It’s not an understatement to say there has been a recent uptick in media centering on women’s suffering and trauma. There are plenty of new shows and movies about this exact subject; some use the material to exploit and sensationalize, while others use their time on-screen to tell thoughtful, touching stories. Luckily, Bad Sisters—the Sharon Horgan adaptation of the Belgian show Clan—is the latter.
Bad Sisters is a rare show that dares to turn hopelessness and suffering into a poignant look at a group of women with no option but to save themselves. The series opens at the memorial service for John Paul Williams (Claes Bang), the late husband of Grace Williams (Anne-Marie Duff). We aren’t given much information about the situation, other than the fact that he has died under suspicious circumstances, and Grace’s four sisters are less than upset about his passing. The viewer quickly finds out that John Paul (not-so-lovingly referred to by the Garvey sisters as “the Prick”) was quite literally a complete nightmare of a human being. Emotionally and physically abusive to Grace, J.P. also often traumatized their daughter, Blanaid. Through flashbacks that focus on each sister’s encounters with John Paul, it is unveiled that he truly was controlling, narcissistic, and all-around repulsive.
Six months before J.P.’s passing, we find out that, for as awful as he was to his own wife, he held nothing back when it came to terrorizing her sisters. After collectively reaching their breaking points, the four sisters (sans Grace) hatch plans to murder him. Failed attempt after failed attempt, they’re just as confused as the viewer is when J.P. does finally die—and they want to know just as desperately who was behind the killing. It’s a treat to see the plot jump seamlessly between timelines; watching the sisters slowly band together on a plan, plus seeing the aftermath of that decision, keeps the show from ever getting stale.
Bad Sisters makes the case that for these women, the only viable option is murder. It’s rare for a show to take this stance, and part of the series’ beauty is the steadfast view it holds: We shouldn’t be sympathetic to J.P., and we should root for his death. In the first episode, the sisters confront Grace about J.P.’s actions. It’s clear this isn’t the first time they’ve had this conversation, and as Grace defends her husband vehemently, you can see—in real time—her sisters resigning themselves to the fact that they have no choice but to get rid of him. When Grace doesn’t go swimming with them at the coast, a freezing-cold, Christmas Day tradition they’ve carried since childhood, their love for Grace is outweighed by their hatred for J.P. The idyllic setting is no longer calm and peaceful, and their sadness for themselves and Grace reaches a tipping point.
There’s no reveling in any of the sisters’ pain at the hands of the intensely sadistic John Paul. He cruelly throws not-so-covert comments at Ursula (Eva Birthistle) about her affair (for which he’s blackmailing her), and endless jabs toward Becka (Eve Hewson), the baby and black sheep of the family. And then there are the awful jokes about Eva’s (Sharon Horgan) inability to have a child.
Bad Sisters never tries to make us feel bad for John Paul, never attempts to reason with the viewer that he doesn’t deserve to die. The depth of the sisters’ rage is valid, and the catharsis we feel knowing he doesn’t get away with all of this is crucial.
There’s an inherent and deeper understanding of female suffering that’s a strong undercurrent throughout all 10 episodes of Bad Sisters. The show isn’t all misery, and Sharon Horgan once again excels at combining the dramatic elements of the plot with the funny, charming, and emotional relationship between the sisters. As Grace drifts further away from them, lost in the immense darkness of John Paul’s shadow, the other sisters realize how crucial their bond is to help them survive. A gentle touch, incredibly witty writing, and standout performances from the ensemble cast make Bad Sisters a must-watch.