The 1947 novelty tune “I’m My Own Grandpa” has become shorthand for Jerry Springer-style family intrigue, but I mean to evoke the exact opposite when I say that Ruth Wilson is her own grandmother in the fascinating Mrs. Wilson. The 3-part series, airing in the U.S. on PBS, is a lightly fictionalized account of a scandal within Wilson’s own family that only became known after her grandfather’s death in the mid-1960s. It was then that his wife, Alison (portrayed by Ruth Wilson) began to unexpectedly unravel her husband’s mysteries when another woman claiming to also be his wife shows up at the door.
The previews for Mrs. Wilson suggested that’s more or less as far as Alexander’s (Iain Glen) deceptions went, but it is hardly even the beginning. Not only is there a long history of Alexander forging documents to marry several women, but the truth and half-truths about his employment within British Intelligence (and time spent in India) is full of exceptional twists. Late in the series Alison tiredly admits she doesn’t know what to believe anymore, and it’s no wonder. Glen is exceptional at seeming completely earnest with his family, a doting father and husband who wants nothing but the best for them. He’s a cad, and yet, one would understand why Alison had no clue.
Though Wilson is playing her grandmother, for the first two acts there’s no feeling of the work being particularly reverential. She is overwhelmed by what she finds out about her husband and alienates her family, and then makes mistakes in handling the information she finds. It’s also very interesting to watch her slowly start to use some of the same tactics Alexander did to massage the truth into something more palatable for herself, including the suggestion that she too forged a document or two, and engaged in her own deceptions to figure out his. But Alison’s hunt for the truth is ultimately a righteous one, one she doggedly pursues despite being thwarted at almost every step.
What makes this story different from others focusing on men committing bigamy is that the focus is really not on Alexander at all. Glen is seen almost exclusively in flashbacks, ones that take on new shading as Alison begins to get a fuller picture of who he really was. We see him through the lens of her experience, as well as others who he duped or had professional contact with. The examination of the lives of the other women he conned, basically, could have used more time, but the basic refrain was the same: they fell for a handsome and charismatic officer with an important job and the ability to make anyone believe what he said. He betrayed them all, often in different ways. Alison and her two sons continually ask who Alexander really was, and there’s no one answer (confirmed by a post-credit sequence that points to ongoing investigations). He seemed to love them, but he allowed them to live in poverty. Was his set-up, or was he just selfish? He was a masterful storyteller (and author of many books), but in balder terms he was also a skilled pathological liar.
Mrs. Wilson’s third act takes even more turns than the first two, including a few wild emotional swings as Alison believes she has Alexander pegged before a new revelation comes to light. At that point, the story shifts quickly to Alison finding her way to faith, something she practiced but never really believed in before. Her desire to live a life of piety and quietude is understandable given her former tumult, but the story doesn’t really leave enough space for her spiritual transformation as it rushes through time.
It’s tricky to dramatize what is essentially a series of conversations between two people where one is always outraged and overwhelmed, but Wilson does a good job of embodying a woman fueled by both anger and confusion, especially in the first episode when she is also hiding in denial. Mrs. Wilson is a low-key mystery, though the story’s many layers are exceptional. In many ways it’s the perfect Masterpiece content for family viewing: There’s virtually no sex, violence, or profanity, and it’s sure to spark conversations about the tales within one’s own lineage, including the most difficult truths. A final shot of the many descendants of Alexander Wilson shows that his devastating fictions did lead to the positive reality of an extended family who have found each other in the light of truth. That, at least, can’t be faked.
Mrs. Wilson premieres Sunday, March 31st on PBS.