Netflix’s new miniseries Behind Her Eyes has sparked feverish debate - but perhaps not in the way its creators intended. Although the streamer marketed the show on Twitter as one “with a twist you'll *never* see coming (unless you've read the book, in which case: shhhhh)”, said twist has caused more anger than anything else.
Many took to social media to warn off other potential viewers, with posts like “Behind Her Eyes took the craziest turn. Nobody watch it”, or “Behind Her Eyes has such a trash ending. Wasted my time with it.” Critics have largely agreed. Variety said the ending would be morally offensive if it wasn’t so “ridiculous”, Digital Spy said it was “damaging”, Vulture labelled it “cheating”, and Salon called the series “an unresolved mess of problematic narratives”, with a conclusion “that’s baffling at best and deeply tone-deaf at its worst.”
The six-part series, which stars Eve Hewson, Tom Bateman and Simona Brown, is based on British novelist Sarah Pinborough’s 2017 book, which similarly rocked readers with its “gotcha” climax; the hashtag #wftthatending trended on social media. Beware: spoilers follow.
Like the book, the drama essentially switches genres partway through, beginning as a relatively grounded psychological thriller, and finishing as sci-fi pulp, with improbable twist stacked on improbable twist. Should anyone have been fool enough to invest in these characters, or try to puzzle their way through the various plot mysteries, they’ll discover in that final episode that it was a complete waste of time and energy.
The story begins with single mother Louise embarking on an affair with therapist David - who turns out to be her new boss. Louise also strikes up an intimate friendship with David’s troubled wife Adele. So far, so erotic thriller. But then we get the start of the supernatural element: Louise, who suffers from night terrors, is taught by Adele how to control them - and also to "astral project", i.e. send her consciousness travelling somewhere else while her body remains stationary.
Still, the plot continues to throw up fairly realistic red herrings, leading the viewer to suspect either David or Adele of dubious activities, quite possibly involving the death of Adele’s friend Rob, who she met while in rehab; we see him in various flashbacks. But the actual reveal (again, spoiler alert) is one that no one could possibly guess - and is just the first in a series of baffling revelations.
It turns out that Adele isn’t actually Adele; the whole time, we’ve been watching Rob in Adele’s body. He swapped bodies with her during an astral projection session in order to take over her life: her wealth, privilege, beauty, and her husband David. Rob-as-Adele is now doing everything he can to keep hold of David - and so he sets takes a heroin overdose and sets the house on fire, in an apparent suicide attempt, and lures Louise’s astral projected spirit inside. But once she’s left her body, Rob makes another switch, leaving Louise to die as Adele, and becoming Louise himself. Now, he can marry David and inherit Adele’s fortune.
The creepy ending is similar to another body swap drama, Jordan Peele’s Us: immediately, Louise’s son senses that there’s something wrong with his mother, but can’t do anything about it. The big difference is that Peele’s film is an overtly mythical horror movie from the off, while Behind Her Eyes feints at an entirely different genre before pulling the rug out from under its viewers. It starts off like The Undoing and ends as a knock-off Stranger Things.
Body swap stories are often played for comedy, along with a life lesson or two - like in movies Freaky Friday or The Change-Up - although there is also precedent for more serious or spooky happenings, such as Lovecraft’s The Thing on the Doorstep. The problem with Behind Her Eyes is that its climactic moments make all that follows feel inconsequential, because it’s such a radical departure from what we assumed were the rules of its universe.
It also makes a one-dimensional villain of Rob - and, if we actually read into the implications of his depiction, as this otherwise serious drama seems to want us to do, it’s problematic in numerous different ways, as many viewers and critics have pointed out.
Rob is the only character from the LGBTQ community in the series, and his desire for David is portrayed as obsessive and predatory. By parasitically invading Adele’s body, he tricks David into a non-consensual sexual relationship, which taps into hoary tropes of queer characters as deceitful and dangerous. It’s the kind of messaging that leads to the warped defence of homoophobic attacks.
The male-to-female transfer might also be read as transphobic, as it’s unhelpfully framed in terms of make-believe. David-as-Adele is an imposter. The identity he presents to the world is not real, and it’s not right for him to don it. In effect, the story sees an evil man wearing the bodies of two murdered women as some kind of grotesque drag. We haven’t come far from Silence of the Lambs and Buffalo Bill’s skin suit.
On top of that, Rob is the poor person who covets a life of privilege and then uses this transgender swap to steal it. The identity change is all about selfish gain - which, say some critics, taps into cynical views about the trans community, and also villainises the working class. The (presumably unintentional) message is: don’t let those greedy oiks near your mansions, or you’ll regret it.
Unlike Peele’s work, the series also dabbles in racially charged plot lines, but without a clear idea of what it wants to say. Rob invading the body of a black woman, and deeming her life inconsequential compared with his own – simply a means to an end – could have been used to comment on the erasure of people of colour in society. Instead, it’s just one more element in a rushed finale. It’s worth noting that Louise is white in the book, so this is a deliberate choice, but not a considered one.
The book has one extra nasty element. When Rob swaps into Adele’s body, he discovers that she’s pregnant and insists on getting an abortion. At least the series spared us that. (Also omitted: a cat murder.) But we do realise, in retrospect, that hints of domestic violence were just part of Rob’s scam - again, extremely unhelpful messaging when victims are so often not believed in the real world.
The linking of astral projection to murder, non-consensual sex and drug use has even dismayed practitioners like Martin Rothery, founder and creator of sanomentology - a therapy based around accessing the unconscious mind in order to heal people. “When I saw Get Out, I thought ‘Oh my god, yet another film that puts a bad spin on hypnotherapy,” he recalls. “That kind of abuse of the practice is possible, but we would never do it.” Similarly, he fears that Behind Her Eyes could “have a negative impact on us professionally”, particularly since so much of the process involves trust.
Rothery, who has taken 300 practitioners around the world through his 15-day training process, says that sanomentology is “client-led, while with hypnotherapy, you could plant an idea.” He sees it as a midpoint between science, religion and philosophy, harking back to Ancient Egypt and the study of dreams. In more literal terms, it’s about accessing the amygdala in the brain, dealing with unresolved events that cause anxiety, depression or trauma. “I would ask you to close your eyes, say ‘Where do you want to go?’, and then we talk about it for a few minutes. Your imagination goes wild, and your unconscious mind travels there. You go on a massive adventure that helps you resolve those issues.”
It feels real in the moment, he explains. “One trainee was on a boat and she had to step onto an iceberg to talk to a whale. That environment caused actual physiological effects, and her glasses steamed up.” It can be recreational too. During lockdown, he’s taken people on holiday to Greece - all within an hour.
Rothery believes that the unconscious mind could exist outside the body, and that means it could travel - as we see in Behind Her Eyes. But he views it more in terms of quantum theory, where you become “linked up to anything that has ever existed, and you can cross into another reality. Some don’t remember it all, while for others it’s like 5D cinema.”
Could we actually body swap, like in Netflix’s psychodrama? Rothery does think there’s a level where we’re all joined, so it is possible. But, crucially, “I don’t think it could be done with malicious intent. It’s like a miracle: no one has done one selfishly.” He’s more impressed with the recent Pixar film Soul, which “has some coherent ideas.”
That’s really the core issue with Behind Her Eyes. Even beyond offending various groups with its lurid and slapdash portrayals, it fails simply on the level of coherent drama: establishing a premise and following through on that story, in the right genre and with an ending that feels supported by the whole. Pulp is fine - a show doesn’t have to be “good” to be an escapist lockdown hit. But undermining the viewer for the sake of a flashy twist is just bad practice. And no one has to dip into their unconscious to realise that.