The Split is back for a third and final season, and with it, the best tailoring on television. The family law drama is glossy, big and bold, and it has an air of unapologetic grandeur that is missing from a lot of television at the moment. Most big TV dramas, these days, have something of an earnest streak, but this BBC One series exists in its own lane, a glamorous grande dame adjusting her bosom as she wades into every betrayal and affair in a five-mile radius. It is irresistibly fun.
The women of the Defoe family – matriarch Ruth and siblings Hannah, Nina and Rose – bring more melodrama to the table than most of their clients. It may be a legal drama, but this isn’t about courtroom showdowns and closing arguments that blow the whole case wide open. It’s about relationships of all stripes, and what happens when they reach breaking point. Ruth, Hannah and Nina are all in the family business, and help clients to navigate the choppy waters of death, divorce and parental responsibilities every day.
Season two made the decision to mostly focus on one case, the slow unravelling of a marriage between two TV presenters, Fi and Richie, with a nasty undercurrent of coercive control. The Split deals in two moods. It is tense and almost thriller-esque, as various lies and affairs take place and are uncovered, or almost uncovered, and it is deeply satisfying when justice prevails. When the squirming Richie finally got his comeuppance, it was a punch-the-air moment, all the more deserved for the fact that it was allowed to play out as a full six-episode, season-long arc.
As a legal firm, though, Noble Hale Defoe is a HR department’s worst nightmare. They’re all married, or shagging, or avoiding each other, or their clients. They are one formal complaint away from the office turning into an extremely middle-class episode of Open House: The Great Sex Experiment. On its website, the BBC describes The Split as a “steamy legal drama” and I suppose it is, but all that steaminess brings a lot of pain, and it has a sadistic side, when it comes to putting its leads through the mill.
But the cast shoulders it well. Nicola Walker’s Hannah has a tendency towards self-sabotage that finally, inevitably caught up with her, when husband Nathan realised, at last, that she and Christie were more than just good friends. Not even Rebecca Adlington went swimming that often. It led to one of the best episodes of the entire series, when Stephen Mangan played out Nathan’s discovery with a sense of slow-dawning horror and humiliation, and Hannah started to wonder if Christie was what she had wanted after all. Walker and Mangan, together, were incredible. Nathan’s past affair, and history with an “adult” dating site, offered enough emotional complexity to keep me gripped. Who was in the wrong? It’s a sign of the show’s maturity and respect for its audience that nobody comes out of this covered in glory.
Still, I’m not sure that emotional complexity is The Split’s main selling point. This is highly enjoyable escapism, the sort of show in which people say things like: “Someone said that you’re the best” to the lawyers, and there are lots of grisly arguments about technical terms and custody arrangements over vast tables, while everyone looks good in powerful businesswear. The houses and flats are covetable, London looks glamorous, and every now and then Anna Chancellor pops up as Melanie, a rival lawyer who almost always ruthlessly out-lawyers the rest of them.
Season three begins on a strong footing, 10 months after the events of that juicy season-two finale, with plenty of thorny issues to resolve. Nathan and Hannah are divorcing, and at first it seems amicable, but this is The Split, after all, and it’s the split that has been coming since the very first episode, so naturally it isn’t all sweetness and agreements about who gets what from the Le Creuset collection. Nathan has hired Melanie for his side of the divorce, which is a masterful move. Christie has moved to New York. Nina is now a mother, and in recovery, though she is having an inappropriate affair, because she is Nina. Poor Rose, who isn’t a lawyer and so doesn’t get as much screen time, will, hopefully, find the happiness she deserves, simply for not being as messed up as everyone else. Will the rest get their acts together in time for The Split to bow out? I’m not counting on it, but that’s all part of the fun.