A Teacher depicts a taboo relationship for much more than titillation

Now streaming on BINGE, drama series A Teacher charts a predatory relationship between an English teacher (Kate Mara) and her high school student (Nick Robinson). But it’s about a lot more than illicit thrills, writes Steve Newall.

“This series contains sexual situations as well as depictions of grooming that may be disturbing” reads a title card at the beginning of each episode of A Teacher. “Viewer discretion is advised.” It’s a warning that’s appropriate for both the series itself and this piece discussing it.

In a savvy move, A Teacher explores taboo subject matter in a way that makes us somewhat complicit in it as entertainment before leaving the viewer to observe and ponder its consequences. Charting what passes at times for a romantic sexual relationship, but is actually a highly destructive abuse of power, the series unfolds over 10 episodes, each less than half an hour in length. That would make for a punishing total running time if this was to be a feature film, but here it accomplishes a thoughtful depiction of a blossoming affair and its long-lasting effects, delivered in a format that’s typically used for less challenging dramatic fare.

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At times, the glossy television tricks employed may even have some viewers egging its characters on through a familiar-seeming “will they, won’t they” phase, swept up in the romance at its centre—one that will prove as illusory to those watching as it does for those it shatters.

Claire is introduced as a morally dubious character

Created by Hannah Fidell (who previously explored a teacher-student affair in her 2013 film of the same name), A Teacher introduces titular character Claire (Kate Mara) and quickly depicts her in an act of shoplifting. “One lipstick, it’s not a big deal”, Claire says to her husband when she tells him about it that evening. “I’m not going to do it again, it’s dumb”.

As everyone watching the show will guess, this mix of selfish empowerment, boastfulness, and self-deception is a sign of things to come, and while the stakes and impact will become tragically more significant, these modes of thinking will be painfully evident in Claire later. The actions she will take in subsequent episodes will have enormous consequences for her future, her spouse, and her student, but her final rationalisations will ring as hollow as this initial downplaying of thrill-inducing theft.

In A Teacher’s opening episodes, Claire moves at a clip from starting her job at a new school to a pattern of behaviour with 17-year-old Eric (Nick Robinson) that only sometimes seems inappropriate, a grooming process that’s not always evident. So charming is Kate Mara’s performance that we, like Eric, can’t see what she is up to, even as she crosses ethical boundaries.

Does Claire have an ulterior motive?

A flirty evening conversation between the “hot new teacher” and three stoned teens at the diner where Eric works turns into Claire giving him a lift home—the first in a series of events where it might not always be clear if Claire is consciously choosing to progress their relationship, but will leave you pondering the significance of what may seem to be, in isolation, harmless moments. Does Claire have an ulterior motive when she turns the stereo on in the car and Eric’s surprised to hear Frank Ocean (one of many great music cues in the show—see also Usher’s Climax)? She’s trying to make some kind of connection with her student or impress him in some way, but to what end?

Soon Claire will be tutoring Eric at the diner counter, arms touching as they sit side by side; telling him to call her by her first name; showing up at his house unannounced. Some of it seems harmless, especially if you’re open to being won over by the characters, but A Teacher is also selling a growing chemistry—one that’s aided by a strong vibe between the actors.

In real life, Mara is 37 and Robinson 25, a pairing of actors that we’d be encouraging to get together in different circumstances. Here we’re encouraged to ignore the reality of their relationship, just as their characters are seduced into doing the same, and A Teacher not only draws on dramatic convention to make their growing attraction exciting but its consummation an intoxicating secret that only they—and the audience—is in on.

This is not a grubby exercise in titillation

This is where it’s crucial to say that A Teacher isn’t a grubby exercise in titillation. By the time it’s wrapped up its 10 episode season, it’s hard to imagine a viewer who thinks what has taken place has been harmless. But Fidell’s tale wants us to know how some of these moments feel to their participants, and to do so they need to not feel like scenes of abuse, just as they’re perceived by their characters.

“I’m the man,” Eric affirms to himself in the mirror after they’ve had sex for the first time, “I’m the motherfucking man”. He’s ebullient and (wrongly) feels like he’s the one to have made a monumental conquest. Earlier he’d fantasised about this, depicted by A Teacher in exactly the sort of pornographic framework appropriate to a teenage boy, just as we’ve seen Claire’s fantasy of Eric geared to her desires, a welcome arrival into the boredom of her marital bed.

Later, after her relationship with Eric comes to light, Claire will try to justify herself to a rightfully revolted character by arguing “If the roles were reversed, you’d be high-fiving me right now”. Popular culture may be littered with older male-schoolgirl examples that confirm her comment, but A Teacher doesn’t encourage us to agree with her.

Instead, the show wants us to understand she’s incapable of seeing herself as a monster—something she can’t even manage when someone responds to her boastful confession about the affair by rightfully labeling it “a monumental abuse of power”. Mara, exceptional at selling the complexities of her character, is more than ably matched by Robinson, who strides across wide dramatic terrain as Eric moves from relatable teen into their whirlwind affair and then, eventually, a survivor.

As A Teacher pivots to examine trauma and its consequences, it’s come a long way from its early illicit thrills. While it all might be too much for some viewers, the show will leave you with plenty to contemplate as it avoids straying into either heavy-handed morals or worse, some sort of unwanted justification for life-destroying decisions.