“There is no hope. There’s just biology.”
I was dreading this episode, and all episodes after it, but there weren’t any pre-Lullaby episodes left on ITV Player. So I got on with it.
And the feels.
Your Hand in Mine feels fundamentally like a retelling of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. A woman named Lucy, soon to be married, develops a terrible skin condition that exactly mirrors how her husband Jonathan’s previous wife Claire died four years ago. Which is, I suppose, a common enough plot that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a reference to Rebecca; except that there’s a scene halfway through the episode which sees Lucy walking down the stairs in a dress of Claire’s to a waiting audience below. The horror is unmistakably akin to the scene in du Maurier’s novel when Our Narrator, all unwittingly, appears at the fancy-dress ball in an exact replica of Rebecca’s costume at the last Manderley ball. And, of course, there’s the small matter of Robert’s brain tumour (which he is currently being an idiot about, and which makes me unreasonably sad. After all, he doesn’t actually exist, right?).
Why does this matter? It matters because Afterlife is up to its usual tricks here, rewriting and destabilising mainstream horror tropes so that they become both less and more horrific. The shade of the first wife isn’t a jealous, sexually threatening harridan but a lost and lonely soul afraid that she is (or was) unloved. The episode tells us that we don’t have to respond to terminal disease as Robert does, with a comfortless and destructive withdrawal from human contact, nor as Rebecca does, in a blaze of fury and passion; we can respond with understanding, and courage, and love.
Which is, potentially, all very well, except that Your Hand in Mine‘s reading of Rebecca simplifies that novel pretty drastically, and certainly problematically.We can, of course, argue that the episode is only responding to a prevalent cultural reading of Rebecca – rather than the novel as it actually stands – which sees the figure of Rebecca as intrinsically and irredeemably evil (personally, I read her as amoral, a woman refusing to live by patriarchy’s rules, but whatever); but this still leaves us with the issue that Your Hand in Mine replaces an empowered and vivid woman who knows what she wants with a rather weedy female figure who disturbs a healthy relationship because she needs her husband to hold her hand One Last Time. However evil Rebecca is, she’s the one we remember (and not just because her name’s on the cover). Two hours after I watched it, the lingering impression I get from Your Hand in Mine is Jonathan’s (undoubtedly quite moving) grief, not Claire’s fear. A subverted retelling it may be, but the episode essentially refocuses the narrative onto a male centre, defanging a very potent myth of female empowerment to re-establish male power. Which is not really a subversion at all, because it’s the tale people have been telling for centuries – ever since Medusa, probably. How much more interesting might it have been if Jonathan had been the one possessed?
All of which is only to say that, while Your Hand in Mine is a very finely observed episode – Lesley Sharp is once again fantastic, can that woman do no wrong – it’s also, precisely because of its emotional weighting, a very problematic one. While I don’t think feminism has ever been one of Afterlife‘s strong points, it’s sad to see that the show’s usually evident cleverness in (re)writing subversive horror isn’t put to better use here.