On Bad Sisters: Fighting Back Against Being Smaller and Quieter

The Apology writer-director Alison Star Locke on the satisfying and meaningful resonance of Sharon Horgan's new TV show.

It’s pretty damn satisfying to see other creators telling stories about the same themes and subject matters I’m obsessed with. I find myself pointing at the TV like that meme of DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – “Lookit! They care about this thing, too!” It makes me feel like I’m part of something, or at least furthering the conversation. That happened to me in a big way recently with the Irish comedy-thriller show Bad Sisters.

The title characters are a group of five siblings who have remained best friends after their parents died and they were raised by the oldest sister, Eva Garvey (played by my fantasy best friend, Sharon Horgan). Bibi (Sarah Greene), Ursula (Eva Birthistle) and Becka (Eve Hewson) all have their own complications with love, but their central concern is Grace (Anne-Marie Duff), whose husband, John Paul (Claes Bang), has just died. Right away, we know two things about him: he died in a grisly way (the specifics of which are the season’s central mystery) and that he was such a nightmare that the other sisters called him “The Prick.” But as the show unfolds, flashing back and forth before and after John Paul’s death, it becomes clear that he wasn’t just your garden variety jerk. He was a predator and abuser so skilled that he delighted at how much damage he could inflict and get away with. His specialty was emotional abuse, as that didn’t leave visible scars he’d have to defend.

Grace (Anne-Marie Duff) and Eve (Sharon Horgan) in Bad Sisters.

In flashbacks, we see how the sisters got more and more frustrated with how John Paul tried to isolate Grace from them, until finally they found themselves really naming what they saw: that their sister was becoming “smaller” and “quieter.” That hit me so hard, hearing this thing said out loud on a TV show. The idea of being reduced over time in that way is something I rarely see depicted onscreen, but is an absolute daily reality for many moms I know.

Before going back to work in 2022 to write and direct my first feature, The Apology, I was a stay-at-home mom. Over the years, I befriended lots of other stay-at-home moms, often women who were college-educated professionals before stepping away from careers to raise their children. Too often, I’d get to know a wife and mother like Grace and I’d see two things: unrealized potential and a limiting prick husband. Way too many of these mothers made themselves smaller for their male partner, often with their other half being aware of it and just leaving them to work out a situation. Even if confronted, the man would refuse to make any sort of sacrifice or be truly supportive. It’s always broken my heart to see this kind of situation and I’ve always tried to build up my girlfriends. But it’s rarely helped. So it was cathartic to see this struggle come alive in a murder mystery – what a motive!

Smaller, quieter: Anne-Marie Duff as Grace in Bad Sisters.

I’ve also been guilty of some of this myself. I’ve let myself become smaller in romantic, platonic or professional relationships, by being the “cool girl” Amy Dunne rants about in Gone Girl, or the “good girl,” who’s so on top of taking care of everyone else, sometimes even without anyone asking. It’s a battle we all fight, so watching my girlfriends become ghosts of themselves has been enraging, like not being able to scream in a nightmare.

Once the eldest “bad sister,” Eva, calls this out to the other sisters, that Grace is becoming a shell of herself – to such a degree that she lets John Paul call her “Mammy” – the Garvey girls start to joke about how Grace could be saved if only John Paul were dead. Soon, they are “joking” about ways to kill him and free Grace. And then that joke becomes a mission: murder The Prick and save their sister. Unlike in other similar tales, it’s not so much that they’re afraid John Paul will kill Grace, it’s that he will grind her into nothingness and the rest of the world won’t even see it.

Claes Bang as John Paul and Anne-Marie Duff as Grace in Bad Sisters.

Too many folks say women like Grace aren’t victims of “real abuse,” because they bear no physical wounds. It’s not real if a husband only controls the money and actively discourages or even outright stops his wife from developing a support system or interests outside of him. But even more common is the guy who’s one step down from this: the “awaiting instruction” guy, who’s happy to let his wife take care of everything until she gives him some specific to-do item, which he mocks her for giving him. Now that might seem like an innocuous problem, until you add up all the time his partner is giving up to take care of everything and develop the “instructions.” And suddenly, she has no time for the things that make her feel fulfilled (work, self-expression, development of skills, friendships) and you get yet another shade of abuse that blends in, which too many people also invalidate.

Bad Sisters makes John Paul an epic villain, but many shades of subtle abuse are peppered in as well. Poor Grace doesn’t even feel empowered to go to an exercise class or an art class. John Paul manipulates her at every turn, and it seems like it’s largely because he can, like it’s a little sociopathic game to him. He even insists on laying down his destructive “values” on their teenage daughter, Blanaid (Saise Quinn), dictating what she wears, what she learns about and how she spends her time. He’s starting to extend this pattern of abuse and control into the next generation. He doesn’t like Eva buying Blanaid a bra, calling it “inappropriate lingerie.” And he mocks Grace for her overt displays of sexuality, shaming her for her desires and for her lingerie, despite the fact that he loves porn, ya know, since it can’t challenge him or talk back.

Grace (Anne-Marie Duff), Blanaid (Saise Quinn) and Eve (Sharon Horgan) in Bad Sisters.

Obviously, I’m not campaigning for people to murder emotional abusers, but at a time where women do not even have sovereignty over our own bodies, it’s a beautiful thing to see creators stand up and tell stories about the less obvious ways we are oppressed. We need to tell the full, varied truth from as many perspectives as possible. I felt this strange sort of relief to see this kind of behavior portrayed as not just a guy being an asshole but as life-ruining violence.

I’ve been writing quite a few scripts about emotional abuse and the fraught issues around gender expectations, but with, ya know, stabbing, scares and hopefully some kind of emotional release. Unlike some stories in the “cathartic” category, Bad Sisters is also thankfully damn fun, a terrific eight slices of “Good for Her.” And I can’t wait for season two, which is currently in the works. Hit me up for a watch party/consciousness-raising party. I’ll bring the wine.

Featured image shows Sharon Horgan and Claes Bang in Bad Sisters; all images courtesy Apple TV+.

Alison Star Locke moved a lot as a kid with her single mother, growing up mainly in San Antonio and Oakland. She earned a B.F.A. in Filmic Writing from USC, where she won the Jack Nicholson Screenwriting Award. She began her writing career as a story producer for reality TV and has written, directed and produced numerous shorts. Her favorite, Shhhhhhh…, was laureled-up by the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Denver Film Festival. Her script The Projectionist won second place at Slamdance in the Horror/Thriller category. Her scripts have placed in numerous contests, including the BloodList, Nicholls, Screamfest, Women in Horror Film Festival, Scriptapalooza and Fright Night. After staying home to advocate and care for her daughter, Bethany, who was diagnosed with autism, she returned to work this year to make The Apology, her first feature as a writer-director, starring Anna Gunn, Linus Roache and Janeane Garofalo. She lives with her husband and daughter in the Los Angeles area.