This Greek Tragedy Could Hold The Secret To The Doctor Foster Finale

Dr Foster

by Katie Rosseinsky |

Everything about the BBC’s compulsive drama Doctor Foster feels contemporary without trying too hard to be ‘2017.’ There are the scenes that unpick how technology has amped up relationship paranoia (to check your partner’s texts, or not to check your partner’s texts?) There’s also Gemma’s increasingly covetable wardrobe of workwear separates (surely Whistles and Cos, am I right?) And then, of course, there’s the way in which the show’s writers are constantly deconstructing and rebuilding the ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ trope, replacing it with something more nuanced and human.

But despite all of the show’s modern-day trappings, the twists and turns of the plot (which sees Gemma Foster, as played by Suranne Jones discover that her husband has been having an affair with a younger woman) are underpinned by age-old ideas of jealousy, lust, revenge: all stuff that writers have been grappling with, quite literally, for thousands of years. It’s no surprise, then, to learn that Doctor Foster creator Mike Bartlett mined ancient Greek tragedy – and one 2,500-year-old play in particular – for plot inspiration.

Speaking to the Radio Times in anticipation of tonight’s season two finale, the screenwriter and playwright revealed that Euripides’ Medea provided the fault lines for Gemma and Simon’s marital conflict, explaining that ‘in the original pitch, I never actually said, “We’re going to do Medea at 9pm on BBC1 because it probably wouldn’t have gone down very well. But that idea was always behind it.’

Dr Foster
Suranne Jones as Gemma Foster ©BBC Pictures

Time for a quick primer in Greek drama: in Euripides’ play, itself based upon an even older myth, Medea discovers that her husband Jason has abandoned her for a younger princess. In a brutal act of vengeance, she murders Jason’s new wife then kills her own children, eventually escaping to Athens to begin her life anew. Medea’s capacity to shock hasn’t diminished with the centuries, and just like Gemma, the heroine is never painted simply as a villainess or branded insane. And if you need further convincing of the similarities between the two, count the episodes in each series of Doctor Foster: there are five, one for each act of a classic Greek tragedy.

So, what can we learn from Bartlett’s classical citation ahead of tonight’s finale? It seems more and more probable that Gemma’s path will take a murderous turn (as anticipated in episode four’s cliff hanger) but perhaps it will be Kate, not Simon, who is the focus of her wrath? Last season’s closing episode certainly played with a Medea-style finale, when Gemma’s psychological warfare saw her trick her husband into believing she’d killed their son Tom.

Matricide is hardly a palatable outcome for a primetime BBC drama, though, so the smart money is on a conclusion that plays with elements of Medea, rather than simple restaging them – if Gemma’s troubled son does prove to be this season’s casualty, it’s likely to be the implicit rather than direct result of his parents’ ceaseless conflict. Could the secret which Simon has told Tom in order to turn him against his mother in fact relate to her threat of murder?

All that Bartlett has to say on the subject, meanwhile, is that ‘depending on what happens at the end of series two, a third might not be possible. That’s all I can say, really.’ As they say, the oldest stories are the best stories…

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