arcs resolved. David’s character ceased to be complex after we discovered for a fact that he was innocent, and Rob-in-Adele’s-body was simply just an insane person fueled by obsession. It also didn’t make sense that Rob could be so manipulative in the first place, given his characterization in the flashbacks. But the fact that I audibly gasped at this final revelation was enough to make me happy with the final outcome of the show, and it made me appreciate the show for what it was – a solid thriller with good production value.
SPOILERS END HERE
The show’s ultimate redeeming factor was a surprise twist at the end that uses the introduced gimmick in what I thought was a more satisfying way. A good twist sucker punches you and that moment of realization when everything falls into place for the first time is unrivaled – and Behind Her Eyes did reward me with that moment by the end of its six episodes.
Although it’s short, Behind Her Eyes tells a tight story that feels worthy of its six episodes. It’s a thriller through and through, and although it failed to deliver on the themes that I thought it had introduced so smoothly, it did surprise me pleasantly with the way that it used its cinematography, music, and plot twists to always leave the viewer asking questions – only for them to find out that their questions would have to be answered in the next episode. If nothing more, this miniseries is a shocking drama that promises to leave you gasping with satisfied disbelief by its end.