This review contains spoilers.
In the final moments of Doctor Foster series one, as Simon and a heavily pregnant Kate drove away from Parminster town square, Gemma glanced over at the gaming magazine Tom was reading and saw he was looking at a female character leaning provocatively over a car bonnet in a bikini. Nothing further was said, but it planted a seed in her and our minds about Tom’s developing attitudes to relationships and sex. How would his dad’s affair affect the man Tom would become?
“Sons are their fathers” Jack said that same series of Simon’s philandering. Thinking of Tom, Gemma had replied thoughtfully, “I hope not”.
That seed bore discomfiting fruit in this week’s Doctor Foster, aka, the angry shag episode. Hours after Gemma and Simon had consensual but violent hate-sex, she learned that a drunken Tom had sexually assaulted his schoolfriend. Consensual but violent hate-sex, to be specific, with fifteen-year-old Tom upstairs in a house with thin walls. The same house, let’s be really specific, in which Simon violently assaulted Gemma two years earlier.
What a nasty mess this is. But so watchable.
Come the end-of-year TV round-ups, Gemma and Simon’s stalking, snarling, finger-biting, throat-choking, face-pushing, hair-pulling sex scene is going to be remembered. When it was over, they glowered from opposite sides of the room, naked sweating and spent, like boxers who’d just gone twelve rounds. This wasn’t a road back to intimacy; it was a continuation of the fight they’ve been having all series. Put it this way, how often do you see a post-coital couple framed not in close-up but in a wide shot?
Saying that Tom’s parents have messed him up is no apology for his assault on Isabel. It is a piece of the explanation though. This episode’s sex scene is, in itself, an additional piece. How often have we been shown heated arguments on screen turning into hot, angry sex? More often probably, if anyone cared to do the count, than we’re shown couples engaged in loving intimacy. After all, where’s the drama in that? The kind of sex Simon and Gemma had this week has much better PR than the gentle kind. As Anna says, “hate-sex, heard it’s good”. She hasn’t just heard it’s good, she’s seen it look good on shows like this and countless others. You don’t need indiscreet nightmare parents to be exposed to the idea that aggression in a sexual context is hot.
Tom didn’t commit the assault because Gemma and Simon messed him up; he made a resolutely wrong choice, drunk, because he lives in a world that reinforces that message and ultimately, because he wanted to. Why did Simon start sleeping with Kate? Because, like adultery, men having much younger women as sexual partners is normalised behaviour, and because he wanted to. Sons are their fathers. And their mothers. And all the messages we teach them.
Tom’s mother and father, it has to be said, are two of the most selfish TV characters ever created. They’re the Seinfeld-trio-meets-Joffrey-Baratheon, with any redeeming qualities removed. This week Simon lied to and cheated on his wife, then dropped Tom like he was a casual employee and not his son. ‘Sorry mate, going to have to let you go,’ was essentially his approach after Tom embarrassed him at work, then added insult to yet another injury with the explanation, “We’re married, mate, and we don’t hide things from each other.” There doesn’t exist a big enough font size for the HA! that line requires. (And if there does, it’s also required after Gemma’s entertainingly catty “young child” comment.)
As for Gemma, she side-lined the one decent man in her life then cheated on him in an attempt to shag-mail her ex, before blowing out her best friend’s hen party and skipping town on her patients. Granted, her life has fallen to pieces and her son might be turning into a rapist, but none of that’s a stand-up response.
Now she and Tom are off, to where? The coastal childhood home at which she regrouped at this point in series one is our best bet. That’s one mystery to be solved in the remaining two episodes, alongside a couple of others: what did Simon tell Tom about his mother that made him want to leave home? And what was in the housewarming gift that Gemma gave to Kate? It could be a razorblade, a cyanide pill, a bottle of piss or a scented candle. Who. Knows?
That’s the skill of Doctor Foster. It stages the everyday—cheating, divorce, second marriages—on an exaggerated, operatic scale. With next-level acting from its two leads, careful writing and direction and wild shifts in plot, this extravagant, soapy melodrama drags you in. Take a seat, pick a side and smell the blood.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here.