'The Split' review: Does BBC drama divide or conquer in its final season?

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Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan star as Hannah and Nathan in BBC One's The Split. (BBC)
Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan star as Hannah and Nathan in BBC One's The Split. (BBC)

Acclaimed screenwriter Abi Morgan returns to our screens with the third and final series of BBC One drama The Split, starring Stephen Mangan and Nicola Walker, this week.

Morgan has forged a career from the fires of human frailty, whether that meant exploring issues of attraction in Steve McQueen’s cinematic sophomore effort Shame — which she co-wrote — or digging into something more psychological with Phyllida Lloyd’s Oscar-winning Margaret Thatcher film The Iron Lady.

This fascination, which has coloured much of her work either on film or otherwise, always dwells in the grey areas of character motivation, whilst consciously engaging audiences head on.

Read more: What to expect from the final season of The Split

In the worlds Abi Morgan creates convenient resolutions are non-existent, people are inherently flawed and mistakes get made. On her terms people are shown to be all too human all of the time. Which is why when The Split first appeared on screens back in 2018, audiences should have been prepared for something different.

Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan star in The Split. (BBC)
Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan star in The Split. (BBC)

Over a tumultuous first and second season, this female-led family law firm, founded by a formidable matriarch and absentee patriarch revelled in dysfunction. As Ruth Stern, Deborah Finlay was left holding the baby, while Anthony Head’s Oscar Stern abandoned his family for a younger woman.

Read more: Abi Morgan making directorial debut with The Split

After thirty years away, having left his wife to raise three daughters alone, Oscar returned to reconcile for past transgressions. Except now, almost all his girls have blossomed into dedicated divorce lawyers at Defoes, his family run firm specialising in matrimonial law. The question is, after two seasons of internal squabbles, family rifts and relationship wrangling can this BBC legal drama still deliver?

Stephen Mangan as Nathan in The Split. (BBC)
Stephen Mangan as Nathan in The Split. (BBC)

What becomes apparent from the first two episodes of season three, is that neither Stephen Mangan nor Nicola Walker have lost their passion for portraying these people. Nathan is perpetually conflicted as he freefalls into a mid-life crisis, coveting the attentions of another woman. Just as Hannah strives to keep house, home and husband together, dealing in the aftermath of an illicit revelation that bookends season two.

Elsewhere, Annabel Scholey’s Nina Stern carefully balances single parent status alongside late night liaisons. In a lover's tryst with Damien Molony’s Tyler, who is already married to Chukwudi Iwuji’s Zander, their affair simmers away in secret.

L-R: Deborah Findlay, Annabel Scholey, Nicola Walker and Fiona Button as Ruth, Nina, Hannah and Rose in The Split (BBC)
L-R: Deborah Findlay, Annabel Scholey, Nicola Walker and Fiona Button as Ruth, Nina, Hannah and Rose in The Split (BBC)

Meanwhile, Fiona Button’s Rose Stern remains conflicted about adoption, irrespective of the enthusiasm expressed by Toby Oliver as her fiancée James. For audiences familiar with the Stern family this is business as usual, all threaded together with consummate guile and no small amount of drama by Abi Morgan.

However, what will keep people coming back is the inherent contradiction of a family law firm, where its court appointed professionals are in more turmoil than half the clients. Even if the business has now been absorbed under the banner of Noble, Hale and Defoe for corporate reasons, it fails to make anything easier for those under the auspices of this legal practice. With tragedy hitting head on in the first episode, much of this third season is dominated by Fiona Button, who finds herself regretting lost opportunities and wasted moments with loved ones.

Rose (Fiona Button) and Nina (Annabel Scholey) in The Split. (BBC)
Rose (Fiona Button) and Nina (Annabel Scholey) in The Split. (BBC)

On other fronts, Nathan and Hannah engage in an emotional tug of war that leaves the former ostracised from friends and family. Much of this upheaval stems from the news of a new arrival, which forces Nathan’s hand and defines battle lines between them in ways that can never be undone.

At each turn Stephen Mangan proves himself more than a match for the conflicted contradictions of this family man in crisis. His actions put him well beyond the point of simple forgiveness, while forced attrition on all fronts feels like his due, as this torturous third season plays out.

Meanwhile, Hannah is consumed by regret for her decision to spend a night with Barry Atsma’s Christie Carmichael, which stems back to season one. However, her conundrum is no different to Nathan’s, although the fall out which follows his choices make their children side with her. This is the fundamental conflict at the heart of season three for audiences who choose to tune in.

Barry Atsma as Christie in The Split. (BBC)
Barry Atsma as Christie in The Split. (BBC)

Rarely in life can blame be reduced down to a simple equation, which allows everyone to walk away clean. People are complicated and emotions unpredictable, which is what makes The Split such an intriguing piece of entertainment.

There is something inherently grounded about the central performances in this drama, that make these lives feel lived. Whether that is the presence of Deborah Findlay’s matronly matriarch Ruth, who wields her power with wisdom, or those quiet exchanges between Hannah and Nathan that are conveyed without words.

Every writer sets out to create these moments in their head, before fingertips touch keyboards, or pens hit paper. Yet rarely does that come through so fully formed for audiences on screen.

Thankfully, season three of The Split confirms that there are those who still believe such things are possible.

The Split season 3 starts at 9pm on Monday, 4 April on BBC One.

The Split cast talk real-life lawyers

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