After an emotionally explosive two seasons that began in 2018, this April sees the return of BBC family law drama The Split. Starring channel favourites like Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan, the beginning strands of series 3 pick up the ball of divorce and run with it into a deepened abyss of romantic woes, scandal and fraught family dynamics. At its core, it’s exactly what the BBC does best. With its return to the small screen being the final leg of its journey, it’s the portrayal of the older woman that packs the punches often overlooked in dramatic narrative.
Any show with a family at its heart is going to chime well with a certain demographic of the British viewing audience. Combine that with the drama and scandal that comes with bouts of legal jargon (think The Good Wife), and producers have a winning formula. In most instances, the face of this intensely charged cross-section takes the form of a twentysomething—even extending to a burnt-out mother in her 30s if the powers that be are feeling generous. Just by having a largely female cast all over 40, its mere presence on television is refreshing.
Life Doesn’t Stop At 40
In contrast to the popular social perception, life’s dramas don’t evaporate after a certain age. If anything, they often intensify. As the figurehead of their family law firm, Hannah (Nicola Walker) is a woman carrying unimaginable weight on her shoulders. Embroiled in back-and-forth cheating exploits with her almost ex-husband Nathan (Stephan Mangan), she’s simultaneously a vehicle for showcasing that women don’t always get it right. Veering away from the stereotype of ‘domestic guardian’, Hannah’s relationship with her kids is experienced in passing. Without the label of mum, lawyer or sister, her sole identity exists in extramarital dalliances, perhaps injecting a more seasoned scope of emotional strife into a format audiences have arguably seen before. Watching the world blow up in someone’s face is always addictive, yet rarely does it happen to the woman who’s supposed to have it all figured out.
Series 3 introduces the additional romantic framework of Nathan’s new girlfriend Kate (Lara Pulver), a child psychologist who instantly has strong views that oppose the notion of divorce altogether. For a society that hasn’t quite decided how they feel about the subject, the immediately tense conversations between Hannah and Kate effortlessly represent two sides of an ideological coin. Simultaneously, their side-eye exchanges and cutting remarks made with little tact evoke the feeling of high school backstabbing. When it comes to love, feelings and the man stuck in between, age rarely changes the fiendish interactions surrounding them. Embraced by her mum Ruth (Deborah Findlay) while crying on her bed, Hannah is stripped of the superhero image the world had adorned her.
While it remains to be seen if the two can bear to be civil, the circumstances of their meeting presents an intriguing complex. They each navigate a new way of life initially perpetuated by a man’s infidelity, yet somehow manage to make it fit into their own success. While Hannah and Nathan’s divorce agreement still hangs in the balance, the trio inadvertently represent the flexible boundaries of a previously monogamous marriage. It’s rare to see the confines of matrimonial bliss challenged in this way—albeit, not with the best results—with the situation best spearheaded by women with years of emotional turmoil behind them.
The Power Of The Masses
With such a strong ensemble cast, it’s clear that The Split was created by someone who’s experienced this particular strain of explosive misogyny firsthand. Series creator Abi Morgan is into her 50s, joining the hallowed group of female writers arguably creating some of the UK’s best televised content (such as Gentleman Jack’s Sally Wainwright). It’s this level of emotional empathy and depth of experience that lends the script to be just as strong as the thematic ideas. Mentions of impending divorce are often cringeworthy and condescending, while fellow female characters subconsciously criticise another’s decisions to not have children like its unspoken gospel. The attention to subtle social details makes the life of an older woman so realistic, providing a dimension that has traditionally forgone the arena of TV.
The wider net of fresh-faced fortysomething sisters and matriarchal protector Ruth Defoe provide a further emotional context for what really happens behind closed doors. There’s an animalistic grieving for relationships burnt to the ground, translating to the collective sadness after the death of youngest sister Rose’s (Fiona Button) husband. The inter-generational support after his accident encompasses an emotional closeness no other dynamic can by, the wisdom of ageing years accompanying the hopeful vivacity of those that are younger. Whether they’re bringing their babies to work or telling homes truths at face value, the sisterly intimacy highlights what makes a woman’s livelihood so robust—the network around her.
On a parallel tangent, Nathan’s divorce lawyer Melanie (Anna Chancellor) represents an entirely different faction of the older woman. Not one to mince her words or take any prisoners, the effects of her limited screentime ripple through the lives of the main protagonists. It could be argued that Chancellor doesn’t get enough leading roles of her own, with Lara Pulver last notably seen as Irene Adler in the latest iteration of Sherlock. Even so, the power of Nicola Walker seems to attract a level-playing field of women’s diversity—or that the calibre of their acting calls for extremely good writing.
Treating each stage of life as weird in its own right, The Split is a prime example of how to portray an older woman onscreen correctly. No stone of social taboo is left unturned, from questioning the need for motherhood to make a woman complete, to elderly day players holding their own in a courtroom setting. Even in the formulaic moments of courtroom drama that veer towards being droll, The Split’s ability to deliver a woman’s hard truths holds it all together.
The Spilt series 3 airs on BBC One from 4th April.