Anatomy of a Scandal
3dot Productions, 2022
SJ Clarkson / Melissa James Gibson, David E. Kelley, and Sarah Vaughan
📷 : Used with permission, Netflix
Movies and TV shows with a lot of dialog
Nonfamily dramas with strong adult and/or socioeconomic themes
Erving Goffman, a social theorist, coined the concepts “front stage” and “back stage” to convey that we all have a public-facing persona, or front stage, that is very different from our private one, back stage. For those of us who are heavily invested in our career aspirations, particularly as they relate to politics, the stakes are high. In this case, realizing them and gaining influence relies heavily on our front stage appearance. How well we take care of this can be the difference between achieving our goals or remaining a relative unknown. The television series, Anatomy of a Scandal, drives this home, as it centers on a crisis faced by an affluent, political family in Britain.
The six-episode story presents Peter Whitehouse, a very handsome, eloquent, and perfectly well-dressed member of the British Parliament accused of raping Olivia Lytton, a colleague in his office with whom he had a long-time affair. While both admit to the affair, it is the context of their last encounter that is in question. Before the story breaks, Peter, played by Rupert Friend (Homeland, Asteroid City), rushes home to tell his wife, Sophie, about both the accusation and the affair – in that order. Keenly aware that it would be disruptive to his family, made perfect with his beautiful wife, two kids, and even a housekeeper and dog, Peter uses a political consultant to help control the story. Sophie Whitehouse, Peter’s partner since their time at Oxford University, doesn’t receive the news well, and the cynical political operative in their living room doesn’t help matters any. Peter admits to the affair, but he vehemently denies the rape and the case goes to trial.
While not a political thriller, Anatomy of a Scandal is riveting, with some special effects that add suspense to the drama, tempting us to binge watch the series. It also helps that the story is not contained to the courtroom, but moves throughout London, taking us in, out, and around offices, homes, and Westminster Abbey, all of which are nice distractions from the extensive dialog in the series.
As an affluent political family, it is important that the Whitehouses, whose name likely stems from the U.S.’s own sex scandal during the Clinton administration, display both the accoutrements and demeanor of their class to maintain appearances. Thus, Sophie attends court with Peter, despite things being less than harmonious at home. In this narrow sense, the series is similar to The Law According to Lidia Poët. While Lidia presents as a member of Italy’s wealthy and influential class, she has no money of her own, despite growing up wealthy. She is even kicked out of her apartment, which forces her to move in with her brother and his family. Despite this, Lidia continues to dress like a member of the elites. In Anatomy of a Scandal, Peter and his family present as unified, and they possess the wealth and influence their presentation suggests. Like Lidia, though, this outward appearance of unity is inconsistent with a core aspect of their private life, the increasing disintegration of the family’s harmony at home.
Another focal point of the series is the highly skilled prosecutor, Kate Woodcroft. Played by Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey, The Gentlemen), Kate insists on handling the case herself, and believes, quite vehemently, that Peter is guilty of rape. In the courtroom, she skillfully questions both the accuser and the accused about the most minute details of their affair and the ensuing event. Both provide equally eloquent and impressive testimonies, as respective versions of their sexual encounters and the rape are shown through flashbacks. Nearly every response to every question is upsetting to Sophie, as the intimate acts they describe are familiar to her – at times even overwhelming for her.
Complicating the trial is Peter’s long-time connection to the prime minister. A best friend since college, the prime minister stands by Peter, asserting his innocence to the press and suffering political backlash for it. For his part, Peter, with great eloquence, self-control, and even humility, focuses on maintaining appearances so as not to blow up his chances of realizing his political aspiration to succeed his friend as prime minister.
After a while, the series begins to feel like a game of Whac-a-Mole as more and more details of Peter’s affair come to light, and he then feels compelled to explain away the events to Sophie, played by Sienna Miller (American Sniper, The Lost City of Z). For appearances, she is pressured to be in the courtroom with him, but repeatedly hearing the details of their relationship is excruciatingly painful for her. Each time, Peter eloquently rationalizes what was revealed, essentially conveying that the details are not what they seem and again reasserting his innocence. And each time, Kate ramps up her cross-examination, and grows even more determined to prove his guilt.
Peter’s seemingly daily explanations prime his wife to stay in the fight with him, and essentially, mentally prepares her for the next day’s revelations. But between the details, political pressures, the press, and the poignant questions by the prosecutor, Sophie becomes increasingly unable to maintain the facade. Oxford-educated like her husband, Sophie mentally relents and gives in to her instincts, wondering about the man she married and why such an accomplished and skilled prosecutor took on this case. She begins asking some questions of her own, which gradually reveal truths about who people are and what the trial is about. What we learn is that like most situations in life, things are not always as they seem.