By Chris Revelle | TV | May 16, 2023 |
By Chris Revelle | TV | May 16, 2023 |
Fatal Attraction (1987 film), is a story about a slimy corporate lawyer who cheats on his wife with a single woman, gaslights the woman, and then outsources killing that mistress to his wife. For me, Dan (as played by Michael Douglas) is clearly the villain. The misogyny rings loudly and clearly throughout the film told from Dan’s perspective. Alex’s (Glenn Close) story is never fully known and the movie reduces Alex to a “crazy broad” caricature who just can’t be cool about this affair, threatening the American family unit enough that she must be killed. It is a movie with accidental things to say; it thinks it’s telling you about the mistress from hell who just can’t leave this cool sexy guy alone, but it’s really showing you the cheap, piggish, shallow face of gender dynamics of the 1980s.
Into the fray comes Fatal Attraction (series on Paramount+) with a mission to retell the story. The marketing tells us that we get Alex’s side. More quality time on Alex’s perspective could put a lot of her behavior in better context. I’m not saying there’s a good reason to boil a rabbit, but movie Alex’s violence feels unmotivated. When the movie is satisfied with she’s just a crazy woman, it leaves you knowing there must be more. The series addresses this over the 5 available episodes (with 3 more to come).
The series is a different animal from the film. Instead of being a pair of corporate lawyers, Dan and Alex work in the criminal justice system as an LA District Attorney and a Victims’ Advocate, respectively. Instead of meeting at a social engagement, they meet in the courthouse working on a case together. There’s the au courant dueling timelines device in which we see Dan and Alex’s affair in one timeline and Dan’s life while on parole for murdering Alex in the other. Dan is intent on proving he didn’t murder Alex and wants to reconnect with his daughter. I hesitate to pass full judgment on the show’s aims until we learn who’s responsible, but I can state two things very confidently: they finally tell Alex’s story and Dan is held to greater account than in the film.
As played by Lizzy Caplan, Alex is a captivating presence. With her large, expressive eyes, Alex conveys hope, heartbreak, panic, anger, and desperation with a fearsome intensity that can be a foreboding simmer or a roaring conflagration. Importantly, we get to know Alex this time around. We learn of her mental issues through her various interactions with mental health professionals and neighbors. She hounds a former therapist by phone, desperate for counseling and you hear their history in their exchange: this therapist was a rock for Alex, but her move to LA coupled with intense co-dependent behavior has worn this relationship thin. Alex turns to her neighbor Paul, and the writing organically indicates he was a semi-regular tryst that is trying to ghost her. Their stilted conversation and the distant physicality made me wince as Alex tries to re-engage with him. When Alex meets Dan, Caplan shows this new connection’s queasy, hardwon giddiness. While she maintains a cool, collected, and even witty attitude at work, her behavior as Dan’s mistress belies a woman desperately seeking a relationship to hold onto and will do anything she can to keep it once she has it.
Dan, on the other hand, is a smarmy man’s man played with slick carelessness by Joshua Jackson. Dan swaggers when his star is on the rise: he’s up for a judicial appointment and wants to prove his worth in comparison to his judge father by getting appointed younger than Dad did. He’s playful with his daughter and nice, but condescending, to his wife (Amanda Peete). His decision to sleep with Alex comes from a place of deep dissatisfaction and ennui. His father-in-law tells him to his face that his career amounts to an elaborate game of cops and robbers and when Dan doesn’t get the appointment, he spirals. He drinks way too much, gets behind the wheel of a company car, and promptly crashes it. The consequences are nil and the whole thing is swept under the rug. He shrugs it all off like it’s no big deal. Once Dan begins sleeping with Alex, he engages in a cruel cycle of sweet talk and disengagement; when he feels low, he’s sweet to Alex, but once he’s gotten what he wants, he’s getting dressed and treats Alex like an annoying child, batting her away as he tries to leave. Alex’s tactics to keep him in her apartment are not okay, but they come from a recognizable place.
While the film makes a clear hero of Dan and a clear villain of Alex, the series complicates this significantly. I went in hoping to see a scathing take-down of Dan, but what I saw was more layered. Dan is still the “villain” of the piece in that his perspective is the least sympathetic and he acts with the most disregard for the people around him. Alex is a much more fleshed-out character this time around. She takes herself to hostile extremes, but her pain and hurt color everything she does, so while you don’t necessarily agree with what she’s doing, you feel for her.
We don’t know the hows of Alex’s death yet and whether Dan did it or not. As Dustin notes, they could go the way of the original’s Madama Butterfly-inspired cut ending, which would have a poetic resonance. That said, I’m not sure that a post-Thirteen Reasons Why world could see that development as anything other than another example of “weaponized suicide” that fiction is so into these days. We’ll find out in three weeks where it all lands, but at least for now, Fatal Attraction brings a little justice for Alex: we finally get to see her side.
Chris Revelle shrieks into the void with his pals on Why Did We Watch This?