CW: Some episodes have flashing lights. All episodes have gaslighting and abuse.
Bad Sisters is an exquisitely good series filled with the darkest humor, dazzling writing, a pitch perfect soundtrack, excellent acting, delicious characters, and a deeply cathartic ending. That said, you should be forewarned that, because it’s so well done, it may make your stomach churn with bile born of recognizing a grotesquely familiar monster. My advice? Stick with it if you can, because riding alongside the close-knit and protective Garvey sisters as they plot to kill their heinous brother-in-law is ultimately worth the squirms it may cause. It’s been days since I watched the finale and it still dominates my thoughts.
The series, which is based on the Belgian show Clan (2012), begins on the morning of John Paul’s (Claes Bang) funeral. As his wife Grace (Anne-Marie Duff) slices onions for sandwiches the only sounds we hear are the knife severing the layers of onion flesh and her gentle sobs. She walks a tower of sandwiches into the living room and stands at the window a moment to weep before turning to the open casket to gently caress John Paul’s face. As she places her hands atop his, which are folded across his chest, she notices he has a post-mortem erection poking like a final Fuck you through the fabric of his cotton pajamas. As she hesitantly places her hands above it as if to try to push it down, the first bars of “Oh, Death” break the silence. Grace quickly reconsiders manual manipulation of the member, and instead tries to hide the unwelcome intruder first with flowers and then with a picture frame—which topples sideways.
Then, we meet Grace’s sisters. Eva (Sharon Horgan), the eldest who still lives in the family home, is half-heartedly watering a dying rose bush while drinking a morning glass of red wine. Bibi (Sarah Greene), the most cynical and acerbic of the sisters, at first tells her wife that she’ll stay in the bath instead of going to the funeral. Ursula (Eva Birthistle), who anxiously stares at her phone while she types a text, only gets a few minutes of privacy before her husband Donal (Jonjo O’Neill) and their three children need her attention. And Becka (Eve Hewson), who is extremely late, is running down the beach in a red sweater. Before she makes it to the funeral she has a run in with a man on a motorcycle that will have reverberating consequences. The Garvey sisters’ parents died when they were young, and Eva stepped into the caretaker role. Now that they’re all grown they still maintain a deeply close and protective relationship, sharing meals, keeping up family traditions, and, most recently, plotting murder most foul. They argue and disagree just as fiercely as they love one another, but woe to anyone who tries to hurt one of them.
Meanwhile, Thomas (Brian Gleeson) and Matthew (Daryl McCormack) Claffin—the “sons” part of Claffin and Sons Insurance—are preparing to crash the funeral in order to launch an investigation into the circumstances around John Paul’s death. Well, technically it’s Thomas who wants the investigation, because his wife, who is on strict bed rest, is pregnant with their first child, and he knows paying out John Paul’s life insurance claim would bankrupt the company their dead father built. Plus, it would expose some things that he’d much rather stay buried. Matthew, who Thomas and his wife consider somewhat lazy, doesn’t want to go barging into grieving people’s lives, but he goes along anyway. Unlike the Garvey sisters, Thomas and Matthew, who have different mothers, didn’t share a close-knit childhood. They’re only just now figuring out how to navigate the world with each other, while still deciding how much they like each other. The series weaves their story in and out with the Garvey sisters, and while you certainly want their inquiry to fail, it’s hard not to feel empathy for these two who seem to be good people forced to do questionable things. Their bumbling and bravado-filled investigation is also fodder for some extremely funny moments.
Now, to get the dirt on how and why John Paul died, the show will take us back and forth between the present and the recent past. It begins six months ago on Christmas Eve, when the sisters and their families are all gathered at Eva’s house for dinner. As Grace carefully serves him pieces of ham, John Paul is watching the controlled chaos with a look of disdain. “That’s women’s lib for you,” he says to Ursula’s husband Donal. “Heads of the table, both ends. Plenty of room and us men hemmed in like tinned fish.” It’s an irksome, sexist comment, which he follows up by saying that he means no offense to Bibi’s wife Nora (so you can add homophobic to that list), but it’s probably not reason enough to kill a man. But, John Paul is just getting warmed up. In short order, he warns his daughter Blanaid (Saise Quinn) about getting fat, makes a “joke” about Eva being “barren,” almost asks Becka’s guest a racist question, and purposely and publicly withholds affection from Grace. He also calls Grace “Mammy” in a way that causes my chest to tighten in disgust and primal rage. Seriously, you’re going to need to brace yourself for it. The sisters are appalled by his behavior, but Grace tearfully and angrily insists he’s a good man who they’re just misunderstanding. (She’s lying to herself.)
The next day, angry that Grace and Blanaid have planned to join her sisters for their annual Christmas Day swim, John Paul carefully plies her with oysters, champagne, and affection. Then, when Grace and Blanaid are ready to go, he appears baffled that she’s leaving. “You can’t drive,” he insists, with what sounds like care in his voice. “You’ve had a glass of champagne.” She tries to argue that she’s fine, but he won’t hear it. She tries to bargain that he could drive them, but he insists he can’t because he’s also had a drink. When she tries to push past him, he slams the door and, in a gentle but sinister voice asks, “Now why would you go and make a scene on Christmas Day? I’m not having Blanaid in rough sea with her mother drunk. Absolutely not.” A look of fear and disappointment and confusion washes over Grace’s face. Then he turns to their daughter and, cupping her face gently in his hands, apologizes and says he just “worries too much.” Blanaid looks at Grace with something between pity and disgust before she too walks away. Grace is left alone, massaging her arm where John Paul grabbed her and trying to control her sobs. She paces and moves her arms frantically before sinking down into a tiny ball, her face next to the giant front windows that separate her from the world.
The number of things that are telegraphed in this brief scene are nothing short of breathtaking. John Paul is like an amalgamation of all the horrible traits in terrible men. He’s an archetype of toxic masculinity. He’s a cover band of cruelty’s greatest hits—gaslighting, manipulation, coercion, violence, and control. He’s a cesspool of misogyny, ableism, racism, and homophobia, and he’s hell-bent on destroying anything and anyone he sees as weak or threatening, which most certainly includes all the Garvey women. Yet, he’s managed to coat himself in just enough layers of charm, respectability, and, of course, white male privilege that nothing bad ever seems to stick to him. While he grinds Grace and, by extension, the other Garvey women, like dirt under his heel, his star continues to rise in the public sphere. If by the end of the first episode some part of you doesn’t agree that he deserves to die, then I’m not sure what to tell you, except this might not be the show for you. And this definitely isn’t the review for you.
The idea to kill John Paul starts off as a joke. A bit of cathartic banter that the sisters bat back and forth to assuage their sadness that Grace can’t join them for the swim. “Kill the prick! I fucking hate him,” they shout to the sea. Quickly, though, first Bibi and then Eva decide it’s the only way to save Grace from being entirely consumed by this monster. They try to keep it from Ursula and Becka, but eventually all four will be involved. It doesn’t matter how much they plan, though—all of their attempts ricochet off John Paul and end up causing harm to innocent bystanders or themselves. There is, I assure you, a lot of coal black humor in the offing of these foiled plans. Like after one explosive failure when Eva says to Bibi that “We’re doing it again, we’re doing it with poison this time. Like normal women.” Also, each failed attempt is a relief, because these women really do not need the added baggage of having committed a murder, but it also feels like a kick in the gut because with each episode more of John Paul’s abhorrent actions are revealed.
On the other hand, the Garvey sisters, together or separately, are a fucking delight. A moment I loved is when they are discussing a rather intimate photo that Ursula sent to someone. Bibi and Eva are less understanding about it, but Becka corrects them saying, “Don’t shame her. That’s your fucking vulva, you can do what you want with it.” Amen! Hallelujah!! Also, there’s a moment—before we know the extent of his vileness—when Eva is standing over John Paul’s open casket and just the breath of a smile crosses her lips. It’s got to be one of the more divine moments in television. These characters are so full and detailed and well-wrought that it felt surreal to see them listed on the IMDb page.
Of the many things that makes this show work so well is how flawed and morally ambiguous the Garvey sisters are. Each of them has her own secrets, her own list of mistakes, her own failures, but these only serve to make them more relatable, whole, and human. Eva is successful in her job—where, horrifyingly, she works alongside John Paul—but she was never able to have the children she desperately wanted. Ursula feels somewhat trapped by her domestic life, and resorts to lies to carve out space for herself. Becka, who may ultimately suffer the greatest loss, desperately wants to prove herself as an adult and have her ideas respected, but isn’t quite ready to let go of her wild youth. (She reminds me a bit of Aisling Bea’s character in This Way Up.) I think all of this helps us identify with them so strongly that we want them to win at any cost, even if it isn’t always clear what winning looks like. Also, it’s important that they do not take their task of murder lightly. The idea of taking a person’s life gnaws at their insides, but, in the end, it’s the only way they can see to save their sister from being further victimized and bullied into non-existence.
And their decision only serves to further clarify their utter lack of options, and just how much power this man, and by extension all men, have over their lives. He has at his disposal some of the sharpest tools in the patriarchy: shame, blame, self-doubt, and violence, which he stabs with frightening dexterity and aim into the Garvey sisters’ weak spots. When Becka comes to him for a loan to secure a space for her massage studio, he agrees to give her the money and then, after she has signed the lease, claims she misunderstood—that he would never loan her any money. Worse still, he forces Grace to explain it to Becka. Expertly, since he knows Grace can only side with him, he drives a wedge between the two sisters and also ruins Becka financially, stripping her of her dignity in the process. Mind you, this is among his lesser crimes. The series seems to suggest that we will probably never know the exact depth of his depravity.
If you’re thinking at this point that, even with all the humor, you couldn’t possibly stand to watch this man be awful for so long, I’d say, Fair enough. But, I’d also remind you that the end is coming. Or maybe better put, his end is coming. That last episode lands like the first robin of spring—the world that felt unendingly dark and desperate, suddenly breaks open with renewed hope and growth.