Warning: Spoilers ahead for A Teacher “Episode 5.”
“The whole show is about power dynamics,” A Teacher star Kate Mara told Refinery29 over the phone. “Because, it can look like Eric is the aggressor in certain aspects and in certain moments. But at the end of the day, Claire is the one with the power.”
No episode puts this fact more clearly on display in the FX on Hulu limited series than A Teacher’s fifth chapter. “Episode 5” opens with Mara’s Claire Wilson — a new English teacher at a suburban Texas high school and a 30-something-year-old married woman — on a mini birthday vacation with her “boyfriend” Eric Walker (Nick Robinson, at the brink of his teen boy oeuvre). Eric is Claire’s student. Claire desperately wants to believe her relationship with Eric, who turns 18 in “Episode 5,” is a fair (and legal) one. But, it’s abusive. Claire is only harming Eric.
Mara hopes viewers understand this truth, despite the seemingly sexy scenes that permeate A Teacher — particularly when it comes to the episode’s steamy table hookup.
“Episode 5” opens with Claire and Eric playfully settling into a weekend rental in the Texas countryside. Claire told her husband Matt (Succession’s Ashley Zukerman) she is at a conference; Eric told his mom Sandy (Rya Kihlstedt) he’s celebrating with age-appropriate friends. This is Claire’s “gift” to Eric for his 18th birthday. When Claire checks in with Matt to keep up the ruse, Eric’s heart breaks as he remembers he is essentially a side project in Claire’s adult life. “Take your underwear off,” he aggressivelytells Claire in a deep-voiced effort to remind her of the so-called passion in their relationship. Soon enough, Claire and Eric are having intense angry sex on a table.
“It’s not just a sex scene. It’s about how he is jealous of her husband and that he is probably intimidated by [their marriage]. They’re both emotionally deeper into this relationship at this point,” Mara said. “It’s not just about a forceful sexual moment … It’s Eric trying to get his power back.”
No matter how hard Eric works to get his power back — eventually pulling Claire’s hair in a show of consensual sexual dominance — she is the one who holds all the cards. “She’s the adult. She’s the one abusing the power. And she’s the master manipulating him— even if it doesn’t necessarily seem so,” Mara continued. “That’s just the reality given the age and also given the power of her being his teacher and the adult.”
It’s truths like this that kept A Teacher from ever really feeling “sexy” for Mara, despite the lush shots of its good-looking central pairing.
“Morally speaking, when you’re watching the show, you know that it may seem a certain way, and they may look like they belong together. But if you know the reality, then it’s pretty hard to watch it without feeling like you shouldn’t be rooting for them,” she explained. “I think that’s just there. I don’t think that’s anything that we had to do necessarily.”
The amount of planning behind the scenes only added to the pragmatism of filming an installment like “Episode 5.” Every sex scene was “very, very thought out,” Mara explains, citing the careful instructions of A Teacher cinematographer Quyen Tran. “During any of our intimate scenes, there were really three people involved at all times,” Mara laughed. “Because Quyen was there, camera operating, whispering things to us: ‘Lower your arm. Breathe heavier.’ Like, really specific, unsexy things.”
Although a lot of work went into making sure “Episode 5’s” hookups went off without a snag, there is more to the chapter than table sex and hot tub trysts. It is in this episode we see Claire explore all of the parts of her youth that she denied herself as an actual teen. She learns advanced pot smoking techniques and downs munchies and beers with abandon.
Still, Mara is quick to point out this isn’t a “fun” moment.
“She says she didn’t really experience those college or younger-year moments in her life. This is her trying to get that back,” she said. “As a viewer or even as a person from the outside looking in, I found it all really kind of depressing and quite sad. Even though she was supposed to be feeling quite free in the moment.”
Claire takes that freedom with her outside of her Airbnb bubble with Eric, into her post-weekend real life with husband Matt and friend/colleague Kathryn (You’s Marielle Scott). During Matt’s band gig at a dive bar, Claire reveals her secret affair to Kathryn, blowing up her life forever. It’s a shockingly abrupt moment of self-destruction from someone who groomed Eric to keep their “love” (read: abuse) hidden until the grave.
“Our intent [with that scene] is that Claire was feeling so high on the experience of her trip and it’s like: ‘If you don’t tell somebody it’s like it’s not happening.’ So telling somebody else feels like she's validating it somehow,” Mara explained, adding that Claire deluded herself into believing Kathryn is “wild” enough to support her criminal liason. Mara confirms Claire simply isn’t thinking of the fallout that will inevitably come next — for her and, even more importantly, for abuse survivor Eric.
“I don’t think she is thinking clearly in any way,” she added. “That’s why she gets herself into that situation. She lets her guard down and there’s consequences to it.”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).