When British TV productions need an actress to play a seemingly affably confident woman who is actually riddled with anxiety about secrets in her life but holds it together well, they have been calling Nicola Walker. Walker, who played this type with aplomb both in Last Tango in Halifax and Unforgotten, takes it to a new high art In The Split. The family legal drama, a co-production between the BBC and Sundance TV, runs an economical six episodes in each of its seasons, but it is filled with such a flood of emotions that you may find a little of Walker’s performance in yourself, sitting on the couch trying to hold it together while tears break forth.
The Split isn’t a depressing series, though; much of its drama is found in the joy among the close-knit family at its center, among whom secrets don’t stay secret for long. The Defoe women are mostly lawyers, starting with mother Ruth (Deborah Findlay), who founded a firm when family law was not as fashionable as it would later become. Hannah (Walker) is at the center of the story, though, in a Good Wife-esque plot through these two seasons that involves choosing between her seemingly upstanding husband Nathan (Stephen Mangan) who later gets caught up in an escort service hack, and their college best friend—and Hannah’s former boyfriend—the suave Christie (Barry Atsma).
Both Nathan and Christie are lawyers, with Christie working at Ruth and Hannah’s firm, where they’re also joined by her younger sister Nina (Annabel Scholey), a sharp-edged mess who is also, yes, a lawyer. The odd man (or woman) out in this case is the baby of the family, Rose (Fiona Button), who is struggling to find out what she wants in her life and career.
The overarching storyline in both series is about each of these women learning to be brave enough to forge a unique life for themselves, and that “family” can mean many different things. You might have husband and no baby, a baby and no husband, or you might have it all and then lose it all. The result is that Abi Morgan’s series is compelling, surprising, engrossing, and one that you genuinely get swept up in—even when it wobbles.
In Season 2, The Split’s wider scope continues to pursue questions of personal and client ethics, and navigating tricky legal cases through messy personal problems. The big case this time is between a star presenter (played, somewhat winkingly, by UK presenter Donna Air) and her controlling music-producer husband (Ben Bailey Smith). There are a few other small cases here and there, and frankly, The Split could probably benefit from more of them to help break up some of the unrelenting chaos of its leads’ personal lives. (Especially because Hannah’s raison d’être as a lawyer is to protect women and make sure they get what they are owed in their divorces.) And yet, there is something very satisfying about that neverending drama that, naturally, just makes for good TV.
Having said that, The Split once again is a little out of balance when it comes to the time it spends getting to really know its characters. It’s not an easy ask, given the short runtime, but when almost all scenes come in groups, it can dilute our better understanding of each as individuals (particularly Christie, although Rose and her husband probably get the worst of it; neither have consistent personality traits or any chemistry together). Like the first season, The Split’s second season finale wraps things up a little too cleanly for most of the characters (and truly devastatingly for another), but somehow it just makes me want to watch more.
It’s difficult to explain The Split’s strange alchemy; it has issues, and yet it’s a show I don’t hesitate to recommend. Like most legal dramas, the cast is impeccably costumed as they walk briskly through wide halls and talk in offices with floor-to-ceiling windows. When London is shown, it’s intimate and familiar, but it’s not a focus. The interiors of each of the Defoe’s houses or apartments are believably messy and lived-in, and the constant communication among family members wholesome. The soundtrack is somehow both melancholy and upbeat. Essentially, the world that has been created here is one you want to stay in. If makes you care, truly, about what happens to these women, and what is at stake in their lives.
Though in the first season, the ultimate revelation that Nathan and Hannah’s marriage was not what she thought it was seemed a little trite, it’s made up for in the second season, where both partners struggle with tallying the balance of the good and bad in their 20 years of marriage. This is where The Split really shines, where we get to see the Defoe women and those who love them face very real decisions and consequences, muddling through while knowing that, ultimately, they will always have their family. And hopefully we will have them, too—for many seasons to come.
The Split Season 2 premieres on Sundance TV at midnight on May 21st—so set your DV-R. Season 1 is available to stream on Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Sundance Now, and YouTube TV.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.