BBC One’s The Split is more than just melodrama

Beneath its soapy subplots and shiny locations lies something far messier.

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It would be easy to mistake Abi Morgan’s The Split (11 Feb, 9pm) for simple melodrama: sort of like Mistresses, only with better briefs (calm down: I mean the legal kind, not M&S). In the new series, after all, the children of an unhappily married reality TV star named Fi (played by Donna Air – yes, her) just happen to go to school with those of our heroine, Hannah Stern (Nicola Walker), the hotshot divorce lawyer who will shortly set about transforming Fi’s watertight pre-nuptial into the financial equivalent of a colander. 

But beneath the soapy suds of its implausible subplots and its shiny locations is something far messier: a stickiness every woman will recognise. Morgan’s real interest lies in the price her female characters might have to pay, not for (God forbid) enjoying their all-consuming work, but for their refusal to ever fully settle for what they’ve got. Yes, Nina (Annabel Scholey), Hannah’s single sister, is sometimes to be found quite alone after hours, drinking white wine and staring mournfully at her mobile (the standard portrayal of the work-obsessed female in TV drama). But it’s Hannah who’s at the heart of The Split: a woman who is in possession of a brilliant career, a delightfully sardonic husband, three more-than-averagely-witty children, and a house the size of an embassy – and yet who has the temerity to be restless. Currently, this insurrection finds its human form in the exciting shape of Christie (Barry Atsma), her Scandinavian colleague and lover. 

In the last series, Hannah was publicly humiliated by her husband, Nathan (Stephen Mangan), when his name appeared on a data leak revealing a list of individuals who’d signed up to an extramarital affairs website. But in Morgan’s hands, this isn’t straightforward. The roots of Hannah’s husband’s infidelity, just like those of her own, lie not in spite, cruelty or simple faithlessness, but in their sexless marriage (the complexities involved even in happy long-term relationships is another of this show’s preoccupations). Hannah’s duplicity as the second series opens, then, extends not only to sneaking off to see Christie. When she tells Nathan that she is “working on” forgiving him, we know better. She’s less devastated than she appears, but insisting otherwise gives her a reason to be emotionally, and sometimes physically, absent. This said, she needs to be careful. Personally, I think she should keep her phone on silent and in her pocket, not let it ping away on her kitchen counter. 

At Hannah’s law firm, newly merged with that of her mother, Ruth (Deborah Findlay), there is talk of fat-cutting: Ruth, in fact, has been told it’s time to retire (a shame if she slopes off, I think, because dynamic portrayals of older women are few and far between on screen – and also, I love her Seventies cynicism in the matter of men). Sleek is about to get sleeker. But even those working women who get to wear the best suits – it’s criminal how good Hannah and Nina look in trousers – are not immune to the less glamorous practicalities of the cheating life. In a taxi home, Hannah carefully examines her chin: a bad case of beard burn. “It’s the, er, chlorine,” she tells one of her children (she swims), who replies by wondering – they must get it from their father – if it isn’t just the menopause. 

One other thing the male TV critics are unlikely to notice: sisterhood runs through The Split like a golden thread in a Missoni sweater. You see this both in Hannah’s spiky, sarky relationship with her sisters and mother, and in the way that she treats her female clients. Her professionalism is ruthless to a degree, but this does not make her blind to pain and grief; she wants, genuinely, to help them escape the bonds of their unhappy marriages if she can. In her world, there are two kinds of lists a woman can keep. The first catalogues every detail of a man’s bad behaviour. The second has to do with preparation; with all the ways forthcoming heartbreak may be minimised. At the moment, she keeps only one of these lists herself. Alarmingly short, it’s on this one that all Morgan’s most emotionally truthful future plots will turn. 

The Split
BBC One

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 14 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose