Douglas Is Cancelled’s Twist Ending Is Crass and Unhelpful

When is empowerment not empowerment? When it’s this.

Karen Gillen as Madeline, sitting in a studio, wearing a green dress in "Douglas is Cancelled"
Photo: Hartswood Films for ITV AND ITVX

Warning: for ITVX Streamers – contains “Douglas Is Cancelled” finale spoilers

For the first two of its four episodes, ITV’s Douglas is Cancelled, written by Steven Moffat, is a satirical comedy with lawn sprinkler-like aim. Everything, from establishment hypocrisy to teenage puritanism to tabloid unscrupulousness, gets a bit wet. In this form, the show is fine; it’s funny and knowing, while at times also inexplicably vicious towards benign targets – a bit like Private Eye

Unlike Private Eye though, there’s no sense that useful investigative work is also being done. The conclusions feel foregone, as if they were vacuum-sealed well in advance of the series existing: young people and their principles are ridiculous; the media old guard are cynical, unhappy drunks; modern TV comedy writers aren’t funny; and men should, broadly, be ashamed of themselves…

That last conclusion is Douglas Is Cancelled’s major contribution to its real subject: #MeToo politics. It begins as the story of TV presenter Douglas (Hugh Bonneville), who puts his career at risk by telling a sexist joke at a wedding. By the end, it’s a story about sexual harassment and male allyship. Men – those horny galumphs, says Douglas Is Cancelled – need to take a long, hard look at themselves. Even if they’re not personally one of the actually-properly-bad-Weinstein-ones, could they have been doing more to help? 

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Douglas certainly could have. Three years earlier, he was well aware that his much younger co-host Madeline, played by Karen Gillan, was in danger from a predatory male colleague, and didn’t help her. Not only that, but in the years since, he repeatedly used the fact that Madeline was (he thinks) coerced into sex by their boss, as a cruel punchline with which to humiliate her behind her back. 

Now, facing public ‘cancellation’ for having been overheard telling this zinger, Douglas feels abashed. He lies about not being able to remember the joke, and only confronts his personal shame when forced to by Madeline’s militarily exacted revenge plan. 

That’s right. Years after the event, Madeline goes to extreme lengths to bring this man who passed by on the other side of the road, to a humbling realisation about what he, and we, have been reasonably led to believe was her rape. (Between that, and young Madeline having idolised bland Douglas instead of say, one of the Newsnight women “with an opinion” of whom he’s so afraid, plus the fact that we never see her interact with a single female friend or relative, it’s safe to assume that realism wasn’t the goal with this one.)

Exploring bystander complicity is a fair idea. We could all stand to examine our part in brushing harm under the carpet, and we could all try to do better. Douglas Is Cancelled in particular should have done better, because its final episode contains a scene that’s not just a crass take on sexual harassment, it’s an insult.  

Episode three is when Douglas Is Cancelled changes tack, switching from cynical industry satire to tense, human drama. In a flashback, Madeline goes to a hotel room for an informal chat about a new job with producer Toby (Ben Miles), who, after a landmine-filled conversation about politics, makes it clear that he wants sex in exchange for employing her. 

Actors Gillan and Miles play it extremely well, and everything unfurls with sickening inevitability. This is the first time that the show has approached dramatic urgency, and it’s a major shift in tone from director Ben Palmer. The episode is well-written and involving, and Gillan is excellent at conveying Madeline’s disguised panic and conversational weight-shifts to try to reach solid ground. 

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Douglas interrupts them by knocking on the door, and then, spotting the “Do Not Disturb” sign, he takes his leave with a cheerily snide line about the job of a presenter ultimately being worth it, even if Madeline has to wade through shit to get there. Wet-eyed and trembling, she goes back into the room, drains a glass of wine for Dutch courage, and walks into the bathroom where Toby is waiting for her in the bath. This is the moment, we think, that she either gives reluctant consent for the sake of the job, or that Toby takes what he wants regardless. 

And then… gotcha! 

Girl power. Madeline steels herself, chucks Toby’s paperwork into the bath along with a glassful of wine and photographs his naked protest, telling him with complete self-mastery:

“To be clear, I’d love the job but I’d never sleep with anyone I work with, also I’m out of your league so stop being ridiculous. And to clarify, I don’t believe in women’s rights because I don’t believe there’s any such thing. I believe there are human rights, denying someone’s human rights isn’t a reason to join a movement or go on a march, carry a placard or blog about the sisterhood, it’s an act of war. It’s a reason to retaliate. So in every possible sense, don’t fuck with me.”

A clever pun! If only women in the real-life scenarios this was inspired by had thought of using a clever pun. And of throwing wine, like a feisty Dynasty heiress. And of telling their rapist what’s-what as if rolling up a newspaper and bopping a bad puppy on the nose. If only, in fact, any of Weinstein’s victims had been been as good a victim as Madeline at all. She kept herself sober, kept her wits about her, stood her ground, and when the chance came, she delivered one hell of a speech. Good girl. Problem solved. Rapist deactivated. Douglas Is Cancelled drives almost all the way down the road towards its real-life Weinstein parallels, and then takes a last-minute slip road to fantasy-land. Haha, surprise! It says. She talked her way out of it and still ended up with the job, like anybody clever would.

It’s an insulting twist because it suggests that a bit of backbone is all that’s needed to shake off sexual harassment and assault. Try rattling off lines worthy of a Katherine Hepburn character in that situation and see how far you get.

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Not as insulting but equally unfathomable is Madeline telling Douglas that she may hate Toby, but she can take him (and work alongside him every day for years) because he’s hardly worth the effort. Douglas, however – the man who stood aside and told unsavoury jokes – is who this is all really about. He’s the one with a lesson to learn from a woman who, for some reason, takes all this time to bother to teach it to him. 

If every Douglas in the world needs a woman (and also in his case, a very angry wife and a conspicuously stupid daughter) to lead by the hand towards the idea that you know, all this sexual harassment stuff is not really on, then give me strength. And give me The Morning Show – a superior take on almost the exact same subject – to watch instead.

All four episodes of Douglas Is Cancelled are streaming now on ITVX.