Trust no one
In the age of fake news, a trend for unreliable characters is fuelling some of TV’s biggest thrillers. DQ speaks to a group of writers to find out how they keep viewers hooked.
At a time when people are conditioned to question everything they read and hear, from news stories to politicians’ speeches, it might seem logical to look to TV drama for an element of escapism from everyday life. However, the current popularity of series driven by unreliable characters has turned even this on its head, with viewers increasingly being left wondering who to believe.
Take Netflix teen drama hit 13 Reasons Why, for example. It follows high-school student Clay Jensen as he investigates the suicide of classmate Hannah Baker, whose death came after bullying, sexual assault and lack of support from her friends, family and the school. But the story is presented from Hannah’s perspective, via a series of cassette tapes she used to record her account before she died – and many characters implicated in her death claim Hannah is lying. Who should we believe?
In both Legion and Mr Robot, meanwhile, the lead characters suffer from mental health problems. The former introduces David, a mutant who apparently suffers from schizophrenia, while Mr Robot’s Elliot struggles with paranoia, depression and delusion, and talks to himself. As viewers follow these characters through the story, how do they know what, or who, to trust?
Other recent examples include True Detective, The Replacement, Trust Me, Westworld, Marcella, The Affair, Hannibal and Safe, all of which make viewers see events from multiple perspectives or have them follow characters undermined by personal characteristics or a chain of events, leaving them to question who is telling the truth and quite what to believe.
Characters are unreliable because “they can’t see the whole story and are usually compromised in some way – traditionally psychologically,” says screenwriter Jacquelin Perske. Writers might use this technique “to create mystery, suspense and intrigue,” she notes, “and it is an interesting way to tell a story. Usually, it is explained or made clear to an audience early on that the narrator is unreliable, such as in Forrest Gump, but sometimes not, like in The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense.”
Part of the appeal is that viewers are left somewhat in the dark when it comes to an element of the plot, a character’s motive or both.
“It can also place the audience in a more insecure position not knowing the full story and having to guess at what might be coming or happening around the protagonist,” Perske says. “An unreliable narrator can also lie to both themselves and other characters and, therefore, the audience, misdirecting them. Once an audience is aware of this, you really must be on your toes!”
The Cry, Perske’s four-part miniseries based on Helen FitzGerald’s book, stars Jenna Coleman and Ewen Leslie as Joanna and Alistair, a pair of young parents who move from Scotland to Australia with their baby. But when the infant mysteriously disappears, their relationship collapses under public scrutiny and police interrogation, leaving grief-stricken Joanna broken.
In the drama, produced by Synchronicity Films and distributed by DRG, viewers follow Joanna and Alistair’s story in the present as they search for baby Noah, while flashbacks reveal the origins of their relationship and fan the flames of Joanna’s increasing instability.
“It was a puzzle that had to be held together very carefully,” Perske says. “We never wanted an audience to feel manipulated, so the revelations of what was really happening had to feel surprising and exciting, and that required the tension in the narrative to be strong enough to hold attention.”
Perske says it was always her intention to play with viewer expectations and assumptions. “In the novel, everything is laid out for the reader in the first chapter. I thought that, for this to be an enjoyable journey on the screen, there had to be real tension, mystery and unease about what this couple had or had not done.”
The writer notes that the key to the award-winning show’s success was ensuring the story and the timeline were watertight, leaving no shortcuts that might make viewers feel cheated. “Everything must make sense,” she adds. “It is a great structure for a thriller, or any story that needs tension. Offering an audience a way into a characters’ mind and motivations is very hard in a screenplay – this does offer that.”
BBC1 single drama Elizabeth is Missing (pictured top), based on Emma Healey’s novel, stars Glenda Jackson as Maud, an elderly woman with dementia who struggles against her increasingly debilitating memory loss while attempting to solve two mysteries – one set in the present and one from her childhood. That the story is told from the perspective of someone with memory loss is what makes the series, produced by STV Productions, immediately captivating, much like its source material, as Maud relies on a series of baffling notes to help her get through the day. If Maud cannot rely on her own memory, how can viewers?
“The ambiguity of it is what audiences love,” says Andrea Gibb, the show’s writer. “They love that thing about ‘is she telling the truth or isn’t she?’ What something like that allows is for the audience to control their own viewing – they are in the story then. I love it when little reveals happen and sometimes you don’t realise what’s really going on until you get to the end. So with an unreliable narrator, you never really know quite where you are, and audiences really like that. But it makes it very hard for the dramatist, because you’ve got to be very careful what you’re revealing and when you reveal it, as you can give it away too soon.”
Maud is “certainly up there” among the most unreliable of narrators, Gibb acknowledges, citing the character’s inability to keep thoughts in her head. “That adds to Maud’s own sense of unease. If you’ve got an unreliable narrator who is deliberately telling lies to have a certain effect, that’s completely different from Maud, because hers is inadvertent. She can’t keep hold of the moments because her short-term memory is going.
“One of the things I love about this story as a story about dementia is, in the present day, Maud’s memory is short, which is why she uses notes as reminders and prompts because she can’t keep hold of what is happening in the here and now. Eventually, she’s not going to be able to remember anything about what’s happening around her. But she can go back into her past, and things she had forgotten or suppressed all squirm to the surface. So in trying to solve a mystery in the present, which is difficult for her, she manages somehow to solve the mystery of the past. That’s what’s really beautiful about this story.”
With two BBC dramas to her name, Marnie Dickens has a budding reputation for unreliable characters. In Thirteen, Ivy Moxam (Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer) escapes from a cellar where she has been imprisoned for 13 years, while Gold Digger focuses on the relationship between a wealthy older woman and a younger man whose intentions may not be entirely romantic.
“In my mind, every character I write is an unreliable narrator, because we’re all presenting whatever version of ourselves we want to in that moment,” Dickens says. “How can you ever get a full sense of a person? You’re getting what they’ve chosen to say. That’s where I really went down the rabbit hole with Gold Digger, in that you follow these different perspectives, because how can we trust one person about anything?”
In Thirteen, Ivy was “really hard to read,” Dickens continues, “partly because Jodie’s performance was so fantastic – you’re spending your whole time looking at her and wondering what happened in that cellar and what role she has in the police investigation. When you do find out the reality, I hope what happens is it makes sense to people and they understand the way she’s been acting. It’s the same with [young love interest] Ben in Gold Digger. Various traumas have happened to that character that shape his behaviour. And when you know the truth, you understand why he’s been the way he has.”
In developing Thirteen, Dickens plotted Ivy’s back story and the truth behind what happened in the cellar so she could work out what information the character would want to keep secret, before asking herself what truth she would present in each scene.
“But it relies so much on a good actor because, particularly with Thirteen, the stage directions were really long. Ivy was presenting so many different selves, and modelling her behaviour on the female detective and trying to find an identity that was socially acceptable. None of that was in the dialogue; Jodie just did it all – and more.”
Acting was also key to the ambiguity of Gold Digger, with Ben Barnes, who plays Benjamin opposite Julia Ormond’s Julia, offering two performances of each scene so Dickens and the creative team could then decide in the edit how sinister or genuine he might be at each moment, until the finale where viewers discover Ben’s true intentions towards Julia.
“What you never want to happen is you get to the end, the truth is revealed and the audience feel they’ve spent six episodes investing in a fraud. It’s a very fine line to tread when you put an unreliable narrator at the heart of the piece.
“You make a perspective choice. With Thirteen, we’re on Ivy’s shoulder a lot. So as she enters the world for the first time in 13 years, we’re with her. Then we also make the choice at other times to be distant from her, so we’re observing her. Especially in the later police scenes, you see her through the glass and you are putting the audience in the position of judging whether what she’s saying is the truth or a lie.”
Putting a further twist on unreliable characters is Sanctuary, a suspenseful psychological thriller in which twin sisters Siri and Helena are separated as children. Years later, when Helena receives an invite to visit Siri at the Himmelstal sanatorium, her stay turns into a nightmare when Siri disappears and Helena discovers the resort is actually a treatment centre for psychopaths. As the staff believe Helena to be the manipulative, violent Siri, she must change to survive.
The show, based on Marie Hermanson’s novel The Devil’s Sanctuary, stars Josefin Asplund and Matthew Modine. Written by Charlie Fletcher (Wire in the Blood) and Rachel Flowerday (EastEnders), it was developed by Sweden’s Yellow Bird and TMG for C More and TV4, with distributor StudioCanal sending it to StarzPlay in the UK.
“It’s a dramatic high wire but it’s a story that builds slowly,” Fletcher says. “That’s always a dangerous thing, but we wanted it to be a slow build so the horror would gradually reveal itself to Helena and the audience more or less at the same time, which meant that as the difficulty of that situation becomes more and more apparent to her, the audience are discovering that too. We never wanted [viewers] to get too far ahead of her, but we also wanted to keep alive a little sense that everything with her might not be quite as it is.”
As a character, Helena is accused of hiding away from life, working an all-night job in a “grey cubicle farm” answering the phone and avoiding social contact. But once she becomes trapped in her sister’s place, survival becomes more important than escape – and it’s through this process that viewers soon find themselves unsure whether to trust her words or her actions.
“The premise of the book is the bad twin swaps places with the good twin, who is stuck inside the psychiatric facility,” Fletcher explains. “Nobody believes she is who she is. Of course, all the things she does to try to persuade them she is the good sister, they are able to put down to her being a psychopath. Every time she says, ‘I’m not a psychopath,’ they say that’s exactly what a psychopath would say. That enabled us to develop her from a passive to an active character.”
Fletcher and Flowerday mapped out each episode before they started work on the scripts, ensuring they knew all the pieces of the puzzle. “As with all films or series that involve a degree of mystery, the things that are the hardest to track are what your lead character knows and what your audience knows,” Fletcher says. “At what point do you want the audience to be ahead of your lead character, which creates one kind of tension, and at what point do you want your lead character to be ahead of your audience, which produces satisfying surprises when something is revealed? We always wanted to make her a strong, active character, so it’s about keeping that balance.”
In these unreliable times, perhaps it’s no surprise that viewers are enjoying watching unreliable characters, in shows that are forming an intriguing sub-genre of standard mystery thrillers.
“Viewers enjoy trying to be ahead of the character. They also enjoy being surprised. It keeps heightened engagement with drama,” Fletcher adds. “We’re living in interesting times and all bets seem to be off. There seems to be a sense the world is becoming less stable and that we can trust our media and our leaders much less than we thought we could. When everything [in the real world] is slightly mercurial and untrustworthy, it’s no accident there’s a rise in interest in dystopian dramas and stories where characters are not who they seem to be.”