'A Very British Scandal' Has Lots of Drama But Little Heart

Paul Bettany and Claire Foy in "A Very British Scandal" (Photo: Credit: Alan Peebles/Amazon Studios)

A Very British Scandal - Season 1 - Episode 101

© 2021 Sony Pictures Television

A Very British Scandal is the second installment in the rather loose anthology series originally kicked off by 2018's A Very English ScandalAnd perhaps we can blame the name change for the series' sudden shift in quality—it's meant to reflect the setting's move from London to Scotland, but will likely just confuse viewers about whether the two properties are connected at all. But where English Scandal used the sordid conflict at the series' center as the mechanism by which to explore both its central relationship and a specific cultural moment in English history, its British cousin seems content to simply titillate, recreating shocking moments but giving them by way of little larger context. 

On paper, the contentious and very public divorce between Ian Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll, and his wife, Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, offers no end of fascinating historical details. The fact that Ian divorced his second wife Louisa in order to marry Margaret Sweeny, a rich, society figure with a fairly shocking reputation of her own is just the tip of the iceberg of their messy story, which includes scandals that run the gamut from her rumored affairs with celebrities and powerful politicians to his alleged physical abuse. There's so much drama to be mined here, it's a wonder that anyone waited this long to adapt this story into a television series.

The problem, however, is that A Very British Scandal is so fascinated by the salacious details of the pair's various transgressions, that it forgets to tell us who they are as people and, as a result, fails to make us care about them in any real way. Instead, the three-episode series jumps almost immediately into simply telling us how miserable and cruel they both are, leaving viewers to wonder why on earth we ought to care whether they get married or divorced or simply destroy one another along the way. They both seem like pretty vile people, after all. 

Look, any series starring Claire Foy and Paul Bettany is never going to be bad, and fans may well find A Very British Scandal worthwhile viewing simply for the joy of watching two such accomplished performers tear into one another in a variety of precise and horrifying ways. And there is something interesting about the way the series tries to wrestle with the innate unfairness of how society—from the press and public opinion to our very legal system itself—penalizes women disproportionately for the same sexual "crimes" they wink and nod when men commit them. But despite its shocking subject matter, the show somehow still ends up not saying much.

Paul Bettany and Claire Foy in "A Very British Scandal" (Photo: Credit: Alan Peebles/Amazon Studios)
Paul Bettany and Claire Foy in "A Very British Scandal" (Photo: Credit: Alan Peebles/Amazon Studios)

Part of the problem is that A Very British Scandal never really manages to make the relationship between Margaret and Ian feel meaningful, nor does it explain why or how their marriage fell apart so quickly. Their initial connection seems driven by little more than their interest in having sex with one another and also possibly various capitalistic conquests: Margaret loves his ancestral Scottish castle, Ian loves her money. They seem to have very little in common and even less interest in what makes the other tick. (Or, if they do, the series thinks it doesn't need to show us any of that.)

So when their marriage inevitably begins to disintegrate—before they even get in the front door if Ian's over-the-top fury about Margaret not wanting to be carried over the threshold is any indication—none of us really care that much about it. How could we? We barely know either of them, why should we believe they're in love? Or be terribly upset if they realize they're not?  

If the sudden souring of the Argylls' mutual affection seems as though it comes out of nowhere, the emergence of Ian as a complete and utter monster is doubly so. The speed with which this fairly traditional functional alcoholic layabout turns into a man who steals his wife's money as he mocks her stutter and then threatens her with domestic abuse is enough to give anyone whiplash. I realize the show has to get his character to the point where "releasing his wife's nudes to a hostile press" is just another weekday for him, but perhaps we all would have been happier if the drama also hadn't needed him to be a believable romantic lead like an hour before. 

Claire Foy in "A Very British Scandal" (Photo: Credit: Alan Peebles/Amazon Studios)

There's a better version of this show out there somewhere, one that unquestionably centers Margaret and her perspective, that abandons trying to be even-handed about the reasons behind the dissolution of the Argylls' marriage, and  forthrightly embraces the idea that she was a modern woman whose only crime was being born in the wrong era during a time when women simply weren't allowed to enjoy sex as openly or obviously as men do. 

After all, A Very British Scandal's sympathies very clearly lie with Margaret, and that's the story it often feels like the show would rather be telling. (It has the benefit of a being a similar cultural edge to the story A Very English Scandal told, as well.)

Instead, much of the series is dedicated simply to cataloging the pair's various flavors of abject misery, and it's generally a glum and depressing affair. For some reason, the series makes the decision to isolate the stuff everyone ostensibly came for—the cruel zingers and public sniping of the couple's very public divorce fight—into the series' final installment. (Despite the fact that it's almost all the trailers focused on, which says to me the folks making this show knew that was the only part of the story that mattered.)

Claire Foy in "A Very British Scandal" (Photo: Credit: Alan Peebles/Amazon Studios)
Claire Foy in "A Very British Scandal" (Photo: Credit: Alan Peebles/Amazon Studios)

The show's final hour does, at last, seem to realize that its primary strength lies in watching these two awful people being terrible to one another and the show is at its best when it embraces the idea that neither of these people are characters we should be rooting for.

There are occasional moments during the third episode, as the show shifts gears to focus on the drama of the court case and the media frenzy that surrounds it, that have a Bonfire of the Vanities-style dark comedy feel. And it's almost enough to make you wonder what this show would have been like if it was all a sort of arch meditation on rich people behaving badly, encouraging us to freely and gleefully judge Margaret and Ian for their many failings as they trash one another in the press. How fun that might have been. And that's what this show is really lacking at the end of the day—so little of it is fun to watch.

Instead, something about A Very English Scandal seems to want us to just feel badly for these people, repeatedly hinting that there's simply more dimensionality to their pain than we can understand. But, since the show is equally determined not to give either of its leads any real depth—it repeatedly refuses to explore Ian's lingering trauma from his time in a Nazi POW camp and it never even mentions that Margaret had eight miscarriages before she tried to buy a baby off of a friend—it ultimately ends up being a story about two lonely and awful people, who are somehow even lonelier and more awful together. 

A Very British Scandal is now streaming on Prime Video.

Lacy Baugher

Lacy's love of British TV is embarrassingly extensive, but primarily centers around evangelizing all things Doctor Who, and watching as many period dramas as possible.

Digital media type by day, she also has a fairly useless degree in British medieval literature, and dearly loves to talk about dream poetry, liminality, and the medieval religious vision. (Sadly, that opportunity presents itself very infrequently.) York apologist, Ninth Doctor enthusiast, and unabashed Ravenclaw. Say hi on Threads or Blue Sky at @LacyMB. 

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