Hulu miniseries A Teacher examines a predatory relationship between a teacher and a high school student, offering meaningful reflections on morality.
If you’ve been keeping up-to-date with FX on Hulu‘s new miniseries A Teacher, whose ten half-an-hour long episodes are currently being released following a weekly schedule, you’ve probably been going through a rollercoaster of emotions. In the five episodes that have been made available so far, you witnessed the development of a forbidden relationship between young teacher Claire Wilson (Kate Mara) and high school student Eric Walker (Nick Robinson), a relationship that begins with harmless tutoring sessions and impromptu visits to universities but that soon turns into something else entirely. And so, boundaries are crossed. Soon, Claire and Eric are on a first-name basis, checking out each other’s Instagram pages and bonding over their respective family disappointments. Private fantasies turn into flirting, revelatory snapchat pictures are sent and kissing attempts are rejected, until they aren’t. A romance finally blooms between Eric and Claire, and, though you know that it’s both unhealthy and wrong, you can’t help but be intrigued by a relationship that, at first, would appear to be so very normal.
Of course, plenty of details are there to remind us that what we’re seeing is the opposite of normal: secrets need to be kept, appearances have to be preserved and no one can find out about what’s going on. Claire’s actions have negative consequences on Eric’s life, isolating him from his high school friends and preventing him from acting his own age. Clearly, Claire is the adult, and Eric is the victim. Yet, we cannot blame her so easily, at first. After all, Claire’s behaviour is clearly the result of having been raised by an alcoholic father, having lost her mother at an early age, and her questionable actions are dictated by an overwhelming sadness that can be perceived in everything she does. At the same time, Eric is not only an incredibly mature teenager, but also the only “responsible father figure” his own family can count on, as he is constantly left in charge of his younger brothers by his overworked, well-meaning mother.
As ominous music accompanies Claire and Eric’s doomed, dangerous relationship, alerting us that their actions are wrong and will have consequences, a part of us can’t help but wonder if this very real love story that’s unfolding before our eyes couldn’t simply be described as a special connection between two equally self-destructive people who need and understand each other at a certain moment in time. And so, as we stop trying to assign blame and focus on two incredibly likeable characters dealing with universal issues such as neglect, abandonment and tragedy, we can’t help but think about morality. We wonder about what it is that makes a certain action immoral, and whether or not one’s intentions can justify one’s actions. Which is exactly what A Teacher wants you to wonder about.
Based on director/screenwriter Hannah Fidell’s 2013 film of the same name, A Teacher excels as a miniseries because you’ll only find out where it’s headed right at the very end. Though choosing to release new episodes once a week is certainly risky, as it’s only after having seen the entire show that its message becomes clear, it could also prove to be a winning decision, as A Teacher certainly has enough introspection to keep audiences engaged as they wait for a new episode to air, pondering over the complex dynamics between its compelling protagonists, brilliantly brought to life by the show’s leads. Nick Robinson (Love, Simon) shines as Eric: as his character grows throughout the series, so does the level of emotion he brings to the role. Yet, the real standout is Kate Mara (House of Cards), who plays a very different role than what we’re used to seeing her in, but that truly enables her to showcase her exceptional acting skills. A Teacher is made of meaningful glances and quiet but powerful displays of emotion, and Mara is hypnotic and mesmerizing from beginning to end.
The show’s success is only partly owed to its leads’ superb acting. Technically speaking, A Teacher feels more like a feature-length movie than a TV series, as a remarkable level of attention has been put into its realistic, incredibly detailed set, costume and sound design, and Quyen Tran (Palm Springs)’s impressive cinematography makes the show all the more authentic and addictive. But what’s even more impressive about A Teacher is its carefully measured pacing, with a screenplay that teases us about our voyeuristic desires while dictating our thoughts and feelings one episode at a time, leaving us equally puzzled and electrified until it finally all makes sense.
Of course, A Teacher does not condone the predatory relationship it depicts. The first clues appear in the form of a link to an awareness campaign at the end of every episode, and a disclaimer that makes us aware of the show’s “depictions of grooming that may be disturbing” – at which point you’ll probably google the word “grooming” and find out that it means building a relationship of trust with a young person in order to manipulate and abuse them. This really is the key to understanding what happens in A Teacher, as the kind of abuse we witness is subtle, nearly unmissable at first, yet still very much there and just as dangerous. It’s the kind of manipulative behaviour that involves a predator presenting herself as a saviour, setting up rules like a responsible adult only to break every single one of them, forcing a young boy to keep secrets and implicitly convincing him that he’s not the victim, but the one to blame. It’s the kind of abuse that weighs on your shoulders for for a lifetime.
If Claire and Eric’s affair initially develops quite gradually and over the course of five intense episodes, the second half of the season moves at a different pace. The aftermath of the relationship is shown though carefully chosen, key moments of our characters’ lives, in which we see them make decisions that will affect their entire lives, in an attempt to come to terms with a past that seems to be following them everywhere they go. It’s five episodes that only begin to approach a complex, important topic, but that still raise all the right questions, from issues of consent and responsibility to dealing with guilt and remorse. It’s in the final conversation between Claire and Eric that the show’s meaningful message suddenly becomes clear, and it’s just as eye-opening, haunting and unsettling as it needed to be. A Teacher is a slow-burning, daring show with a meaningful lesson to teach, and a wise, essential watch for more than one generation.
A Teacher is currently airing on Fx on Hulu, following a weekly release schedule.
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