'Mrs. Wilson': TV Review

A solid, gripping tale of self-deceit.
3/31/2019

Based on a true story, PBS' miniseries stars Ruth Wilson as her own grandmother, a widow who discovers her husband was married to multiple women simultaneously.

What could be more excruciating, more heart-wrenching, than your beloved spouse dying suddenly and leaving you with children to finish raising? One possibility: immediately discovering your entire twenty-plus year marriage was a sham and that you are third in a line of women your husband committed to, impregnated and dispensed with for the next one. (All without divorcing the first wife, of course.)

PBS' grave and zig-zagging period miniseries Mrs. Wilson — which originated on BBC One in the U.K. — is deeply entrenched in the agony of loss, secrets, mystery and betrayal. Inspired by a true story, the three-part serial stars Ruth Wilson as her own grandmother, Alison Wilson, a young Brit who fell for an MI6 agent/spy-fiction novelist skilled enough in deception to lure multiple women into marriage simultaneously. (It comes in handy to be a government intelligence officer when you need to forge divorce papers, for example.)

Mrs. Wilson deftly unravels lie after lie, revealing infinite depths of treachery to the poor widow Wilson: other wives, additional children and falsified career, among other fabrications. However, instead of merely gutting the audience with each shocking disclosure, Mrs. Wilson ultimately questions who's more complicit: the shameless liar or the self-deluding naif who follows him?

The miniseries glides fluidly between the 1960s British suburbs, where Alec Wilson (Iain Glen) collapses at home and dies of a heart attack, and 1940s London, where a young Alison starts a clerical position with the Secret Intelligence Service during World War II and is seduced by this dapper (and visibly married) gentleman. Days after her husband's death, a graying older woman knocks on her door and gently questions if Alison was Alec's landlady, a presumption that immediately has the widow's claws flashing. The woman says she is his wife and is there to claim his body. "What, his ex-wife?" Alison snarls. Incensed, she slams the door in the stunned woman's face. This begins Alison's psychological spiral as she scrutinizes her husband's history, descending into the labyrinthine warren of his wrongdoings.

Alison's grief over Alec's death suddenly transforms into grief over his endless duplicities. The emotional stages are similar: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance — mixed in with contrition, humiliation, brusque irritability, stony-faced rigidity, religious faithfulness, fierce protectiveness over her adult children and remaining love for the flawed man who wrought all this chaos to start.

Wilson is disarming in this role, nimbly flitting from the girlish sprightliness of a young, educated idealist in love with a fraud to the wifely solemnity of a middle-aged woman who has spent two decades in and out of poverty while raising two sons with a ne'er-do-well. Alison's reserve anchors the story as truth becomes the solvent that destroys her comforting memories.

Anna Symon's compelling script adroitly structures Alison's investigation across three hour-long parts, managing to render each additional betrayal even more shocking and painful than the last. (The story ends on a particularly grim note for poor Alison.) You start to see she has been her own unreliable narrator all along, his shadiness hiding in plain sight while she vouched for him and his excuses, ignoring an arrest for wearing a uniform under false pretenses, disappearances for long periods of time and a patterned inability to financially support their family. Even her own mother questions his character early on in their relationship.

This is Wilson's acting triumph, having lived through her grandparents' saga when her father and his brothers discovered the truth in the early 2000s, but other actresses gleam as well. Fiona Shaw, as Alec's MI6 handler, leaches omniscient swagger, and Keeley Hawes, as one of the other Mrs. Wilsons, carries a haughty bitterness over how Alec discarded her and her young son.

If you've ever known a pathological liar, you'll recognize here that it's not just a person's lies that can destroy your trust in them, but the implications of their lies. How little they respected you and could easily disregard you; how their ravenous ego trumped any person they claimed to love. The lies thieve your dignity, the audacity eviscerates your resolve. Their deceits become your own self-deceits every time you oppose your instincts about this person. Mrs. Wilson doesn't just question how well you know the people you love, but how well you know yourself.

Cast: Ruth Wilson, Iain Glen, Fiona Shaw, Keeley Hawes, Anupam Kher, Otto Farrant, Calam Lynch, Patrick Kennedy, Ian McElhinney
Executive producers: Neil Blair, Rebecca Eaton, Ruth Kenley-Letts, Lucy Richer, Ruth Wilson
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (PBS)