Silk is a show that’s masterful on the top and bottom, and a bit muddled in the middle—a great idea with excellent attention to detail but questionable narrative decisions. The show’s premise is solidly engaging—barrister Martha Costello (played with a perfect gash of red lipstick by Maxine Peake) is a 37-year-old woman who lives and breathes her work. As the show starts, Martha has just submitted her application to be one of the revered Queen’s Counsel—kind of like tenure for British lawyers. QCs, we’re told, have an enormous amount of prestige and clout; they can pick and choose their cases and advocate for causes they care about. Martha is aiming to be a rare entity, a female QC. Ascending to the rank of QC is colloquially called “taking silk,” because of their silk robes, and the QC vetting process is called the “silk application.”
So that’s where the title comes from. At first that’s a little confusing, though, because the show is not actively about any QCs at all, just two people who are applying, and their application process is deliberately backgrounded. It’s not until the fifth episode of the six-episode series that the characters do something active for their application process (Martha’s application goes in at the same time as her coworker Clive Reader; more on him in a minute). But about an hour into Silk it’s clear the show is mostly interested in revealing the Harry-Potter-like world of the British barrister; that odd breed of lawyer that only makes court arguments, instead of doing all of the client work and research like lawyers here in America do. They appear in front of magistrates in robes and wigs (yes, wigs!) and leave the paperwork to solicitors and clerks. The nature of being a barrister is exotic for the American viewer, and even in Britain it’s rather opaque—it’s a careful, tiny world with its own proprietary traditions and structures, like a fraternity.
That makes for extremely confusing viewing, especially at first, and especially for an American viewer. The structure of “chambers”—the way barristers are chosen or appointed to cases—the role and duties of the junior and senior clerks who run the office—the way rookie barristers, “pupils,” are trained and hired—remain a mystery to me, even six hours later. (Wikipedia came in helpful.) That makes it difficult to get purely interested in the details of the legal procedural. Often what’s being argued is so out of the range of American experience that it can be confusing. Fortunately, this doesn’t really matter. The show explores such a niche, removed universe that more often than not, its adventures are amusingly convoluted, and its characters are compelling enough that one can skim over the details with minimal investment.
Silk excels in showing the humanity of its main character Martha, who has sacrificed her personal life for the sake of advancing her now impressive career. But Peake and the show’s writers move her quickly away from the stereotype of brittle career woman and towards something more complicated. This is not a woman devoid of emotion because she’s so invested in her work—on the contrary, she gets a kind of energy from standing up and using her skills of rhetoric in court, all the while trying to keep on her white hat and do good. The idealistic lawyer broken down by the system is another stereotype the show is careful not to indulge in. There are times Martha has to make judgment calls based on things beyond the mere truth of the case, but the overall effect is one of an energetic, motivated woman doing what she wants to do in the world—not a burned-out, lonely professional looking for love and fulfillment.
The result is a pleasingly nuanced legal drama—more of a legal soap, to be quite honest. Character drama is the centerpiece of the show, and it mostly comes to play in the astonishingly suspenseful courtroom scenes, where our heroes are required to wear their robes and wigs and starched collars and argue for clients and truth purely with rhetoric. Almost all of the cases, by the time they get to court, are strangely riveting. They are also at times incredibly upsetting, especially if you know who truly is innocent or guilty. The rape case in the first episode is extremely difficult to watch, because Martha is put in charge of defending a guilty man, so she must hector the plaintiff even though the victim is sobbing and protesting. (British laws about questioning seem to be a lot more lenient—what we’d considering off-topic, or badgering the witness, does not seem to apply. Also, no one says “objection” when they stand up, which is altogether too bad.)
The interplay between the characters at the law firm ends up being far more important to Silk as the show goes on, with mixed results. In the opening two hours of the series, which air tonight, the show draws your attention to the intricacies of procedure in court, as well as just how busy a barrister can be, especially if there are two cases in one day. Martha gets two briefs the night before court appearances—a common practice, apparently—and has to learn the particulars of the case and how to argue it overnight so she can defend both the next day. But at the end of the first hour, Martha discovers she is pregnant, and as we learn more about Martha and her coworkers at Chambers, office politics become an increasingly important subplot. Legal office politics are television’s bread-and-butter at this point—all you see in Silk is how The Good Wife could do it better. But in the details of each barrister’s character, interesting peculiarities emerge; so despite the mid-level confusion, the details generally win out.
Clive (played with perfect English public-school snobbery by Rupert Penry-Jones) is the Slytherin of the group, a kind of suave, ambitious slimy type who evolves into being even more flawed and also more deserving of our compassion as the series goes on and details about his life emerge. There’s something opaque about him still—I look forward to seeing it revealed in later seasons of the show—but the complexity of his character makes him hard to either root for or against, so you end up doing both. He and Martha are both silk applicants and coworkers, making them at times rivals, at times friends. Because of the strange nature of arguing cases in Britain, barristers from the same “chambers” (a sort of loose cooperative of barristers that share administrative costs) are just as likely to be pitted against each other in court as not. Each defendant has their own barrister, furthermore, so even if both are working for the defense, they might spar with each other over culpability or sentencing.
It makes for, naturally, a sexy work environment. It’s to Silk’s credit that the show isn’t just barristers jumping into each other’s beds at any given opportunity. There is some of that, but the most interesting relationships in the show are nonsexual, or occurred in the past tense. Martha and Clive are a natural choice for any kind of romantic reckoning, but the series doesn’t take the bait in any obvious ways.
Of course, it’s about to debut its third season in Britain, so American viewers will just have to wait a bit longer for Masterpiece Mystery! to tell us what happens next. Because of the odd way WGBH manages its imports, the original hour-long episodes are mashed together into three two-hour episodes, which makes following episode arcs very difficult, unfortunately. The originals have also probably been trimmed a bit to make room for Alan Cumming’s lovely introduction to Masterpiece. Two hours a night of complex legal procedural requires a dedication many viewers will find difficult, and because Silk isn’t built to be two hours long and education for an American audience, it’s not purely rewarding. But Maxine Peake is truly a delight in the show, and she alone would be worth the investment.
- Natalie Dormer (better known as Game Of Thrones’ Margaery Tyrell) plays one of the pupils, and a handsome Jonathan Rhys-Davies lookalike plays the other one. She’s wealthy and connected; he’s poor, and steals his robes just so he can keep up appearances. It’s a match made in heaven.
- If Clive is Slytherin, that probably makes Kate and John also Slytherin. Nick and Martha are Gryffindor. Billy is Hufflepuff.
- In Britain, one says “clarking” for a word clearly spelled “clerking.” Those Brits, I swear.
- And from one of the final episodes, her ladyship the magistrate: “Mr. Slade, this isn’t America. We don’t walk and talk.”