Watch Closely: “Tell Me Your Secrets” Is a Deft, Well-Acted Thriller
By Peg Aloi
This series taps into the inevitable horror we would all feel if we learned that we had once loved a monster — or that the monster we fear might be inside of us.
Tell Me Your Secrets, Amazon Prime
This new thriller created by Harriet Warner (Call the Midwife) is nuanced, suspenseful, well cast, and satisfying. True crime documentaries along with dramatic series about serial killers are growing in popularity to the point that the subject has practically become its own genre. Recently there were even back-to-back fictional and documentary series about notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, both by Joe Berlinger. Perspectives vary: some stories focus on the killers and their psychological makeup, others follow the detectives who pursue these killers. Then there are those that explore the worlds of the victims and look at how the lives of their loved ones have been irrevocably altered. Tell Me Your Secrets portrays three different characters and their connections to a serial killer; somehow, the plot manages to make their lives intersect in plausible yet terrifying ways.
The central character is Emma Hall, played by Lily Rabe. If you’ve been hoping for this actor to land a juicy leading role, this one’s worth the wait. Emma is in witness protection, relocated to northern Louisiana, where she lives alone in a secluded cabin (reminiscent of the bayou shack of her character Misty Day in American Horror Story: Coven) and works as a hairdresser. We are given her backstory in bits and pieces, but it turns out that Emma was given early release from prison in exchange for testifying about her former lover Kit (Australian actor Xavier Samuel), a tattoo artist and drifter who murdered a number of women. Her court-appointed therapist Pete (Bloodline’s Enrique Murciano) seems more like her parole officer. We see that he may be a bit too closely involved in her rehabilitation.
Amy Brenneman (The Leftovers) plays Mary Barlow, whose daughter Theresa is missing. A store’s security video footage shows Kit standing right behind Theresa the night before she disappeared; Mary clings to the belief that her daughter is still alive. We gradually learn that Emma knew Theresa too, but trauma has erased some of her memories. Mary is both a devoted activist and an obsessed, grieving mother whose uncompromising mission to find her daughter has estranged her from her husband, yet forged a tight bond with her teenage son Jake (Elliot Fletcher of Shameless), who also works tirelessly to find his sister. The series pilot reveals that Kit has committed suicide in prison; that puts the stories of his victims back in the news, and helps publicize the charitable foundation for parents of murdered or missing children Mary has created. Brenneman is brilliant as a woman for whom moral integrity, under the pressure of trauma, has become increasingly arbitrary and conditional.
The third key character is John Tyler (Hamish Linklater of Legion and Fargo), a rapist who’s been released from prison, living a lonely and cautious existence until he is contacted by Mary. She hires him to help her find her daughter’s abductor, using the logic that, as a predator himself, John would be able to follow the trail of the predator who took Theresa. Unable to get a decent job and aching for purpose, John accepts Mary’s offer with certain conditions. John is a fascinating character: remorseful but flawed. He comes off as socially awkward, but he’s witty and observant enough to be very appealing, especially to women. And that attraction is what makes Linklater’s portrayal so powerful: John is equal parts charming and odious. He’s extremely intelligent, particularly gifted when it comes to second-guessing the actions and behaviors of others. Watching Linklater navigate through the twists and turns of this antihero is intense: he imbues John’s depravity with a charismatic complexity.
Carrying the bulk of the narrative is Rabe’s Emma. She deals with her stress and anxiety by running, and her strong physicality belies her fragile emotional state. She has isolated herself: Emma is easily drawn to others, yet she is unable to let anyone come close to her. Though the show’s characters are well written and excellently played for the most part, Emma’s psychological trajectory raises some problems. Perhaps it is because the character has such a narrative burden: a victim herself, she’s also complicit in the amoral actions of her former lover. In addition, Emma has a young daughter she is struggling to reunite with. Still, Rabe generates an intimate pathos out of Emma’s pain; she taps into the inevitable horror we would all feel if we learned that we had once loved a monster — or that the monster we fear might be inside of us. Tell Me Your Secrets’s finale suggests that the series is not over, that Emma will continue to run both toward her future and away from her past.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.