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“Behind Her Eyes” Exemplifies How Shock Value Doesn’t Equal Quality

Trigger Warning: mental illness, drug use, suicide

*SPOILERS*

Throughout quarantine, one of my best friends and I have gotten into the habit of binging guilty pleasure Netflix originals together via Teleparty. When deciding upon our next show to watch, she’d suggested the limited series Behind Her Eyes, a British psychological thriller based on a novel of the same name. Though I normally don’t go for dark dramas, upon watching the trailer, I was instantly intrigued and decided to give it a whirl.

Behind Her Eyes focuses on Louise Barnsley, a young single mother to a seven-year-old son (Adam), who works part time as a receptionist at a therapist’s office. Louise also suffers from night terrors — keep this detail in the back of your mind for later. The story essentially opens with a tale as old as time: Louise goes to a bar, kisses a stranger, who then admits that he’s married. And the next day, Louise arrives at work and realizes that the stranger from the bar (David) is her new boss. Shortly thereafter, Louise bumps into Adele on the street, who turns out to be, you guessed it, David’s wife.

What went down

The first four episodes follow a pretty consistent formula, more or less containing the following elements: Louise and Adele bonding while going to the gym or the cafe together. Louise and David doing that classic “forbidden relationship” dance of “we shouldn’t be doing this” to having sex approximately 30 seconds later — interspersed with shots of them from a security camera-type view. Flashbacks of Adele and her friend Rob at the mental hospital, walking in the woods, or with Adele talking about David and her plans with him once she gets discharged. Shots of a dark, woods-y landscape. The episodes start to blend together in a weird mix of tension and monotony.

An overarching motif within the show is dreaming — Louise divulges to Adele that she suffers from night terrors, Adele admits that she used to have the same issue, but that she had learned from Rob how to control her dreams. Adele gives Louise Rob’s journal with instructions, and Louise begins to teach herself. While this motif is essential to the plotline, the dream sequences feel like they drag on a bit too long. Since it’s pretty clear that they’re only happening within Louise’s mind, the stakes felt low and I was left waiting for Louise to wake up. The lengthy dream sequences just felt like a way for the writers to extend the episode to the full one-hour mark and to add to the general air of mystery that surrounds the story.

The story starts to pick up within the last two episodes of the series. Louise becomes scared for Adele’s safety based on how David has been treating her, and Adele plants the thought in her mind that David had killed Rob. Louise starts to do some digging into David and Adele’s past, Rob, and the fire. She learns that David had an affair with a woman in the town they’d lived previously. When Adele found out, she violently lashed out at the woman, which is why they moved.

It’s also revealed that, when Rob came over to visit Adele at her and David’s estate, he had died of a heroin overdose. Adele had left his body in a well on their property, and a watch that belonged to David fell in, implicating him in Rob’s death. This is seemingly the turning point of where David and Adele’s relationship had gone sour.

Why I couldn’t look away

For me, the highlight of the show was trying to discern David and Adele’s relationship dynamic. From the flashbacks, we’re provided with the information that David and Adele were once very in love, he had saved her from a fire at her estate that killed the rest of her family, and due to the trauma she suffered, she was institutionalized.

It’s clear that David and Adele’s dysfunctional marriage is shaped by this fraught history, and their relationship dynamic is overall unsatisfying and loveless, but for much of the series, it’s unclear why. With David being a therapist by profession and Adele’s history of mental illness, it’s suggested that some sort of emotional, psychological manipulation is at play, but it’s unclear who is manipulating whom. David relegates Adele to housewife duties and is scarily possessive of her — he prescribes her with antipsychotic medications and makes sure she takes them every morning, he calls every day to make sure she’s still at home, and lashes out when he sees that she had painted a forest scene on their bedroom wall. But yet, the way Adele tells David she loves him with an expectant tone, denies the fact that their marriage is no longer working out, and even straight-up refuses him when he asks for a divorce, suggests that both sides are somehow in the wrong. Each scene between Adele and David left me with a different theory as to what sinister secret could possibly be hiding behind their broken marriage.

What I didn’t like about it

Despite how riveting and suspenseful the show is, that’s really its only redeeming quality — I take issue with nearly every other aspect of the show. For one, six episodes felt like far too many, and towards the middle, the episodes started to feel quite boring and repetitive. Though the plot ramps up substantially in the last two episodes, we really only needed two or three episodes at the beginning to establish Louise’s relationships with David and Adele, incorporate the necessary flashbacks, and provide insight into David and Adele’s marriage dynamic. It just feels like a lot of exposition is continuously unfolding and groundwork is being laid out for too long. Similarly, the tension doesn’t really build in a linear way — rather than the suspense driving the plot forward, the overall tone of the show is just ominous. Again, a problem that likely would have been solved if the show was condensed into fewer episodes, or even if it had been a movie instead.

While the story arc almost felt as though it was stretched too thin to make the most out of its six episodes, the writers did not use this extra air time to really develop the characters in a way that felt particularly compelling or grounded in humanity. While every episode features flashbacks of Adele’s time in the mental institution and her friendship with Rob, Adele’s backstory and motivations still remain an enigma (though that’s intentional, and I respect the artistic choice that, the more the audience is shown of her, the less we actually know about her). Louise, as a young single mother raising a seven-year-old son and working part time to make ends meet, is admittedly an interesting character. Watching her juggle a life that’s both chaotic yet monotonous, and seeing the internal conflict of her wanting to be a responsible parent who provides the best for her son, while also wanting to live her own life and indulge in herself and her impulses, is quite refreshing and may perhaps be relatable to viewers in their late twenties and early thirties. But she almost too willingly gets wrapped up in the David-Adele drama; as she relays to a friend, she seemingly has no regrets or reservations about getting romantically involved with her married boss while also befriending his wife, because they both “seem happier with [her] than they are with each other.” Her lack of judgement almost feels more like a plot device than a character flaw, and it’s honestly frustrating to watch. David is also not a compelling character whatsoever, which in itself begins to erode at the entire premise of the show. David’s not even likable — he’s just gruff, brooding, and frankly, kind of an asshole to the point where it’s hard to believe that Louise would be so enticed by him that she’d be willing to risk her job and her new friendship to pursue a relationship with him.

For a story that’s supposedly character-driven and functions as a deep-dive into their complex web of relationships, I wish that the main characters’ motivations had made more sense and that their characterizations had been more thoughtfully-developed. Not only were all three main characters clearly in the wrong, but they felt so detached from reality that I found myself not invested in any of their stories. Rather than caring about what happened to any of the characters, I just wanted the mystery to be revealed.

But that ending though

I do have to give it to the show — the ending was absolutely insane. In the most intensely-packed twenty-ish minutes of television I’d ever watched, we see Adele prepare to commit suicide by overdosing on heroin and lighting her house on fire — seemingly due to feeling guilty about the havoc she’d caused with Rob, the other woman, and Louise. She sends a good bye text to Louise, and Louise goes rushing to the house. When Louise sees smoke coming from inside the house, instead of calling the fire department or the police, or even instead of trying to break into the house herself, she makes herself fall asleep and astral projects into the house. Now, this sequence of events was just idiotic to the point where it detracted from the suspense. There was no logical reason for Louise to try and save Adele via astral projection. Perhaps the ending (which I’m about to describe) could’ve worked if Louise had astral projected in an entirely different context, where perhaps it made more sense for her to be outside of her body, but there was literally no reason for her to do so. How would she know that she’d be able to fall asleep fast enough? What was her plan once she got into the house? Again, and I cannot stress this question enough, why did she not just call the fire department or seek medical help for Adele?

Once inside the house, it’s revealed that Adele has gotten Louise right where she wants her — Adele astral projects out of her own body, and swaps bodies with Louise. She was never trying to kill herself; she was trying to murder Louise all along. Louise, already trapped in Adele’s stupefied body, is injected with heroin, and Adele-as-Louise drags her out of the burning house, looking like the hero.

And if that wasn’t enough of a twist, a flashback then reveals to us what really happened on the night of Rob’s death. Rob and Adele decide to try astral projecting together for the sake of fun and adventure, and once they are outside of their bodies, Rob clearly reveals a more sinister agenda — he swaps bodies with Adele, killing her and dumping her body into the well. Yep, so by way of a double body swap, the Adele the audience had grown to know, was actually Rob all along. Rob had supposedly become jealous of Adele and her life with David, and wanted David all to himself.

Now, can we just take a moment to unpack how absolutely absurd and stupid that reveal was? For one, Rob’s motivations are very weak. He’d only met David once, how are we supposed to believe that he’d fallen in love with him — or at the very least, what David represented as a source of stability and normalcy for Adele — after one weekend? And to the point that he’d literally kill two people just to be with this man, no less. Moreover, there are also some homophobic undertones to this twist, as Rob’s characterization supports the stereotype that gay men prey on straight men. It’s overall a very uncomfortable ending, but not in a way that makes the viewer think or reflect on what they just watched. It’s weird for the sole purpose of being outlandish.

Additionally, Rob’s death had not really been presented as the central mystery of the show until the last two episodes. Even if his motivations were a bit more fleshed out, he still never felt relevant enough to the plot line for the viewers to feel invested in him. In my opinion, a twist ending should involve something bad or shocking happening to the characters we already care about, not that the twist itself is that we should care more about a given character than we were set up to.

This double-twist also was simply not compelling when the plot already felt lackluster and thin, and it was just too far out of left-field to really land. It’s also not apparent that astral projecting and body swapping are within the realm of the universe until pretty late in the series. Perhaps if it was more clear from the beginning that the show had a supernatural component, the ending would have felt a bit more gratifying. The twist ending was just beyond what the rules of the universe seem to be — rather than feeling like I’d found the missing piece of the puzzle and could put it all together, the show’s conclusion felt like I was being presented with a completely different puzzle. The ending was too much of a shocker that I didn’t focus on how the reveal changed how I saw the characters, and I didn’t bother to retrace my steps to see if I could pick up on any Easter eggs. In my opinion, an effective twist ending should feel like the rug was pulled out from under you, but that it should also make you reflect on all the other elements of the show or movie, rather than just force you to process the ending itself.

It’s also worth mentioning that, because Louise is dead and has essentially been replaced by Rob, this virtual stranger with extremely sick motives is now parenting a seven-year-old child. We see that Adam can tell that something is off about his mom — he picks up on the differences in mannerisms. It’s honestly heartbreaking to watch, and I felt the most sympathy for this young boy, the least problematic character. Although all the main characters ended up being harmed in some way, Adam deserved it the least, but he arguably got the worst ending. Again, the ending was just uncomfortable and unnecessarily cruel, but not in a good, thought-provoking way.

 

While the show was certainly suspenseful and each episode had me itching to click “keep watching” once it ended, a TV show or movie needs more than intrigue and tension for me to enjoy or recommend it. The ending was admittedly mind-blowing, but I like to watch things for the plot, not just the plot twist.

 

Samantha is a senior at Connecticut College, double-majoring in Sociology and Economics. She is currently the Beauty Section Editor and a National Writer for Her Campus, having prior been a Beauty Editorial Intern during the summer of 2019. She is also a writer and Co-Campus Correspondent for Her Campus Conn Coll. She is passionate about intersectional feminism, puns, and sitcoms with strong female leads.
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