tv How Television Anticipated the Weinstein Moment in 2017
A photo of Sister Cathy Cesnik from 'The Keepers',
This article contains spoilers about the Hulu show National Treasure.
On October 5, The New York Times published a remarkable investigation by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey into acts of sexual harassment and sexual assault reportedly committed by the film producer Harvey Weinstein over several decades. That story was published a little over two months ago, which feels baffling now, given the chain of events it set off, and the number of giants who’ve been accused of misconduct and subsequently toppled in that short space of time. Roy Price. Mark Halperin. Kevin Spacey. Louis C.K. Russell Simmons. Matt Lauer. Garrison Keillor. The revelations show no sign of abating; the Weinstein effect seems fated to continue in 2018, in one of the most significant public reckonings with systemic male abuse of power in history.
At the beginning of the year, no one could have anticipated what was coming. But television, in some ways, did. 2017 on the small screen was defined by a wealth of stories that thoughtfully and powerfully considered sexual assault. There were dramas that focused on the personal ramifications of abuse, like HBO’s Big Little Lies and SundanceTV’s Liar. But more common were shows that interpreted it as a wider, institutionalized phenomenon, and sought to engage with how deeply entrenched assault and harassment can be in systems of power. Top of the Lake: China Girl investigated workplace misogyny, male online culture, and the sex industry. The Handmaid’s Tale brought Margaret Atwood’s narrative of a theocratic reproductive dystopia to life onscreen for the first time since 1990. The Deuce explored the dynamic between 1970s sex workers and the men who control them with both physical and sexual cruelty.
There were two shows, though, that most forcefully signaled what was ahead. One, Netflix’s The Keepers, was a documentary series investigating the murder of a nun in Baltimore in 1969, and how the death of Sister Cathy Cesnik might be linked to the reported abuse of teenage girls by a Catholic priest, seemingly enabled by doctors and even police officers. Jean Hargadon Wehner, who spoke about the sexual assault repeatedly inflicted on her as a teenager in the series, wasn’t listed in Time’s recent Person of the Year tribute to “The Silence Breakers,” but her personal bravery in speaking out, documented by The Keepers’ director, Ryan White, and producer, Jessica Hargrave, heralded the narratives to come.
On the face of it, The Keepers was a true-crime story. Cesnik was killed, the show theorized, because she intended to shed light on incidents of abuse at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore reportedly perpetrated by Father Joseph Maskell. But through its seven episodes, what the series ended up focusing on was women: the survivors of sexual assault, who revealed the longterm impact it had on them, and the former Keough students who made it their mission to uncover exactly what had happened. “The Keepers is, of course, marketed as a mystery,” Anne Helen Petersen wrote at BuzzFeed. “But it’s also a survival story—and a testament to the ways that women, especially those no longer burdened by society’s opinion of them, can challenge systems of power.”
The Keepers also revealed how single reports of abuse and assault can have a domino effect, encouraging countless more women who’ve lived silently with their own experiences to speak out. After Hargadon Wehner and Teresa Lancaster anonymously filed a lawsuit together against Maskell and the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 1994, at least a dozen more accusers came forward. (The lawsuit, filed after the statute of limitations had expired, didn’t go to trial. Maskell, who died in 2001, was never criminally charged. The Archdiocese has paid $472,000 in total settlements to 16 women who alleged abuse by Maskell, though it has also attempted to discredit the show.) After the show aired, a dozen more women joined the fray, eight of whom filed reports with the Baltimore Police Department. As with the charges against Harvey Weinstein, one set of allegations snowballed into a chorus of voices—a phenomenon that later manifested itself in the viral #MeToo movement.
If The Keepers distinguished itself by focusing largely on the women who survived assault, a fictional Hulu show imported from Britain, originally made by Channel 4, did the opposite. National Treasure, written by Jack Thorne (the playwright behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), centers around Paul Finchley (Robbie Coltrane), a British comedian accused of a rape that happened two decades ago. The four-part miniseries was made in the aftermath of Operation Yewtree, a wide-reaching British investigation into historic sexual assault allegations in the entertainment industry sparked by the stories that emerged about the broadcaster Jimmy Savile after his death. The show is notable—and valuable—for how much time it spends with a character accused of atrocious attacks on women, who pleads innocence even in the face of growing charges against him.
Post-Weinstein, the men who’ve been accused of sexual assault and harassment, largely, share one thing in common: their silence. Most have offered an immediate apology with degrees of denial, before retreating from the public eye, presumably to let the dust settle while they consider their options. What this disappearing act challenges, though, is comprehension. What could possibly compel a man to do the things Weinstein has been accused of doing over several decades? How to make sense of it? And how can we, as a culture, move forward from these revelations if we don’t understand how they started in the first place?
National Treasure, in focusing on Paul Finchley, offers not resolution, exactly, but flashes of insight. The show is deliberately evasive throughout its first three episodes about whether Paul is innocent or guilty, but in the fourth (spoilers ahead), a handful of flashbacks reveal that he did indeed brutally rape a 15-year-old girl in his trailer, and have a sexual relationship with his underage babysitter. Throughout his trial, his wife Marie (Julie Walters) has grown more and more perturbed by the accusations, and in the final episode she finally snaps. “There are layers of you, aren’t there?” she tells Paul. “I don’t think you lie. I think you believe everything. But you exist on one layer quite purely. The good husband layer, the good man layer. And then there’s another layer, and on that you’re less good. … And then there’s the third layer. And on that you are capable of anything.”
Coltrane gives an astounding performance as Paul. The camera repeatedly zooms in on his face, so it occupies the whole screen, making every minuscule shift in his expression visible. Watching the show with the knowledge of his guilt makes it easier to detect every clench of his jaw, every blank, instinctual response. Every time he pleads innocence, his words are exactly the same: I didn’t do this. Not specific, like, I didn’t assault a teenager, or I did not have sex with that woman. But I didn’t do this, a much vaguer construct. The phrase hints at the fictions Paul has spun in his own mind to be able to justify his behavior.
In that, National Treasure humanizes a monster without defending him. It asks and answers the question of what kind of man could do such a thing, without remotely justifying his acts. But it’s also aware of how the larger institutions of comedy and entertainment protect and enable their own. If The Keepers revealed how the Catholic Archdiocese in Baltimore sought to shield Father Maskell from his accusers, even though it had received reports of his behavior, National Treasure explores how fame is its own kind of insulation, allowing Paul to let his beloved public persona color his understanding of the man he really is.
That both shows, remarkably and presciently, broached the questions being asked today is somewhat astonishing. That so many television series this year explored sexual assault with care is even more so. Works like Alias Grace and Godless wove incidents of assault into their larger narratives, emphasizing how commonplace they are without undermining their individual impact. Even shows like Stranger Things 2 and The OA, without explicitly dealing with abuse, tackled the aftermath of trauma, and the role stories can play in processing it. The fictional autopsies of the Weinstein Moment are surely coming in 2018 (the Law & Order: SVU episode is apparently already scheduled). But 2017 was a year in which television seemed to see what was coming—to understand the totality of sexual assault for the first time, and to anticipate that women had had enough.