The dark BBC One adaptation of JP Delaney’s bestselling psychological thriller The Girl Before is here and it’s left us pondering one question in particular.
Warning: contains mild spoilers for the first episode of BBC One’s The Girl Before.
When we first meet one of our enigmatic protagonists (if not, the most enigmatic of them all) Edward Monkford (played by Selma’s David Oyelowo), we see him poised and calm – on the face of it – as he grabs a bucket, manoeuvres through a grand house and starts scrubbing the concrete floor.
That is until the camera pans round to reveal that, as he aggressively cleans, tears are rolling down his face. Is he angry? Sad? Hurt? It’s hard to tell but it’s a mysterious way to start this dark series and certainly sets the tone for sinister things to come.
You very almost forget that scene happens, among the grandeur and questions that present themselves throughout the course of the one-hour episode.
We’re immediately placed into the house viewing of Emma (Eastenders’ Jessica Plummer) and her boyfriend, Simon (X-Men: Apocalypse’s Ben Hardy). A young couple, beaming with excitement, bounding round the same extravagant house we saw Monkford crying in a moment ago. It looks exactly like some kind of minimalist art gallery and, just like Emma and Simon, you can’t quite believe this is an affordable property to rent in London.
Simultaneously, in a different scene, Jane (The Morning Show’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw) walks calmly round the same house, taking it all in and stating simply: “It’s amazing.”
We learn that the owner sets an affordable rent price for people to live there “in the way he intended.” Monkford, the architect and owner of the property, was originally going to live in the house himself but now rents it out.
Whenever you think of a landlord and their rules, there’s always that standout list and they immediately spring to mind when watching here too – no smoking, no pets, no nails in the walls.
“It’s a bit more than that,” Jane’s estate agent smiles at her, as learn that the property has been vacant for three years.
Jane’s estate agent continues: “No pictures, no ornaments, no carpets or rugs, no books, no children, no planting anything in the garden.”
“There’s about 200 in all – no drinks coasters, no magazines, no knick-knacks,” Emma and Si’s estate agent tells them also.
The owner is also “not a fan” of switches, locks and keys so everything is automated – from the lights to the front door, they are all controlled with a bracelet that the occupants wear at all times. It’s all very reminiscent of Black Mirror but surely can’t be that bad, right?
“He’s not really into stuff – everything has to be put away,” Emma and Simon’s estate agent reveals. “This is your only cupboard,” he says as he opens up a thin wardrobe. No clothes can be strewn over a chair, not a thing on the bed and absolutely nothing should be on the floor.
You start to wonder how the owner would know and Simon asks almost as quickly as it pops into the viewer’s head. Regular inspections by the estate agent and if the rules are “infringed” then he’ll be told, the agent replies.
Simon’s blasé attitude means he’s not fussed about the property but a wishful-thinking Emma contests that they “can change” their messy ways – the house already having a real-life impact on her thinking. You start to ponder: can a building really alter the way you live?
As the episode unfolds, we see both women make separate excuses for Monkford – a man they’re yet to meet – and his stringent rules. With the house, there also comes a long-winded, detailed questionnaire that asks potential occupants to interrogate life and philosophical situations.
While Emma and Jane are entirely separate characters, we start to see their glaring similarities come to the fore. Their appearance is one thing – they’re both tall, slender, mixed-race women with curly hair. More interestingly though, they both come with chequered pasts where traumatic events leave them both wanting to escape their current living situations.
In their first tense face-to-face meeting, Emma admits that she thinks Monkford’s house will “help me be a stronger person”. Monkford is clinical, much like the look of his office, so when Emma accidentally spills her coffee over his architectural plans, we expect such a character to lash out or get frustrated in some way. Instead, he rather strangely marks his territory over Emma, having just met her a matter of moments before.
Simon quickly apologises for the mess Emma’s caused to which Monkford retorts: “Word of advice Simon. You never apologise for someone you love; makes you look like a prick.”
It’s one of those face-in-palm awkward scenes (mainly for Simon) but it sets the precedent – Monkford is very clearly only interested in Emma here.
At the same time, we watch Jane’s first meeting with Monkford unfold in a similarly captivating way, a testament to the stellar acting on display within the series already. He tells her about the technology behind the house, namely the ‘Housekeeper’ system that runs throughout it.
“[It] gathers data from whoever lives at One Folgate Street to improve the user experience in real time,” he explains. “What spaces you use most, the temperature the shower’s set at … and some more psychological.”
“Once we have a baseline, we redo it from time to time to see how the answers are changing – it’s almost nothing Google or Facebook wouldn’t know about you.”
“I don’t think Facebook follows me into the shower,” Jane says.
Monkford calmly replies: “It’s the price the tenant pays for living there – data instead of market rent.”
That right there is the endearing quality behind this drama. We’re left with empathy and intrigue over one question in particular: how much of yourself would you give away for the dream home or living situation?
We see Jane’s toothbrush somehow synced to the home and stopping after an allotted amount of time; Emma bids Simon “good night” and suddenly all the lights go out. The house knows its occupants without them really realising.
The subtleties of the situation aren’t to be ignored within this drama and that’s what makes it a clever reflection of wider society.
It’s especially prevalent because we’re all guilty of it at times. We tap our details into multiple apps and devices, allow social media, search engines and cookies (not the fun edible kind) to track our online usage. But where do we draw the line?
The thing with our phones – though we all love them – is the fact that we don’t link these often-invasive platforms that we use to one person in particular. Here, in The Girl Before, we know that Monkford is the puppeteer and orchestrator of it all and that’s what makes it especially eerie.
What is he to gain from all of the questions, the rules, the way people live in his home even though he doesn’t live there?
While we may not know the answers just yet, The Girl Before is already a lesson in the art of psychological manipulation – and we can’t stop watching.
The first episode of The Girl Before airs this Sunday 19 December at 9pm on BBC One.