“Tell Me Your Secrets” is an emotional whirlwind that eventually runs itself into a wall with Freudian sexual tension
Content Warning: Tell Me Your Secrets involves heavy subject matters that may be triggering to some viewers, including violence and rape. These issues are briefly discussed in the following review.
Available now on Amazon Prime, Tell Me Your Secrets is a mystery/thriller series revolving around two women who have little in common except their unfortunate connection to a convicted serial killer. While it’s not the most original or nuanced thriller, I’d be lying if I said the show wasn’t engaging. The 10 episodes that make up season 1 are so jam-packed with explosive emotions that it almost watches like a desperate attempt to snag viewer attention with drama and shock value amidst the insane amount of streaming content that’s now being produced. One you start watching, you’ll no doubt want to stick around until the end to find out how everything fits together. But you might find yourself rolling your eyes along the way.
After being released from jail, Karen Miller (Lily Rabe) has entered the witness protection program under the watchful care of Pete Guillory (Enrique Murciano), an overprotective therapist who may or may not have Karen’s best interests in mind. Karen served time for obstruction of justice after trying to protect her former boyfriend, Kit Parker (Xavier Samuel), when he was arrested for the murders of several young women. Now suffering from severe PTSD, Karen can’t remember if she was actually involved in Kit’s crimes or if she was just an innocent victim of his charms. Mary Barlow (Amy Brenneman), on the other hand, never met Kit in person, but she’s obsessed with proving that he was responsible for the disappearance of her daughter, Theresa. Once Mary realizes that Kit’s former girlfriend (and possible accomplice) is out of jail, she hires John Tyler (Hamish Linklater), a convicted rapist determined to reform himself, to track Karen down.
Series creator Harriet Warner starts Tell Me Your Secrets with a somewhat cliché technique, building a story question around what the protagonist cannot remember: Is Karen innocent or not? From the start, Tell Me Your Secrets grabs our attention by making us sympathize with a character who would normally be the villain (the serial killer’s ex-girlfriend) and demonizing the character who we would normally root for (the grieving mother). However, the writers take things a little too far in villainizing Mary, creating a character who is not only unlikable but also unrealistic. There is very little nuance in Mary’s characterization, and the show seems to take advantage of every opportunity it gets to remind us that she’s one of the bad guys. While we get to see a more sympathetic version of Mary during a flashback in the first scene of episode 1, there’s no transition from that heartfelt portrayal of a grieving mother to the narcissistic, publicity-obsessed women we see for the remainder of the season. In this way, Tell Me Your Secrets gets off to a pretty rocky start.
As a thriller about memory loss, Tell Me Your Secrets has a fair amount of built-in suspense, but it doesn’t do the best job of structuring that suspense with interesting, original details. Pete sets Karen up with a new life in a small Louisiana town, finding a remote cabin for her on a bayou. While Pete advises Karen to lay low, Karen is of course sucked in to local troubles before she can even get settled in her new home. The series writers overstuff Tell Me Your Secrets with high emotionality and tension, milking every single dramatic moment for all it’s worth with cheap twists and spoon-fed dialogue. The numerous side-characters and mini-plots in Karen’s narrative keep us on our toes, but they’re sloppy and half-hearted compared to the overall story arc. Tell Me Your Secrets drops Karen into situations that are just a bit too convenient for her character development, using unnatural and underdeveloped situations to trigger flashbacks and reveal important information about Karen’s past.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with explosive emotionality and drama. In fact, I’d say we all need a show like that every once in a while. But as Tell Me Your Secrets dives headfirst into pure unadulterated drama, it toys dangerously with excusing and even romanticizing evil. In particular, Tell Me Your Secrets struggles with John’s character development, so much so that it ends up sexualizing rape fantasies for the sake of drama. It’s an inexcusable technique that brings the entire series and its treatment of sexual tension into question.
On that note, Tell Me Your Secrets is also utterly obsessed with mommy/daddy issues in a Freudian sense, giving its characters rather predictable psychological tendencies. Still, despite these character archetypes, the cast is able to keep things interesting. Rabe endows Karen with a certain level of emotional realness and makes her likable from beginning to end. Her distinction between Karen in flashbacks and Karen in the present is especially impressive. Linklater also gives a noteworthy performance, but it’s a shame that his character progresses in the way that he does. Similarly, Brenneman manages to sneak some emotional complexity into an otherwise painfully straightforward character, making Mary a bit more interesting to watch. Had the cast worked together on a similar series that wasn’t quite so interested in using sexual tension to make serial killers sympathetic, perhaps they could have created something very successful.
Available today, February 19, 2021 on Amazon Prime Video
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"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."