This post spoils every single thing about Anatomy of a Scandal.
Anatomy of a Scandal, the new Netflix legal thriller from David E. Kelley and Melissa James Gibson, is already a tonal grab bag before it arrives at its final line. Starring Michelle Dockery, Sienna Miller, and Rupert Friend, the limited series’ overall vibe is this: What if a very sad and twisty high-profile sexual-assault case were also sometimes an overblown anime battle?
Those two things maybe could work together in fascinating and appealing ways, but Anatomy of a Scandal does not understand how to make it happen. Instead, at moments of heightened emotion or sudden shock, the otherwise hyperserious drama shifts into slow-motion surrealism. Characters are blown backward as though they’ve been struck with a wrecking ball. Sometimes they circle one another in a darkened, empty courtroom, eyes locked. At one point, when surprised by new information, Sienna Miller’s betrayed-wife character falls several floors through the air of an enormous domed lobby.
All of those magical-realism sequences are high-key silly, but there is no better case study for what the hell Anatomy of a Scandal thought it was doing exactly than a close look at the series’s final line. Let me set it up for you. Please be aware that this is where I spoil everything that happens in the show.
Michelle Dockery plays Kate Woodcroft, an ambitious and determined prosecutor. She is making the case against James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend), a member of Parliament whose staffer has accused him of rape. Everyone around her keeps saying things like “I don’t know. This case is going to be difficult!” and “Are you sure this is the right course of action?” Kate Woodcroft looks at them with steely eyes and a deep, unshakable conviction. This guy? This guy sucks, and she’s going to nail him. Meanwhile, Whitehouse’s very beautiful and angry wife Sophie (Sienna Miller) hangs around being so disappointed and so upset but is also generally convinced that her husband had a consensual affair.
This modern-day story line is intercut with flashbacks to when Sophie and James were students at Oxford. James was the golden boy (Sophie was already in love with him) and in a student group called the Libertines that — guess what? — got up to some pretty dark stuff. (If you must name your all-male group of highly privileged Oxford students, the “Libertines” seems a little too on-the-nose, but what do I know?) We are introduced to the flashback-era social dynamic: James got whatever he wanted, and everything was beautiful and fun. Sophie wanted to party with James all the time, so she took advantage of her mousy, intelligent, good-hearted friend, whose name is Holly Berry.
Yeah, I know. But hang on, because there’s more. Gradually, as modern-day Kate Woodcroft proceeds with the case against James Whitehouse, full of fervent confidence but also privately haunted by something, we learn more about what happened in the past. James was accused of rape as a student, but that accusation was mysteriously made to go away. And wouldn’t you know it — the student James is accused of having raped? None other than Holly Berry. After that traumatizing experience, Holly transfers to another school and Sophie never hears from her again. Sophie and James get married and have what appears to be a charmed life until it’s blown up by this new accusation of rape.
Yes, okay, the last line. We’re getting there. Now comes the most obvious and overdetermined, shocking twist in recent TV memory. We discover that, all this time, Kate Woodcroft — who has been full of unswerving, inexplicable conviction that Whitehouse is a Bad Dude — is actually Holly Berry. She changed her name after the rape but also, presumably, because her name was Holly Berry.
Various legal things happen, and it looks like James Whitehouse is going to get off with less than complete justice having been served. But then Sophie, who has been standing by James throughout this ordeal, realizes that Kate Woodcroft is her long-lost friend and her husband is a rapist. In the very last moments of the series, Sophie hands Kate the incriminating evidence Kate needs to fully destroy James, and Sophie utters the show’s fateful final words: “Merry Christmas, Holly Berry.”
Merry Christmas, Holly Berry! It’s a final line that would go so well in some other context. It’s a beautiful, perfect capper for a Hallmark Christmas movie starring Candace Cameron Bure. It’d be a cute final note for any number of children’s TV shows and great as a winking button for a sitcom’s holiday episode. Even some of your more, let’s say, tonally ambitious dramas could’ve made it work. Imagine an episode of Smash that ended with Anjelica Huston dryly quipping, “Merry Christmas, Holly Berry.” Or you know what would’ve been perfect? Che Diaz in And Just Like That …, several weeks into their L.A. trip, leaning over and saying, “Merry Christmas, Holly Berry,” to a drag queen they and Miranda are now in a thruple with. (To be fair, any character in any scene of And Just Like That … could’ve pulled off this line.)
There are really only two options for a line like this. Either it has to be uttered with total sincerity — bearing the full weight of Christmas schmaltz and probably accompanied by a stage direction like “Everyone around the tree laughs appreciatively.” Or it must be said with the most enormous wink imaginable — a little GIF stamp of a Lucille Bluth wink showing up onscreen the moment the line is uttered. And, obviously, Christmas has to be involved somehow. One would assume this goes without saying.
Instead, Anatomy of a Scandal spends six episodes developing a heightened, very dark, fraught legal thriller about a traumatized woman and a powerful rapist who has committed repeated crimes with no consequences. Its scenes of betrayal and grim cruelty are meant to be so intense and overwhelming that the only way to adequately express them is via surreal interludes in which people’s bodies go flying through the air. And it’s barely even set at Christmastime. There are vague references to Christmas in the beginning, as Kate Woodcroft/Holly Berry refuses to attend a Christmas party, because she’s too busy being an important prosecutor. But by the time the show has ended, this trial has been going on for quite a while, and any tenuous grip Anatomy of a Scandal had on some kind of Christmas vibe has long since gone by the wayside. “Merry Christmas, Holly Berry” does not land like a fun reminder that it’s been Christmas this whole time. It lands like someone suddenly remembering that, at some point, this show was going to be Christmas themed — again, an unusual choice for a show about a rapist — and, at the very last moment, there was a reminder to chuck in a reference to the holiday.
Is it meant to be funny? Is it meant to be sweet? Is it meant to be sort of wry and knowing — but then it completely fails? Is it meant to be darkly humorous? Or maybe darkly triumphant? Whatever it was meant to be, what it achieves is a closing note so utterly unhinged that I closed my notebook and set it gently down on my desk, then lay down spread eagle on my floor and stared at the ceiling for five minutes. During those five minutes, I meditated on whether it’s possible that this line is so ridiculous that it’s actually appropriate for this very ridiculous show. Then, I decided, “no.” There is no circumstance in which a show about a man on trial for rape should end with the line “Merry Christmas, Holly Berry” and that is its own useful metric for describing this show. It should not have happened! Case closed.