Initially Anatomy of a Scandal, based on Sarah Vaughan’s book of the same title, seems unassuming and linear. The opening scene is magnificent and powerful, and sets the tone for something great—but I was not prepared for how deeply we would tumble into the complex histories of our main characters.
We are immediately presented with a politician who has discovered that his workplace affair is about to become public knowledge. His wife, Sophie (Sienna Miller), is sickened to hear the news, but she pledges there and then to stand by him throughout whatever stormy weather may come when the press release the story. The couple are visited by Chris (Joshua McGuire), the governmental public relations expert, who supports Sophie’s choice, despite clearly disliking the pair and being permanently frustrated by the indiscretions he is required to clean up.
Things take a turn during the closing scene of the first episode, when it is revealed that Olivia (Naomi Scott), whom James (Rupert Friend) was having his affair with, has accused him of rape. This comes as an apparent shock to him, but he denies the claims and Sophie choses to stand by him. She appears in court to see what Olivia has to say, and appears at this point to be more upset by the affair than she does about the potential violent nature of her partner. It is not until more details come out about another assault James may have committed earlier on in their relationship that she begins to have doubts over his integrity and transparency.
Things begin to really unravel when somebody claims that Holly (Nancy Farino), Sophie’s study partner from university, was also raped by James. The twists the story takes after that are harrowing, shocking, and ultimately make for a very satisfying story. But it is not just the plot, the nicely paced drama, nor the scandal that makes this story so special, it is the representation of sexual assault.
Much of the sexual abuse that we see in movies and on television is based around the narrative of explicit force, clear violence, and a crying or clearly distraught victim. Anatomy of a Scandal does this differently. The initial rape case that we are exposed to is between a man who had been having an affair, and his ex-mistress, who had been engaging willingly in sex with him for the duration of their relationship. She was still in love with him at the time of her assault. This created a perspective on sexual violence that is less often explored and allowed the characters the space in which to demonstrate how such acts can come in familiar settings from familiar people. Anatomy of a Scandal allowed for much more nuance and complexity in the discussion of sexual assault.
In the final episode, Angela (Josette Simon), James’ representative, asks of the jury about James, “why rape a woman who was willing to have sex with him?” The defence were adamant in painting a picture that throws us back to 1991, when marital rape was not illegal. Angela removes all agency for Olivia to have made her own choices in any given moment, and creates a defence based upon the idea that consent within a relationship equates to consent at any time during or after that relationship. The frustration that Olivia was clearly feeling during her testimony represents the feeling that many people will experience when deciding if their assault is worth reporting.
And, of course, then James was found to be not guilty. Although the series left us with some hope that James would be found guilty for other crimes from his past, we were not given a sugar-coated, tidy, unrealistic ending to the trial. What happened to Olivia is what happens to so many victims of assault. We don’t see her again after the trail, and are left to assume that she would have found returning to work after this verdict extremely difficult, and perhaps even impossible.
This was more than a conversation about being believed or about violence; it was also about the softer no’s, the familial rape, the complexity of withdrawing consent and being shamed for it. It is about survivors whose stories are not convenient and do not fit into accepted narratives. We watch a deceitful, sly woman claw horrific memories out of herself and have her lies and her selfishness used against her, as if her character is what decides whether she can be a victim or not.
This short series takes no prisoners with its male characters—there is not a single one presented in a favourable and positive light. All of them are selfish, arrogant, crude, or otherwise unkind, leaving us without doubt about the kind of atmosphere we are entering when we peek into the lives of Sophie and James. It is no wonder that Sophie wants to begin her own career again instead of sitting in the muddy water of James’ own reputation.
And, of course, in the end Sophie does come around to the man that James is. We watch her observe James teaching his son that he will always “come out on top” because he is a Whitehouse. He teaches Finn (Sebastian Selwood) that he will always have opportunities and forgiveness offered to him because of who he is and the power his father has. Ultimately, this is one of the triggers that helps Sophie to make up her mind. When she finally announces to James that she is leaving him, she tells him, “I can’t stay. Because if I do, who will our children become?”
This is a moment of triumph for viewers as we are seeing a fracture in the cycle of generational abuse and entitlement. Sophie is a character stepping up to do the right thing instead of hiding underneath privilege and ignorance. She tells James that she feels “ashamed” of the way that she sat back and watched him live a life on deceit and dishonesty, a moment of clarity in a life that had been very confusing for her whilst she was living under his thumb, defined by him and not herself.
This very satisfying ending does not detract from the outcome of the case. Important issues were raised here in a way that shed more light on the growing retaliation over abuse and violence within relationships and from people in positions of power. The series very powerfully displays the consequences, the biases, and the ignorance that sit within cases such as this, and brings our attention to them head on instead of hinting at them and then skirting around them. We sit through the long court scenes just as the characters themselves must. None of the detail is hidden from our view, and we are asked to face up to the reality that sexual violence is not always what we might think it is.
As more is revealed to us about Kate (Michelle Dockery), Olivia’s lawyer, we drift deeper into the history of our main characters and become more emotionally involved in the case itself. Although a little far-fetched, the background we are given on Kate does increase the drama and the stakes of the trial, making for a more thrilling watch instead of just a depressing one. The story has been very cleverly written to manipulate you into feeling a more passionate hate for James than you may have without the addition of Kate’s story, and a resentment towards Sophie; although Sophie manages to redeem herself by the end. Given a chance to derail the case against James, Sophie chooses to remain silent. However, she later not only leaves him but also hands over information that will help raise a conviction against him for other crimes in his past. The audience is left with no doubt that James is a bad man, and so are many of those around him.
Ultimately, we are left feeling hopeful, if not vindicated. The ending is left open to a few different outcomes for James, but, at the very least, it seems he will have lost everything that was important to him. And quite right, too.