Tell Me Your Secrets (from the mind of Harriet Warner) seems destined to be either a small show with a cult following or a failed experiment that is more interesting in the conception of its idea than in its execution. After watching S1E1 (“Once I Had a Love”), it is hard to tell which it will be. We know that TNT ended up passing on the series before it ultimately landed at Amazon Prime, but it clearly isn’t because of the cast. Lily Rabe is as powerful in her performance her as I’ve ever seen her. Amy Brenneman’s character, Mary Barlow, may strike me as verging on the unrealistic at times in the first episode, but Brenneman herself is as good as ever in making this mother’s motivations and actions plausible. And then there is Hamish Linklater as John, who claims to be reformed or at least trying to be good, intriguing me immediately. And Enrique Murciano equally gives Pete a depth of character in his role as counselor to Karen/Emma. Which is only to pick out those at the top of the bill—the acting throughout Tell Me Your Secrets S1E1 is superb.
The story, however, is a bit convoluted and I have yet to fully decide whether this is a strength or a weakness when it comes to the series as a whole. At this point I have only watched the first episode, though Amazon is releasing the season (or series, as it may turn out) all as a batch on February 19, 2021 (today). I should perhaps warn you that what follows will contain spoilers for that first episode, in case the title of my piece didn’t sufficiently make that clear.
The time frame of Tell Me Your Secrets is on the table within its narrative from the beginning, as we start in the past but with a scene that is already the aftermath of the past before the beginning that will form a certain nugget of mystery as the show establishes itself: what exactly did Karen/Emma (Lily Rabe) do with Kit Parker (Xavier Samuel)? What were his crimes and what were hers? How complicit was she, given that when we cut to “the present” we find her being released from prison and assuming the name Emma in order to start a new life for herself, list of words on a piece of paper and all. She decides that Emma will be kind, brave, and safe, but what was Karen? And can we demarcate her past from this present as we assess her character?
The most interesting move that Tell Me Your Secrets makes as it gets going is in the way that it proceeds from Emma’s perspective. We know that she has done terrible things of some sort in the past—something about young girls, that it would seem Kit raped and killed…or they did this together?—but the details are withheld from us just enough to get us more or less on Emma’s side. Or we want to be, bolstered by the narrative framing and the natural tendency as viewer to identify with protagonist. Emma is a getting a new chance at life, which is surely something many of us have fantasized about, without the baggage of the past weighing us down. Though, as Pete notes, she has to lose the good things, too.
She breaks things off with Kit in a letter that we see him receive in “Once I Had a Love.” Once these two had love and it is more than apparent in S1E1 that this love never died. Whatever else happened, Emma still loves Parker and is wrecked by his suicide, which it would seem he was led to commit from the knowledge of her break from him. (And/or did he do it on the day Mary was coming to visit on purpose?)
And so we have to ask how it is we assess these characters and the love of this couple, knowing only that they have done some heinous things together, without knowing precisely what, and only that perhaps what he did was worse than what she did. Perhaps she went along, but that is undermined by the love itself and the scenes we get in flashback. There is this thought of freeing young women, or girls, from the captivity of social mores, but we aren’t even given any details that could support a perverse vision along these lines. Rather, the past before the beginning of Tell Me Your Secrets S1E1 remains largely in the darkness.
On the other side of things we have Mary Barlow (Amy Brenneman) whose daughter Theresa (Stella Baker) has now been missing for seven years—it would seem taken by Kit and Karen and never seen again. In the opening scene Mary visits a beaten and broken Karen in prison (in “the past”) and she refuses to give any information. What happened to Theresa? Is she alive or dead? And how does the closing scene wherein she comes to Karen for a haircut play into all of this? Just how culpable is this woman we now know as Emma?
As I briefly mentioned in the opening, at times during “Once I Had a Love” I found myself strained to think that anyone would behave as Mary does, but perhaps this is because I have never been a mother whose daughter has been missing for seven years. The response of Mary makes sense, if we can imagine going this way: never giving up hope that her daughter is alive, and with a vengeance (or desire for it) in regard to those who took her. She doesn’t believe that John (Hamish Linklater) is reformed (because she doesn’t believe people can be), but she is willing to manipulate him into tracking down Emma. This isn’t to the good. It isn’t good, in a moral sense. John is completely right as he resists Mary’s request, and it is noteworthy that she only gets him to go along by threatening him.
Thus it becomes clear that the core thematic question of Tell Me Your Secrets is one about redemption. Is it possible? Are some crimes simply too great? And can you break with your past self? Or do you need to, even, in order to find salvation? Or maybe mother Mary is right and that isn’t possible at all?
Mary is both the sympathetic figure of a mother who has had her child taken from her and the unsympathetic figure of someone who is hellbent on revenge no matter the cost, who fundamentally rejects the idea of redemption while not realizing what she has done to herself along the way in pursuit of justice, which has turned her into someone hard and cold. She doesn’t just want justice, she wants Emma to suffer and to deny her the chance to start again. This is the putative “good deed” she asks a man struggling to reform to perform: go stop someone else from having that chance because she doesn’t deserve it.
Of course it isn’t clear if Emma does deserve this chance. But here I am tempted to argue that redemption is never about what one deserves but is in the tricky domain of what can be forgiven, both of oneself and of others. It is not a matter of an excuse (which would justify the bad behavior in the past) or of pointing to possible future happiness to all parties (which would justify absolving the wrong from the perspective of a possible future), but a sort of pure unjustified movement that defines true forgiveness. No one deserves it, because to ask the whole question of desert is to commit a category error.
Emma befriends the young Jess (Emyri Crutchfield) by smashing her bully’s face in. It’s an act of violence that nonetheless seems good, even though we don’t know the backstory. It would seem these girls were bullying Jess for being a foster kid. We don’t know her deeper backstory either, but this is another instance of the question of how one moves forward and makes a new life for oneself, and of how the answer depends at least in part on others.
But then towards the end of Tell Me Your Secrets S1E1 Emma finds Jess dead in her cabin hideout on the water. We think of the story Jess told her about swamp monsters and the secrets she was clearly keeping. We think about the necklace that she gave to Emma and how she was chastised for giving away this talisman of protection. Is it somehow that? Are there really (supernatural) monsters in the world of Tell Me Your Secrets, or only those monsters that are also men like John at least used to be?
It is almost too many mysteries by the end of the hour, with questions about past crimes and past loves once had swirling together with present conundrums and a whodunnit. Tell Me Your Secrets is all over the place: in the past and the present, in Texas and Louisiana, with a naturalism tinged by the possibility of the supernatural (like True Detective Season 1), and philosophically deep ethical problems sketched in multiple directions.
If this all comes together over the course of Season 1, Tell Me Your Secrets could be a powerful entry in the “cancelled too soon” canon (presuming that no more will be made). It could be a cult show that people talk about for years. Or if things do not hang together cogently after these ten episodes, we may be left veritably yelling the title of the series at our screens, hoping for some way to make sense of a mess of questions and mysteries that will never be resolved.
I hope it is the former, but either way I think it is worth finding out. Perhaps there is even some possible world where Tell Me Your Secrets is so compelling and gains such a cult following that they end up making more despite the production and distribution difficulties it has already faced. Let’s give it a shot.
Tell Me Your Secrets debuts on Amazon Prime on February 19, 2021