This review contains spoilers.
All psychological thrillers should take place in glass-walled offices; characters being able to see but not hear what’s going on does half the work for you. The open-plan Glasgow architecture firm at the centre of The Replacement is the perfect incubator for rising star Ellen’s (Morven Christie) deepening paranoia. The transparent boxes also give her nowhere to hide. Every grievance she expresses and swipe she takes at maternity cover Paula (Vicky McClure) is out on display.
As a pregnant woman, Ellen is already on display. Her body has become the province of other people. It’s theirs to touch, comment on, protect and police. Her attitudes to pregnancy and motherhood are monitored and tested against an invisible checklist. Is she excited enough? Glowing enough? Is she making the most of the experience? Doesn’t she know it all goes so quickly? Tsk, once she’s a mother, she’ll understand.
The alienation of pregnancy is The Replacement’s strongest theme so far. That’s where it feels most vital. The rest of it – the mental health and thriller elements – are building, but Ellen’s frustration at everybody else’s smug assumption that they know best buzzes like dangerous electricity.
That’s part script, but largely down to Morven Christie’s charisma. She makes Ellen smart and sardonic, the sort of character you could imagine having as a high-maintenance mate who’d dominate post-work drinks with tales of nightmare Paula and her latest transgressions. She feels recognisably natural, especially in little moments of human honesty like sarcastically sniping at partner Ian (Richard Rankin) that she didn’t realise demonstrating excitement about the pregnancy “was a competition”, or her elation on hearing that work has been going badly in her absence.
As we’re seeing through Ellen’s perspective, it’s vital for her to feel convincing and justified in her mistrust of McClure’s character. She does, despite the bland photogeneity of her beautiful job filled with beautiful people.
Architecture being one of three professions anyone is officially allowed to have in films, you’d be forgiven for wanting to eat a set square rather than watch yet another cashmere-draped yuppie slink around talking about sight lines and flow. If I’m honest, The Replacement’s opening scene in which the firm breaks out the champagne to celebrate Ellen having landed the big commission that will make her partner made me want to jump out of my Palladian window, off my Mansard roof and run for the sinuously sculptural hills.
I’m so glad I stuck around, because The Replacement seems to be a rare kind of TV drama that has something to say about women and work other than ‘successful career and happy family? Don’t make me laugh’. Depending on how the Single White Female thriller stuff pans out, it could be as much an exploration of insecurity, depression and the fear of being usurped as it is a workplace horror.
That said, the thud of Kay’s corpse on the new build’s underfloor heating in the episode’s final moments points towards Paula’s malevolence not being solely in Ellen’s head. That’s the question we’re asked to decide upon: is Paula an evil mastermind or just a bit keen? Did she push boss Kay (Neve McIntosh without the Doctor Who lizard skin) or what? Is Ellen onto something or just in need of a bit of a lie-down and a box-set of The OC?
As prompted by writer Joe Ahearne and his unobtrusively suggestive direction, I’m on Ellen’s side. More properly, I’m on his, producer Nicole Cauverien and Morven Christie’s side for creating a pregnant TV character who isn’t made to appear unnatural for having interests extending beyond her own cervical wall. With all her maternal wisdom, touchy-feely Paula is clearly the one to worry about. Or is she?
While answering that question, The Replacement is also telling a relevant, shaded story about work and the fear of losing your position in the world, as well as an honest one about the ways motherhood and pregnancy expose women to judgements from which men are shielded. I’ve been racking my brains, but tell me, what other female-fronted drama with a cast this strong is currently doing all that?
The Replacement continues next Tuesday the 7th of March at 9pm on BBC One.