As a viewer who would sit in front of a TV set to watch Ruth Wilson cut up a lemon, I can report that in her new series she looks as if she’s been sucking on one.
Wilson plays an unhappy camper, well, actually, wife, in the appropriately titled Mrs. Wilson, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater and wraps up the following Sunday.
It’s just three hours. But it’s three good hours, almost all of which feature the unhappy Mrs. Wilson.
Alison Wilson — yes, Ruth Wilson has the same character name here that she had in Showtime’s The Affair — starts out as a happy working wife in early-1960s London.
She comes home daily at 1 p.m. to have lunch with her husband Alec (Iain Glen), a retired intelligence officer now typing fulltime as a novelist. On this particular day she calls upstairs to say lunch is ready and when he doesn’t reply, she goes upstairs and finds him dead. Heart attack.
She tells their two sons, their priest and Alec’s old boss at the intelligence agency, Coleman (Fiona Shaw). She then settles into numbness for the services and the burial and the condolences and the casseroles and the rest of the rituals.
Then another woman knocks on the door, with a matter-of-fact and deeply shocking revelation about Alec’s life.
While Mrs. Wilson cuts her off by slamming the door, the information is not so easily dismissed. One provocative assertion leads to another discovery, which leads to another knock on another door, and soon Mrs. Wilson cannot deny or rationalize her way out of the unsettling truth that Alec’s life was not even close to what it seemed.
Enter the unhappy part, because most of Mrs. Wilson focuses on Alison’s search for a truth she neither wants to hear nor believe. Moreover, because almost everything people tell her is disturbing, she resents the messengers and lashes back at them. She becomes unpleasant to everyone, including her sons.
To the extent there’s a mitigating factor in Alec’s complicated life, it’s his intelligence career. He was an undercover agent — okay, a spy — in World War II, so much of his work involved deception, misdirection and good old flat-out lying.
Alison met him on that job, when she was hired for the typing pool and was assigned to transcribe his notes. When she goes to Coleman after Alec’s death to see if she can get a few questions answered, Coleman offers her nothing, explaining that even 18 years after the war ended, all information remains confidential. Besides, says Coleman, “You know what you signed up for.”
That’s debatable. Alison gets a little more help from Shahbaz Karim (Anupam Kher), who was Alec’s field handler in India during the early days of the war. Karim introduced Alec to the glamorous movie star Dorothy Wick (Keeley Hawes), who would become his entrée into higher celebrity circles. Among other things.
Mrs. Wilson is packed with flashbacks, which increasingly explain little things that Alison didn’t notice or dismissed at the time. As she relives these memories, buttressed by new evidence, she gradually becomes a little less angry at everyone else and a little more angry at herself and Alec.
Ruth Wilson brings a deep intensity to the role, perhaps in some measure because it’s personal. The Mrs. Wilson of the title was Ruth Wilson’s grandmother, on whose memoirs this drama is based.
The lessons here are familiar enough, starting with the near-endless ripple effect of lies and deception on the unaware and the innocent. Ruth Wilson takes us into the black hole into which an Alec Wilson can hurl everyone else, and for that reason alone, Mrs. Wilson is not a breezy watch. It’s a troubling story unleavened by even dark humor.
In the end, though, it’s not just about anger. It’s about forgiveness and whether forgiveness is possible. Your guess is as good as Alison’s.