Channel 5's The Deceived TWITTER/WEGOTPOP

CN: mentions of domestic violence and abuse.

The latest project from Derry Girls screenwriter Lisa McGee, Channel 5’s highly anticipated drama, The Deceived, aired on Monday 3rd August. While audiences have been taken in by its sinister portrayal of manipulation, I wanted to see how it compares to the original story of coercive control: 1944’s Gaslight.

“What really drives the suspense of the drama, though, is the uncertainty surrounding Ophelia’s experiences – uncertainty over who, exactly, is being deceived by who.”

In the series, Cambridge student Ophelia follows her lecturer, Michael, to his small hometown in Ireland after their affair results in the death of his wife. Ophelia begins to notice strange occurrences; she sees visions of Michael’s dead wife Roisin outside his house, hears knocking sounds from inside her bedroom, and receives cuts that resemble scratches while in the bath. What really drives the suspense of the drama, though, is the uncertainty surrounding Ophelia’s experiences – uncertainty over who exactly is being deceived by who.

Our suspicions are first drawn to Michael who has few qualms about continuing his relationship with a much younger student on the day of his wife’s funeral. However, there are hints to the supernatural, such as a story from Michael’s father about a ghost he met as a child and a mystic reading at the old fire-damaged house, which suggest that Ophelia is being haunted by Roisin’s ghost.

Channel 5's The Deceived TWITTER/VODZILLAMAG

The Deceived carefully tows the line of the horror genre, relying on enduring tropes – Michael’s mother-in-law burning sage to cleanse the house grounds the story in the Catholic imagery of classics like The Omen and The Exorcist.

Another possibility that emerges is of the unreliability of Ophelia’s perspective. She is quick to lie about her relationship to Michael and is soon dressing in Roisin’s clothes, using her make-up and going as far as to take a bath in her bath salts. The trend of a woman arriving to steal another woman’s place is well-established in our minds through stories like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Single White Female. Even the character’s name is an unambiguous reference to the madness of Hamlet’s Ophelia with one of the first things Michael says to Ophelia being a reference to the Shakespearean character.

The programme’s constant play between different genres is reflected in its marketing. Channel 5 billed it as psychological thriller, while Radio Times described it as a haunted house thriller. This has a disorientating effect for the audience: we don’t know what type of programme we are watching, we don’t know if what Ophelia is experiencing is real and we don’t know if we can trust Michael. Through this, The Deceived mimics the experience that is at its heart: gas-lighting.

Channel 5's The DeceivedTWITTER/WHATSONTVUK

Psychologists began using the term in the 1960s following the depiction of this kind of abuse in the 1944 American film Gaslight. It is the story of Paula who is tricked into believing that she is going insane by her new husband, Gregory, so that he can steal her aunt’s jewels. He hides objects, pretends to not hear things that she hears and combines aggression with affection to make her doubt her memory and perception. The same methods are employed by Michael towards Ophelia. He tells her that she must be imagining her sighting of Roisin, plants a knife in her bag, and arranges for someone to pose as doctor and prescribe her medication.


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This use of medical authority to subdue the female victim of gas-lighting is also present in Gaslight. From the genesis of the psychiatric field, women exhibiting strong emotions have been labelled as hysterical. So, for women, Michael’s subtly dismissive assessment of “You’re not well, Ophelia,” is one of the scariest things a man can say. The parallels between the archetypal portrayal of gas-lighting and The Deceived go further: both Paula and Ophelia become trapped in large houses mirroring the experience of abuse victims as their abusers isolate them from the outside world by criticising their friends, making them financially dependent and lowering their self-esteem.

And yet, Gaslight first appeared in an era when domestic violence was considered a more private matter and was understood as physical rather than psychological. This is no longer the case: The Deceived has entered a world in which coercive control is now a criminal offence.

Channel 5's The Deceived TWITTER/RADIOTIMES

The separation between the two stories is followed in the divergence towards the end of their respective narratives. Paula is eventually saved by Inspector Cameron who agrees with Paula about the sounds that Gregory had convinced her were imagined. In doing so he frees her from his manipulation and is set up as her new love interest. Responsibility for the abuse is shifted somewhat onto Paula because, within the logic of the film, abusers are thieves and murderers like Gregory – not ordinary men like Cameron. The message is tacit: had Paula chosen the right man, the abuse would not have taken place.

The Deceived shows that it is redundant to simply teach women to pick the ‘right man’.”

In a 2011 study of domestic violence stories in popular magazines between 1998 and 2008, Pamela Nettleton found that even decades after Gaslight, the media perpetuates this notion that women are responsible for identifying, avoiding and resisting violent men. This illusion is shattered in the final episode of The Deceived, when Ophelia turns to Sean for assistance in escaping Michael. Sean had appeared to be a helpful and kind figure from Ophelia’s arrival signalling that he would be the equivalent of Inspector Cameron in this story. The fact that he is portrayed by Paul Mescal, who has become known as a romantic lead since starring in Normal People, seemed only to confirm this for the audience. It is a shocking moment, then, when instead of taking Ophelia to the airport, Sean returns her to Michael and Ophelia has to join together with the other women manipulated by Michael in order to escape him.

The Deceived shows that it is redundant to simply teach women to pick the ‘right man’. Without also teaching men to recognise abusive behaviour in their peers and in themselves, even the Seans of the world will react to a victim of gas-lighting with “you’re not well.”