What would you do for your family? Think past the surface niceties: the comforting cup of tea, the quick check-in via WhatsApp, the dried flowers in the post. What fucked up lengths would we go to for the ones we love? How far would we go to protect them if someone were causing them pain? This question is very much the premise of Apple TV+’s razor-sharp black comedy series Bad Sisters, based on the Flemish TV show Clan and straight from the warped but brilliant mind of creator and star Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe).
The first episode starts with a coffin. Inside is the body of John Paul (Claes Bang), the villainous husband of one of the Garveys, a tight-knit unit of five sisters living in Dublin. It’s probably not the most appropriate time for laughter but it turns out that human bodies are capable of getting erections even after death. Someone pipes up with the uncomfortable trivia that such occurrences are common if a person’s demise has been particularly violent or swift. Everyone in the room hushes. You suddenly get the feeling that John Paul did not go gentle into that good night.
The Garvey sisters consist of the mourning widow in question, Grace (Anne-Marie Duff), loose cannon Becka (Eve Hewson), Ursula (Eva Birthistle) and fiercely protective matriarchs Eva (Sharon Horgan) and Bibi (Sarah Greene). In the present day, the sisters try and get on with their lives but that niggling question of foul play is being investigated by bundle-of-nerves insurance broker Thomas Claffin (Brian Gleeson) and his half-brother Matthew (Daryl McCormack). They have their own motive for prying: they need to do everything in their power to stop John Paul’s life insurance claim going through, otherwise their family company will go bust. Thankfully, the sisters are acting a little sus. Could it be murder? But the question remains: why would anyone wish pain upon a member of their own family?
In flashbacks we see John Paul’s insidious presence in all five of the sisters' lives, particularly his controlling and manipulative treatment of Grace. Aggressive, misogynistic and sociopathic, he takes pleasure in meddling in each sister’s business. He blackmails one with threats to ruin her marriage, sabotages another’s promotion and jokes about another’s fertility struggles. Worse: one of the sisters, Bibi, wears an eye patch. She recently lost the sight in her eye and it looks like a relatively fresh injury. Could he have...?
There is a brilliant scene in episode one – aptly named "The Prick" – where the sisters (excluding JP’s wife, Grace) discuss how much better their lives would all be if JP died. Ursula jokes: "Well, we’ll have to wait 'til he dies of cancer or something." Bibi turns serious: "Why not give nature a helping hand, all our worries would be over." They quickly dismiss this idea and start to fire off in jest: "I’d feed him to the Hurleys' pig"; "Bury him piece by piece in the mushroom beds"; "I’d tamper with the brakes of his shitty Volvo!" It’s the perfect pitch-black, sardonic humour that only the Irish can nail. As the series ticks on and his behaviour worsens, you start to see where jest blurs with plotting.
"We don’t choose our in-laws," a tight-lipped Eva tells the prying insurance brothers when they ask her what her relationship with JP was like. Viewers at home know that this sentiment extends to all family. Truth is she loathed him, like all her other sisters, but when it comes to the people our loved ones choose to love, we grin and bear it – because it's what's best for them. But what happens when it stops being what’s best for them?
One thing that JP’s malevolent treatment of the sisters highlights – all the ways he undermines them, knocks them down or outright tries to ruin their lives under a holier-than-thou false pretence – is that it is much easier for a man to hurt a woman in irreparable ways in a society that is shaped to protect and pander to him. Today, women remain at a financial disadvantage; women still struggle to achieve parity with men in the workplace; after divorce, women are hit harder financially than men; and women are scapegoated in cases of infertility. It’s painful to see the sisters witness Grace’s changing personality firsthand, and the way JP demeans her and makes her out to be a bad mother. We know murder is wrong but as the series goes on you feel the injustice very acutely as it boils over, alongside the reminder that a lot of the time, white men like JP come out on top – that is, until someone knocks them off.
Bad Sisters is out on Apple TV+ on 19th August