There is a thin line between love and hate. There is also, it seems, a thin line between a beloved romantic lead with a sullen heart of gold and a chemise-dropping glower and a despised, often immoral, pompous, maybe-criminal antihero. The former is a well-trodden trope of the romance genre, while the latter exists exclusively on HBO, a network whose casting department insists on taking our most revered Mr. Darcies—our most sopping-wet Regency-era leading men, our greatest bewitchers of body and soul—and turning them into inscrutable villains.
I cannot stare silently at the flickering embers of the Darcy legacy any longer! At the very least, I’d like someone at HBO corporate to explain to me why I’ve spent the better part of many early morning hours in deep, deep YouTube spirals watching Colin Firth emerge from a lake like a Wild Thing or Matthew Macfadyen flex his hand in besotted agony, only to, years later, be asked to remove that prolific lobe of my brain in order to accommodate a different flawless performance from each actor that stands in direct opposition to the Fitzwilliam Darcies of decades past. Sure, one might say that Firth and Macfadyen are talented, highly regarded performers who deserve to be cast in any array of challenging roles, including the likes of Michael Peterson and Tom Wambsgans—but do we, likewise, not deserve our unmarred Mr. Darcies? How can these two truths exist at once? What will become of all the Darcies?
If once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, and three times is a pattern, I’m simply trying to nip this “coincidence” in the bud before David Fincher irreparably casts someone as John Wayne Gacy.
This all started with my personal favorite Mr. Darcy, Matthew Macfadyen, being cast on my personal favorite slow-motion horror show, Succession. As Tom Wambsgans, Macfadyen plays a man as spineless as he is opportunistic; a repeatedly kicked puppy whose profound insecurity keeps him constantly in search of a smaller puppy to kick; a man who, when asked during a federal deposition if he’d ever used another human being as a footstool, could not deny it. But more than any of that, let’s address the elephant in the sitting room: Hearing Mr. Darcy with an American accent is deeply fucked. So much of the thrill of Macfadyen’s take on Darcy was in his rich timbre, and zapping it of its Regency-era origins was enough to keep the actor disguised behind his incredible performance as Tom for a good long while. But if there is a person left who’s still figuring out that “wait, Tom from Succession is THE SAME GUY who played Mr. Darcy in the Keira Knightley Pride & Prejudice,” well, I think they just tweeted it. The jig is up! And soon, those same stunned fans will have a new conflict to contend with—because the only word to describe Colin Firth’s performance as Michael Peterson in HBO’s The Staircase is uncanny.
The world was first introduced to Michael Peterson when he was accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen Peterson, and disguising her death as a particularly brutal tumble down the stairs. But we really got to know him a few years later when Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase docuseries premiered, giving intimate insight into Peterson’s home life during his trial and ultimate conviction (and ultimate release—it’s a long story, and it’s all on Netflix just waiting to scar you for life). Last week, HBO’s adaptation of The Staircase premiered, dramatizing the well-documented frenzy around the death of Kathleen Peterson, with Firth playing Michael Peterson in an unbelievably accurate, unbelievably grumbling-and-bumbling performance. If you close your eyes, you could be listening to the Staircase documentary. And much like in that 13-part, 15-year-spanning docuseries, whether Michael Peterson committed the crime is kind of beyond the point. It’s about the criminal justice system, and the media frenzy around cases like these. And of course, that Michael Peterson so seems like he could have killed his wife because he’s a bit of a pipe-smoking, dishonest, egocentric nightmare. Even when evidence is mounting that Kathleen’s (Toni Collette, also great, and perhaps healing us after some of her previous mom roles) death was, indeed, an accident, it’s hard to let go of just how unlikable Michael is.
On this note, I can concede that Mr. Darcy can also be unlikable; that honesty is not always his virtue, and that the struggle to contain his hubris when social anxiety comes calling could perhaps lend itself to treachery if his prideful coin were to flip to its other, colder side. … But Mr. Darcy doesn’t maybe-kill women! (Or, in Tom’s case, maybe-cover-up the maybe-killing of women!) He respects their autonomy, he worships their singular intelligence, and he loves them. Most ardently. And for goodness’s sake, Firth is a double Darcy. HBO, how could you do this to us? I mean, I understand why—I’m simply asking, what if not? What if we didn’t have to hear Colin Firth say:
Of course, there are far worse things a Mr. Darcy could do than pound that ass. But why is it always “I was in the Marines, love to fuck, suck, and rim,” and no longer “You have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love, I love, I love you” with Darcies these days?
HBO has taken the founding, and most beloved, member of literature’s “I can fix him” club, looked us dead in the eyes, and said: No you can’t. Shall we consider it a blessing that Laurence Olivier escaped this mortal plane without experiencing the ravishes of the true crime genre? If the “smoldering Regency-era heartthrobs” to “secret, plotting maybe-monsters” pipeline is to continue, should we gird our loins for Johnny Flynn as Scott Peterson next? Jonathan Bailey as the inevitable Staircase owl? And hey, it’s not lost on me that they did this to Hugh Grant too! Not exactly a Mr. Darcy, but certainly a disagreeable British man with a deep capacity for adoring unconventional women onscreen.
So, where does it end? How do we stop them?
I guess … we don’t. I guess, maybe what the HBO casting department is trying to not so subtly tell us is that Mr. Darcy isn’t real, and nothing gold can stay—especially not in the streaming era. For every Mr. Darcy boring holes into Elizabeth Bennet’s pupils because he’s so beguiled by her beautiful mind, there is a Tom Wambsgans, emailing his cousin-in-law 67 times in one evening with the subject line, “You can’t make a Tomlette without breaking some Greggs.” There is … this:
I guess, to paraphrase Stephen King in his seminal memoir On Writing: “Kill your [Darcies], kill your [Darcies], even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your [Darcies].”