Infidelity, betrayal and jealousy: TV’s ‘good divorce’ drama calls it quits

Abi Morgan says that right from the start, she saw her divorce drama, The Split, as a finite series.

It was unusual because I designed it to be three seasons, says the prolific, award-winning and generically versatile Welsh playwright, screenwriter and author. I had a strong structure: it was about a woman and the legacy of divorce. In the first season, she examined the effect of her parents’ divorce; the second season moved into her having to confront infidelity in her own marriage; then season three was always going to be the divorce.

The third season begins with family lawyer Hannah Stern (Nicola Walker, Unforgotten, Last Tango in Halifax) and her barrister husband, Nathan (Stephen Mangan, Episodes, Dirk Gently), contemplating their own divorce papers – and Hannah is clearly having second thoughts.

Married for more than 20 years and the parents of three children, they’ve had their trials. These include the first-season revelation Nathan had signed up to a dating app for married men seeking secret sex and Hannah’s second-season affair with fellow lawyer, Christie (Barry Atsma).

I wanted to look at the notion of the good divorce. That was always at the heart of the series, says Morgan. Is it possible to have a good divorce? Because divorce doesn’t have to mean failure: it’s just that some marriages are finite.

Elaborating on her commitment to a three-season run, she adds, Because it’s about love and marriage and divorce and loss, I didn’t know how many times I could keep replaying that. I felt like there were only so many times that you want to put someone through affairs and break-ups and remarriage.

The nature of Hannah and Nathan’s work means that they’re well acquainted with the quixotic nature of all sorts of unions and disengagements, and there’s quite a bit of bad behaviour in The Split: infidelity, betrayal, jealousy, fights, resentments. And that’s just among the lawyers, let alone their clients, who are often titled, rich and/or famous.

They all move in a sunny version of London filled with wonderful homes, elegant restaurants and gleaming office towers. It’s also a world where a lot of smart people stumble around making stupid decisions.

There’s that adage that people can do bad things, but that doesn’t make them bad people, Morgan observes. I wanted to play around with characters who let themselves down, who do fail. But you also see them becoming aware of that and trying to overcome it. That’s very human to me.

She’s also sympathetic to her characters. I like that these are flawed characters; they have dark and light. They’re not villains, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t do things that archetypically you would align to villainy. They have affairs, they steal partners, they hide secrets from one another, they’re quite cut-throat in business. I like the complexity of the human spirit. I think that, on a day-to-day level, we get out, we try to live our lives and we try to maintain an equilibrium. But there’s always mess and chaos somewhere in the corner.

The mess extends beyond Hannah and Nathan to include the Defoe women: Hannah’s sisters, Nina (Annabel Scholey) and Rose (Fiona Button), and their mother, Ruth (Deborah Findlay), a famed legal eagle who until recently ran her own firm. Nina and Ruth now work with Hannah at Noble Hale Defoe, although Rose hasn’t joined the family business and is a part-time nanny.

The new season finds Nina juggling work, caring for her baby daughter and enjoying an affair with Tyler (Damien Molony), the husband of the firm’s boss, Zander (Chukwudi Iwuji). Rose and her husband, James (Rudi Dharmalingam), are trying to get pregnant but regretfully accepting that this won’t happen, and James wants to consider adoption.

Meanwhile, Ruth is busy with her relationship with Ronnie (Ian McElhinney) and hosting her new podcast about marriage and divorce. That the matriarch is the enterprising podcaster of the family is perhaps an unusual choice, although Morgan explains, My mother (actress Pat England) is 83 and still working. I think that there’s a natural evolution in society where women, after they’re 50, become invisible. One of the things that I notice in my mother is her desire, her fascination, her difficulty with new technology but her perseverance. With her grandchildren around her, she wants to know about the latest show on Netflix, she wants to know how podcasts work and, in fact, she listens to them. So, for me, it was a natural evolution that Ruth, who is a vital, dynamic woman, would be a relatively early adopter.

As with many of Morgan’s productions (The Iron Lady, The Hour, Suffragette), the focus in this series is on female characters. It’s where my eye naturally falls, she says. I’m interested in how to build the currency of female actors, of female cast and crew. So I work a lot with women. The creative team on The Split is predominantly women and that goes down from the executive producer, Jane Featherstone, who owns and runs the production company, Sister.

I’m interested in the female point of view and I like to put multi-generational women on the screen and give them roles where they’re not just sitting in the background and playing the wife of the lawyer or the hot new cop in town. I try to create women with the complexity and the variation that male ensembles often have. The thing about male ensembles is that younger actors can build their way through from small character roles to centre stage. Whereas if you’ve only got one woman in a film or a TV show, it’s very difficult to build their currency.

Having said that, my new show, Eric, a thriller set in New York in the ’80s, is all about male toxicity and men. And actually one of my favourite actors to write for is Stellan Skarsgard, with whom I did the cop show, River. One of the reasons why I so dearly wanted to write a show for Nicola was that in River she was a ghost and couldn’t talk to anybody else. I wanted to write a show where she was front and centre.

Walker’s Hannah is certainly central here, in all her brisk efficiency at work and messiness at home. And Morgan, who is also an executive producer, says that the producers were blown away by the enthusiastic reception to the third season in the UK.

Now there’s talk of a sequel. What I couldn’t know at the start was that there would be such an alchemy in the constellation of characters and that the cast and crew would be really exceptional, says Morgan. You don’t always get actors that spark and connect in the way that this company has. We’re trying to work out ways that we could work together and what we could do. So it’s not over ’til it’s over.

The Split (season three) is on ABC, Saturday, 8. 20pm and iview.

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