With her limited series, A Teacher, director Hannah Fidell offers one of the more worthwhile film-to-TV adaptations. The series creator doesn’t simply revisit her 2013 film of the same name for this 10-part drama, stretching her previous character study until it’s threadbare—a common trap for similar expansions from feature length to full seasons. Fidell reimagines it as a more pointed story of abuse and survival, fortified by an excellent cast and insights gleaned from the push for greater accountability in the last several years, including Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement.
A Teacher stars Kate Mara as Claire Wilson, the eponymous educator who begins the series already straining against the bounds of her seemingly perfect life. She’s a thirtysomething Texas native who’s never lived outside of the state, who feels pressured to dig herself further into a rut by having a kid and getting a dog, just like all of her married friends. Claire’s husband, Matt (Ashley Zukerman), travels a lot for work and is oblivious to her dissatisfaction. Though he has his own hang-ups, Matt is invested in hitting all the usual milestones for a married couple, including having kids. He finds an outlet for his discontent—a cover band—while Claire channels her boredom and frustration into something much more destructive.
The first half of the series follows Claire down that path, as she meets and immediately ingratiates herself to one of her students, Eric Walker (Nick Robinson). When Claire, who’s been dubbed the “hot teacher” by his friends, Logan (Shane Harper) and Josh (Dylan Schmid), agrees to tutor Eric for his SATs, the high school senior feels a jolt of pride. He’s a star athlete and one of the most popular kids in school, but he still warms to the attention from his teacher. And Claire responds to the look of admiration on Eric’s face that goes beyond attraction—he’s impressed with what she’s done with her life. He doesn’t find her lacking.
The flirtatious vibe of this initial encounter quickly leads to a full-blown affair, but A Teacher never lets us forget about the imbalance of power between Claire and Eric. It’s evident in their earliest interactions: Eric needs Claire’s help with a standardized test; he needs to impress her in English class to keep his grades up in order to land a scholarship to the college she attended. Fidell, who directed much of the series as well as wrote multiple episodes, frames these scenes with ambiguity; at first, these tidbits of information are treated like secrets shared by two people getting to know each other. Music from composer Keegan DeWitt heightens the sense of excitement from that first rush of infatuation.
A Teacher lingers a little too long in this pre-catastrophe phase, which is surprising, given how economical Fidell is otherwise in her storytelling. Claire’s past, which includes being raised by an alcoholic father (M.C. Gainey) after the death of her mother, is gradually explored. But we have a sense of who she is from the opening moments of the premiere—as her colleague Kathryn (Marielle Scott) notes, her placement at the new school is a step up. Not long after, Claire, who clearly wants for very little, steals a tube of lipstick from the supermarket. The thrill is not in advancing her teaching career, but in doing things she knows are wrong. Left to her own devices, Claire regresses.
These opposing directions—Claire is looking back while Eric is moving forward—set the two leads on a collision course, sending a shockwave that’s initially muffled by constrictive gender norms. Claire is beautiful, which makes Eric “the motherfucking man” for having sex with her. To be a good daughter and look after her father, Claire had to sublimate her own needs. Eric can’t see himself as a victim of abuse, because too often, male abuse victims are stigmatized or overlooked. Claire doesn’t see herself as an abuser, she thinks she’s making up for a lifetime of putting others first. Claire reflexively plays damsel in distress, insisting it’s her life that will be ruined if they’re discovered. Along with Fidell’s naturalistic direction, Mara’s measured performance keeps this part of the story from drifting into Lifetime “my psycho teacher” territory. Claire is yearning, but not desperate; she gives off the sense of being caught up in something beyond her control even as she makes most of the decisions.
The series leaves no doubt that Claire is a predator, while also avoiding an overwrought ending or a neat resolution. When the second half of the season turns to the aftermath of the betrayal, it becomes more Eric’s story than Claire’s. Two time jumps place him in college and then at his 10-year high school reunion, but at no point does Eric have a handle on what happened to him. As a pre-med student, he’s pigeonholed by the ways his friends and potential hook-ups (Dylan Gelula and Grace Gummer in brief but memorable roles) view him in light of the abuse. In his late 20s, he’s strong enough to visit his old high school, but not prepared for a chance encounter with Claire. After appearing to be every bit the happy, all-American teen, Robinson adopts a haunted look, which becomes utterly heartbreaking when he sees his younger brothers, now in high school themselves.
It’s in these final episodes that A Teacher coagulates, its narrative cleanly splitting in two. The first half of the series, with its explicit sex scenes (which are noted in title cards, along with depictions of grooming) and Frank Ocean tunes, is the fantasy—Claire’s fantasy, in which Eric was just as willing a participant. The pensive latter episodes are the fallout, and at the center is Eric, who always had more to lose. They’ve switched places, or perhaps are finally seeing themselves for the first time. A Teacher’s lessons are all the more devastating for appearing incomplete.