Rarely have I been as pleasantly, thoroughly shocked by anything as I was by the compellingly acted, boldly outlandish “Behind Her Eyes,” the limited series adaptation of the best-selling 2017 novel by Sarah Pinborough. Fans of the book will be satisfied by the mostly faithful adaptation from showrunner Steve Lightfoot, who wrote four of the series’ six episodes (Angela LaManna, who worked with Lightfoot on the TV series “Hannibal” and “The Punisher,” wrote the other two), while newbies will be drawn in by the uniformly strong cast, efficient pacing, and twist on your typical thriller. About midway through “Behind Her Eyes,” the show you thought you were watching becomes something else entirely—and if you’re willing to follow those twists, a deliciously bonkers finale awaits you. Admittedly, this ending won’t work for everyone: It requires a thorough suspension of disbelief at an entirely different register than what this genre normally requires. But Lightfoot, LaManna, and series director Erik Richter Strand engineer it so confidently, and the ensemble cast shoulder the narrative demands with such ease, that you’ll be impressed by it even if you loathe it.
Like so many buzzy novels of the past few years by the likes of Paula Hawkins (“The Girl on the Train,” adapted into a 2016 film with Emily Blunt) and Liane Moriarty (whose “Big Little Lies” was a huge hit for HBO, and whose novels “The Husband’s Secret” and “Nine Perfect Strangers” are also being adapted for film and TV, respectively), “Behind Her Eyes” is about infidelity, identity, and the ways we betray each other and ourselves. There’s an entrancing glossiness to this, as this genre often has, and that smooth patina of wealth and prestige is undercut by an intensifying sense of dread, as this genre also often has. And although there are tangible, important differences between these characters in terms of class and social status, the coincidences between them start early, too—night terrors and sleepwalking, anxiety and personality twists—and that shared sense of struggle further develops these relationships.
Most importantly, even as “Behind Her Eyes” (all six bingeworthy episodes of which drop on Netflix on Wednesday, February 17) gets weird—and trust, it does get weird—what the series never loses are familiar, plausible motivations for these characters. Over these six episodes, which incorporate flashbacks and dreamscapes, they become subject to increasingly strange occurrences, but their ambitions are recognizable in their universality. Everyone wants to be loved, to have a home, to live a comfortable life rather than struggle, to provide the same strength and protection for someone else that they hope to receive themselves. Wouldn’t you do anything to secure that?
In present-day London, single mom Louise (Simona Brown) is trying to balance caring for her seven-year-old son Adam (Tyler Howitt) with moving on from her divorce three years before. During a rare night out, she crosses paths with a charming Scottish guy who she talks to and laughs with for hours: the classically handsome David (Tom Bateman), who practically sweeps her off her feet. But when they finally share a heated kiss outside the bar, David cuts it off—and the next day, Louise realizes why. It’s bad enough that David is her new boss, the latest psychiatrist to join the office where Louise is an administrative assistant. But David is also married to the stylish, poised Adele (Eve Hewson), who has no idea of the kiss her husband and his assistant shared, and how much further it could have gone.
What is Louise to do? She can’t lose this job. Maybe she and David can just ignore their attraction, and work professionally. But when she accidentally runs into Adele while dropping Adam off at school, she can’t ignore the woman’s attempts at friendship, either. Adele seems so lonely, with no new friends in the neighborhood where she and David have moved for his new job. Louise is caught in the middle of the two: increasingly enthralled by David, who is kind, protective, and authoritative, and increasingly charmed by Adele, whose attention glows warm and bright. Is it really so bad if she indulges in this flirtation with David while also befriending Adele? If neither of them ever knows about the relationship Louise has with the other, what’s the worst that could happen?
“Behind Her Eyes” sets up that initial balancing act and then builds out the backstories of each character to explain what led them to this place, so methodically that you might not quite notice how askew things are getting. The night terrors Louise has every night that incorporate her mother’s death and her fears about something terrible happening to Adam. The memories Adele has of the time she spent in a mental hospital after a tragic accident in her past, and of the close friend she made there, heroin addict Rob (Robert Aramayo). And how different Adele’s memories of the past are compared with David’s, who refuses to respond to his wife’s “I love you” declarations, who avoids going home, and who has prescribed her a medicine cabinet full of pills. You can never really tell what’s going on inside someone’s marriage, “Behind Her Eyes” suggests, but can you ever really tell what’s going on inside someone, period? As Louise is drawn further and further into David’s and Adele’s lives, both individually and shared, her alliances switch back and forth—and “Behind Her Eyes” keeps us wondering which, if any, of these three people is really telling the truth to themselves or each other.
Per usual with shows that are helmed by one director, “Behind Her Eyes” is beautifully consistent visually, with Strand building in some unsettling flourishes as the creepy vibe intensifies. A slow pan down the organized brick lines of a long, mossy well, the descent into darkness raising our questions about what could be lurking at its bottom. The hallway Louise struggles to move through in her night terrors while she chases a demonic Adam, the walls on each side of her pulsing and breathing. The floating door in a forest that Adele imagines as she remembers her time at the hospital, a manifestation of the coping mental exercises that Rob taught her to center herself in that place.
And essential to the show’s successful tonal balance is how the core ensemble of Brown, Bateman, Hewson, and Aramayo play this all totally straight. They respond to the series’ tonal shifts without overreacting to the peculiarities of the plot, and it’s all handled so naturally that you have no real idea how the show carried you along from Point A to Point B. “Behind Her Eyes” is a fantastically entertaining magic trick of a TV show, so confident in its incongruous genre mashup that you won’t be able to look away. You might love the exceptionally audacious ending or you might hate it, but you’ll certainly talk about it either way.
Limited series screened for review.