In Sam Taylor-Johnson‘s excellent debut feature, Nowhere Boy, she took on a familiar subject: the late John Lennon. What she decided to focus on about Lennon, however, was unique. Starting in his teenage years, she probed how sex and the thrill of performance drove the young musician, right as he was meeting the other young men who would start The Beatles. As written by Matt Greenhaigh, who also wrote the Ian Curtis biopic Control with a distinct focus on intimate desires over professional gains, John was the showman whereas George and Paul were the musical die-hards that focused on compositions. Lennon’s sexual desires were depicted as his primary driving force, stirring him to make the most of his meager talents (at the time) and those of his new, far more technically skilled bandmates.
This, partnered with Taylor-Johnson’s helming of the misbegotten Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation, explains much of what the director must have seen of promise in Gypsy, Netflix’s new psychosexual drama series. Centered on Jean Holloway (Naomi Watts), a therapist, mother, and loving wife to her husband, Michael (Billy Crudup), the series follows as Jean creates the character of Diane, a single journalist whom she inhabits to unethically involve herself in the lives of her patients. And as creator-writer Lisa Rubin and Taylor-Johnson portray her transformation, the impetus of this unhinged act is a host of repressed sexual and professional yearnings that she indulges (along with much bourbon) as a distinctly troubling type of escapism.
At first, her actions are explicitly tied to one patient: Sam (Karl Glusman), who is obsessed with Sidney (Sophie Cookson), his ex-girlfriend and a local bartender. In an early scene in one of their sessions, he describes being consumed by his desires for Sidney, being unable to think of anything but her and what she makes and made him feel. And what Jean seems to want in creating Diane is to feel that kind of passion for herself, as the day-to-day nuisances of play dates, other school mothers, her oft-rigid colleagues, and domestic duties have become the center of her existence. Her increasing dependence on alcohol is at once an enabling force and a reflection of what she seeks to feel when she begins to follow and flirt with Sidney.
As Rubin and Taylor-Johnson see it, Jean is working to solve the problems of her patients via extreme breaches in trust in an attempt to avoid confronting her own disquiet with the peaceful existence she’s built for herself. Watts, moving and nuanced as much in her silences as her speeches, is careful to not show Jean as completely indifferent to her marital life. She clearly cares about being a mother and a wife but she’s been feeling an impersonality toward her family, as well as her career, that has driven her toward more radical means of feeling noticed and desired. Watts makes the character a study in the neglected id returning to overtake the unending routines of professional and family life — the intimate impulse of wanting to destroy any semblance of personal stability. As such, one could even argue that Gypsy is a kind of horror series without the copious blood and outlandish violence.
Would that Taylor-Johnson and Rubin had more clearly seen the whole project as a singular movie or a shorter mini-series rather than an overwrought 10-episode drama series, though. Rubin adds on all matter of storylines, including an incident with her daughter and another student at school, that are generally involving and reflect much of what Jean is going through in clever ways, but it substantially dilutes the core of the series. The increasing lack of control that Jean feels and her impulsive seeking of satisfaction of any kind never comes through in Taylor-Johnson’s compositions or in Rubin’s dialogue. As such, we never quite get a handle on the pleasure, rush, and instability of what she’s doing, nor do we fully understand how that affects Michael or their daughter.
That being said, with the exception of the oddly innocuous inaugural episode, Gypsy continuously demands attention in its vision of life as performance, which is what I imagine both Taylor-Johnson and Watts saw as so attractive about the project. The danger in remaining professional is that one can also feel at a distance from the work and render one unable to find useful solutions to personal problems. For Jean, this leads to crippling frustration and an overwhelming feeling of uselessness, which pushes her toward the creation of Diane and the relationship she begins to build with Sidney. And by becoming personally involved in her patients’ lives, she denies them a crucial sense of control and freedom to speak without fear of being exploited, a situation that is primed for chaos that never quite came in the first four episodes but looks to be inevitably in the cards.
In essence, the series allows Rubin, Watts, and Taylor-Johnson to consider and criticize their own personal connections to their own work, employment that often requires them to be at a distance from their material to allow for producers and other interests to have their (mostly) appropriate say. And as all three chief creative forces behind Gypsy are women, there is an essential focus on how the simple fact of being a woman can drastically affect how you are criticized and managed by men. It’s an element that should have been pushed further throughout the run of Gypsy, which might have made for a great movie but settles as an engaging, wise series. Nevertheless, in a marketplace short on ambitious shows made by and for women, Gypsy finds fertile ground for an exploration of the chaotic impasse between roiling inner desires and the false yet requisite veneer of stability that society often calls for without knowing the real cost.
Rating: ★★★ – Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
Gypsy will be available on Netflix in full on Friday, June 30th.