This review of Reprisal contains no spoilers.
In the era of Peak TV, it’s easy to assume that we probably don’t need another tale of revenge, divided families that do one another wrong, and the unforeseen consequences of years-long vendettas. And maybe we don’t—which is why it’s a good thing that Hulu’s Reprisal manages to put what feels like a truly fresh spin on this sort of story.
How? By making it about the women at its center.
The bones of Reprisal are indeed built from very familiar pieces. Traditionally, this kind of revenge thriller is a story—and a genre, come to that—that’s very masculine, and generally told from a male perspective. It’s got gearhead gangs and strip clubs, fighting rings and protection rackets, fast cars, violence, and betrayal. But here, however, the series puts a distinctly feminist twist on what would otherwise feel like fairly well-trod ground.
Timeless favorite Abigail Spencer stars as Doris Quinn, a woman who was known as Katherine Harlowe back when she was dragged behind a truck and left for dead by her brother Burt (Rory Cochrane) and several other members of his powerful street gang, the Brawlers. An indeterminate number of “some years later,” she’s finally ready to return home and get back at the men who ruined her life, and as her journey continues, she picks up several more lost souls like herself along the way.
No one’s seducing anyone else for fun and leverage, as so often happens in female-fronted revenge dramas. And though there are plenty of strippers and exotic-style dancers, there’s very little in the way of sex or even objectification. Every female character in the world of Reprisal is three-dimensional, intelligent and capable – and either already has, or eventually claims agency over her own life and choices. So, yeah, this is hardly your typical male-focused story about the intricacies of gangland life.
Instead, this is a tale that’s very much about female anger—and the satisfaction we all feel when women and those who are repeatedly underestimated, ignored, belittled and abused get their chance to strike back against a world that’s done them wrong.
The promotional materials for Reprisal frequently describe Doris as a “femme fatale,” which is true in the most strictly technical of senses. But her character is hardly one note, and she’s hardly a stereotypical vixen or murderess. In fact, part of the reason she is so compelling is that it’s obvious she’s spent so long both remembering who she once was, and pretending to be someone else that she doesn’t entirely know who she wants to be when her mission is over.
Spencer is, unsurprisingly, fantastic in the lead role. Her portrayal of a woman whose rage simmers under the surface of every aspect of her life even as she maintains a veneer of stoic calm is both deft and occasionally shocking (let’s just say, the few moments she chooses to raise her voice really land.)
She can be as violent as any of the men in this tale, but counts on the fact that nearly everyone she comes into contact with immediately sees her as meek, compliant and subservient. It’s a perception she leans into with some gusto, to be fair. (See also: Her aggressively soothing tone, her use of innocuous, diminutive nicknames.) But though Doris often comes off as fearless, particularly in front of others, Spencer never lets us forget that, at her core, she remains painfully human.
Doris isn’t the only multi-faceted female character at the forefront of Reprisal, either. There’s Molly (Bethany Anne Lind), a housewife who helps Doris cover up a murder and discovers her own strength while on the run in a dingy hotel room. There’s Meredith (Madison Davenport), the daughter of Brawler leader Burt, who dreams a life on her own terms outside the gilded cage she’s kept in by her father. And there’s Queenie (Lea DeLaria), mother hen of the exotic dancers who work at Burt’s Bangarang club, who’s forged her girls into a family willing to take up arms to save one another.
Reprisal is at its most interesting when it’s focused on the stories of these women and the choices they make (or don’t). Unfortunately, the series drags whenever it spends too much time in the other parts of its story. Its insistence on the importance of found families, in particular the genuine friendships formed between mid-level Brawlers Matty (Rhys Wakefield), and Ethan (Mena Massoud), is often moving, true. But, for the most part, the momentum of the story grinds to a halt whenever Joel (Rodrigo Santoro), Burt or any other club members show up to discuss gang business, the possibility of “war” with neighboring groups or questions of territory. It’s deeply dull, and the series front-loads way too many of its earlier episodes with these sequences in the name of exposition.
In fact, Reprisal’s first few episodes are probably a little too confusing for their own good. We’re dropped into proceedings in medias res, with the briefest of flashbacks to set the stage for Doris’ actions. Things proceed rapidly from there, leaving viewers to sort out the most basic facts of the story for themselves, from character names to how any of these people connect to one another. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—in truth, more shows should probably trust their audiences to keep up with them. But when so many of the male characters feel like interchangeable stock figures until somewhere around the fourth episode, it’s frustrating and may lead some viewers to want to tune out. (Don’t, is what I’m saying).
Overall, Reprisal feels as though it’s aimed squarely at fans of a very specific genre, and cares little about its chances of larger mainstream success. Perhaps everyone involved knows that’s probably unlikely. As entertaining as this series is, there’s nothing about it that screams breakout hit—Reprisal isn’t going to be the next big point of conversation at your office water cooler, or launch a thousand memes on Twitter. But it’s also oddly impossible to walk away from, as a viewer, particularly if you give the show time to settle into its narrative groove.