Warning: There are slight spoilers ahead for Tell Me Your Secrets.
Tell Me Your Secrets doesn’t just tell one story. There are so many overlapping plotlines and morally dubious characters that sometimes, watching the Prime Video series feels like jumping between multiple thrilling, terrifying TV shows. But along with the obvious themes (like suspicion and, well, murder), the show’s biggest through-line is the truth: what it means, what we’re willing to give up in order to find it, what we’re willing to trust.
After serving time in prison for her role in her ex’s killing spree, Karen Miller (Lily Rabe), renamed Emma and relocated to a small Louisiana town, struggles to remember key parts of her past. She has no idea who or what to believe; she’s not even sure whether she can believe herself. Mary Barlow (Amy Brenneman), meanwhile, is on a quest to learn what really happened to her daughter, who vanished seven years ago and is presumed to be dead. She’s so desperate for answers that she even enlists a dangerous predator (Hamish Linklater) to help her stalk Emma, who she’s convinced played a role in her daughter’s disappearance.
Unlike many psychological thrillers (including Rabe’s other recent series, The Undoing, and heavyweights like Big Little Lies and Gone Girl), Tell Me Your Secrets isn’t based on a book. It isn’t based on one particular true story, either, but creator Harriet Warner explained that Emma’s storyline — which came to her first — was rooted in reality.
“I really was so fascinated by relationships where you could love someone and yet not know huge truths about them,” Warner said in a recent interview. “Can you have true intimacy with someone and not have true knowledge of them? And I was really fascinated by that, and the idea of our capacity for secrets. So I thought, yeah, let me take that territory which I really am excited about and then think, how do I make that a story?”
Throughout the series, Emma’s motives, memory, and history are doubted by many people she encounters: the prison’s other incarcerated women, her secretive therapist (Enrique Murciano), troubled rich girl Rose (Chiara Aurelia). Although she’s created some distance from serial killer Kit (Xavier Samuel), she still carries a lot of guilt and blame; at times, the audience is also made to wonder whether she’s actually at fault. She’s treated as a perpetrator, victim, and bystander at once.
Warner told TV Insider that, when creating Emma’s character, she drew inspiration from the women romantically linked to notorious male serial killers. “It’s guilt by association,” she said. “Complicity because of love.” Many wives and girlfriends of serial abusers, rapists, and murderers are held under a microscope and vilified for their possible role in their partners’ crimes.
And the gaps in Emma’s memory feel intentional, too: she can’t recall the specifics of Kit’s murder spree, but in flashbacks, we watch her remember him as a kind, romantic tattoo artist who surprised her with a kitten on her birthday and made her feel loved. Like serial killers themselves, their spouses and partners aren’t a monolith. Some, like Emma, are accused of abetting their husbands; others stand by them. Many are in shock. But according to Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., a professor of forensic psychology, almost all share an instinct to defend their own relationships with these killers, at least to themselves.
“I still have a sense of disbelief that this man that I loved and that seemed to be a great guy could go out and do such horrific things,” Ted Bundy’s one time girlfriend, Elizabeth Kendall, said in a 20/20 interview last year. Forty decades later, she added, she still lives with extreme guilt. “Guilt about… causing this in my daughter’s life, guilt about what he had done, guilt that I had loved this man that was so gruesome.”
Some women, like Judith Mawson — who was once married to the Green River Killer — also struggle to date again. Throughout Tell Me Your Secrets, Emma does forge connections with people in town, but she never knows who to trust. “It was so wonderful playing both women,” Rabe told Entertainment Weekly. “Karen is someone who had such a wide open heart. Then, because of what she’s been through, [Emma is] someone who’s afraid of absolutely everything and feels as though she will never feel another moment of safety again in her life.”
Are any of these characters based on real people? Not explicitly. (Which is a relief, because some of them are terrifying.) But as is the case with every good thriller, the scariest and most emotional notes of Tell Me Your Secrets aren't completely fictional.