The episode begins with therapist Maggie White (Lisa Millett) coming to visit the Hughes family to try to evaluate Joe Hughes (Max Vento). Right at the beginning, we find out that Maggie was bullied in high school by Alison Hughes (Morven Christie).
Like zooming in on a detail section of a fractal, the scene is a microcosm of the entire show. After observing the family for a bit, Hughes sits them down to explain Joe’s condition. She does so by stripping every bit of subtext from any statement. On the plus side, her confrontation illustrates how she envisions Joe’s feelings. He has few communication skills, but feels pressure to understand things that are well beyond his comprehension. So, by bullying the family and making them feel as incapable of communicating as their son, she makes her point. On the negative side, she takes a tense situation and ratchets up the tension. She renders everyone down to only their dysfunctions.
The A Word seems to be constructed on a kind of post-feminist adaptation of Sigmund Freud’s Madonna/whore complex. Series writer Peter Bowker substitutes aggressiveness for sexuality, although he’s not above using sexuality to make his point. To date, there have been five major female characters in the show, four of whom are gratuitously demanding, straightforward, and uninhibited. Alison has spent the series restrained only by her own denial. In this episode, she convinces herself that Maggie’s the only person in all of England who can save Joe. There are a few moments when she interacts as an equal with her husband Paul Hughes (Lee Ingleby), but for the most part, she’s aggressive and domineering.
She also stands out as the female characters least defined by her sexuality; for the most part, she is fairly antiseptic. Joe’s aunt Nicola Daniels (Vinette Robinson) cuckolded her husband and seems to enjoy nothing more than shocking people with the honest truth. Finally, there is patriarch Maurice Scott’s (Christopher Eccleston) music teaching and sexual partner Louise Wilson (Pooky Quesnel). So far, she’s only interacted with Maurice. In each scene, she treats him like a second grade student.
The odd thing was, up until the opening scene of the third episode, the three characters seemed fairly distinct. It isn’t just that Maggie shares a sociopathic sense of confrontation, but that it seems so foreign to her character that its presence in all the other female characters comes out. It’s as though you went to a restaurant and had seafood stew and shrimp cocktail as an appetizer, and shrimp scampi as the main entrée. The inclusion of shrimp in all three may go unnoticed, but if they ran out a shrimp soufflé for dessert, you’d start to wonder why there’s shrimp in everything. Well, Maggie is The A-Word‘s shrimp soufflé.
To be fair to Bowker, while all of these women share the same dominant trait, they are also nuanced. Maggie uses her aggressiveness in a professional manner, while Louise just does not suffer either fools or ambiguity well. Maggie’s a victim of her indiscretion, and Bowker begins to color Alison as the series’ evil force. In one of the episode’s most effective scenes, Alison tries to get Joe to eat his cereal, but insists that he takes off his headphones first. Joe fights and ends up throwing his cereal bowl across the floor. Joe’s older sister Rebecca Hughes (Molly Wright) walks in, pours Joe some cereal, and as he’s eating, makes a quick hand gesture for Joe to take off his headset. Alison than gives her daughter a dirty look. The subtext of the season so far has been Alison’s failure to communicate with Joe, which has more to do with pride than with motherly concern.
Clearly, in order for the Madonna/whore dynamic to work, there has to be a Madonna. Rebecca is Bowker’s Madonna. She’s the only family member who seems to have any rapport with Joe. As the Madonna figure, she has to suffer the indignities of others; in this case, being ignored by her family. Her mother fails to show up for her lead in a school production of Antigone. During the after family party, she slips out during a family fight over Joe. Even when Joe is out of the room, and it’s her brightest moment, she’s ignored by the people she loves. So, she runs off to her boyfriend to engage in what can be assumed to be a sexual liaison.
The next episode will be crucial to the series. Will Bowker change Rebecca into a whore now that she has soiled her “purity” with sexual congress? Is she going to become another shade of domineering aggressive women, or will she remain the one person willing to work with Joe unhindered by her own ego? I’ve no idea. The most frustrating aspect of The A Word is that either can happen. There are moments of complexity and banality throughout the series, and I’ve no idea which road Bowker will take.
The A Word is effectively a prime time soap opera, complete with varying degrees of sexual intrigue and cliffhangers. In truth, it’s actually a kind of meta-soap opera, because this week’s cliffhanger deals with less than any of the characters and more so with the writer’s particular sensitivities.