There’s a moment right around the midway point of Amazon Prime Video’s new crime drama, “Tell Me Your Secrets,” where two characters just scream into their phones. That’s how you’ll feel throughout the entire 10-episode run of the show — that what you’re watching is just a lot of screaming and crying with very little to show for it. This is weird, because the series is packed to bursting with storylines, all of which, on their own, could make a better series than the goulash equivalent we’re handed.
The overarching plot involves a woman named Karen Miller (Lily Rabe), who was arrested alongside her boyfriend, Kit (Xavier Samuel) for the murder of nine women. Miller was presumed to be an accessory to the crimes — thus, allegedly, explaining her jail time — but has claimed she doesn’t remember anything that happened. Mary Barlow (Amy Brenneman), who believes her daughter ran afoul of the pair, believes otherwise — but has never been able to get a confession out of Karen.
When Karen is offered an opportunity to start over as part of the Witness Protection Program, she takes it, is given a new name, Emma Hall, and settles into the Southern town of St. James. But when a young girl named Jess (Emyri Crutchfield) whom Emma befriends disappears Karen/Emma starts to reluctantly embroil herself in a new mystery that unravels the secrets of her past.
“Tell Me Your Secrets” has an interesting history; it was originally sold to TNT back in 2017 in the hopes of revitalizing that network’s lineup. The show filmed in 2018 only to have TNT back out of the deal. The series sat until 2020 when Amazon picked it up for release in 2021. It’s unclear why TNT decided to forego airing the series, or if they even saw any of the footage — but this definitely feels like a show that has been sitting somewhere for three years.
That being said, Lily Rabe as Karen/Emma is fantastic. Rabe, who’s made star-making turns before — in the works of Ryan Murphy, for example — continues to prove why she’s so magnetic and engaging. Karen is a puzzle and the series posits the question of whether we prosecute women whose boyfriends do bad things too harshly. Is Karen being honest when she claims she doesn’t know about the murders? Is she lying? Is there a natural tendency to disbelieve women whose lovers are bad? Considering the spate of accusations against male abusers in Hollywood, and the media’s tendency to grill their former girlfriends and wives, this holds promise as a storyline.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
An additional concept that works on paper but doesn’t necessarily bear fruit in the finished storyline is that of Mary Barlow and her quest for justice for her daughter. Mary is the first character we meet, grilling Karen about “her man” taking her child. Before the character becomes a rampaging angel of death, Brenneman does try to ground the character in a reality we haven’t necessarily seen before; she is a mother who staunchly refuses to grieve or entertain the notion her daughter is dead, and the distinction the script makes is how lucrative the “mother on a mission” narrative is to the participants.
Mary and her son, Jake (Elliot Fletcher) run a charity foundation in daughter Theresa’s name, and part of Mary’s desire to keep her daughter alive is paralleled by media attention. Mary becomes upset when another mother, whose daughter is dead and is thus an “official” victim, is asked to do an interview over her. There’s also the added element of how white victims and their mothers are valued higher over victims of color. Though considering how the series utilizes Black characters — as either victims for white characters to avenge or as set dressing to avoid questions of how a Southern town is all-white — this isn’t given much additional nuance.
Brenneman certainly gets a meaty role, but it too often devolves into scheming and Machiavellian manipulation. In her mad drive to get at the truth Mary does terrible things; they feel so grandiose as to be unrelatable. On top of that, Mary starts to associate with a man named John Tyler (Hamish Linklater), a rapist who claims to have suppressed his urges and wishes to atone for his crimes in order to find out where Karen is living. Linklater, to his credit, is incredibly unsettling. His cold, affectless manner has been done by other onscreen serial killers, but there’s a bizarre warmth to him. A divergence to visit his estranged sister hints at the man desperate to not have his crimes immediately destroy his relationships. But the plotline becomes so movie of the week as to undo everything before it.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
And those are just the main plot points. Creator Harriet Warner stuffs in so many things, several of which remain unanswered, no doubt held for a Season 2 that might never come. Emma’s quest to discover what happened to Jess leads her to a group harvesting the eggs of troubled girls for….reasons. (Hey, at least it gives us an excuse to see Richard Thomas dressed up like Isaac in “Children of the Corn” overseeing some weird “Wicker Man”-esque parade.) Emma also has questions about her psychiatrist, played by Enrique Murciano, who had an illicit relationship with an underage girl who also lived at Jess’s halfway house.
“Why is everyone so obsessed with Karen?” ends up being the overarching question of “Tell Me Your Secrets,” and if you’re saying that in a “Mean Girls” Regina George tone, that’s exactly how the series makes it sound. Every single character in Karen’s life immediately turns their friendliness to 11, becoming completely consumed by her. Mary has a solid reason, and even Murciano’s character Pete. But the addition of a teenage girl named Rose (Chiara Aurelia), who gets her nose broken by Karen and practically is texting her heart emojis the next second, feels as half-baked as it sounds.
Karen and her relationship with Kit is the fulcrum through which everything revolves. A “Bonnie and Clyde” examination of a relationship turned sour has potential, especially with Rabe and Samuels being two beautiful people. We see their happiness, and every scene has a rotten undercurrent considering what the audience knows about him. There’s a potential to look at Karen’s fear, blissful ignorance, apprehension, something with regards to Kit. Really, based on the flashbacks we’ve seen, it is hard to believe Karen knew nothing, especially when everyone else has “feelings” about how bad Kit is. For Kit being a supposedly sadistic murderer, his tears and sadness that comes up in Episode 10 feels like the lyric in a Lana del Rey song explaining that he’s a murderer, but he cares, dammit.
Were “Tell Me Your Secrets” to dump at least four storylines and focus on Karen’s attempts to reclaim her narrative or Mary’s attempt to continue to profit off her daughter — there would be potential. Both actresses are good — with Rabe being downright great — to give us something that we can invest in. The problem is the script treats this like a potboiler when it deserves more seriousness — and not the seriousness of everyone in this Southern “Peyton Place” having a secret. Focus on the crimes, and the women, left behind.
“Tell Me Your Secrets” is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.