He was a boy. She was a girl. Can I make it any more obvious?
Well, in fact, the answer to this question would have to be “yes,” as this is emphatically not a simple story of ordinary teenage romance. For while Eric Walker (played by Nick Robinson) is definitely a boy, a 17-year-old attending high school in Texas, the girl in question is not actually a girl at all but a grown woman. She is Claire Wilson (Kate Mara). She is married, around thirty years old and she is Eric’s new English school teacher.
And if you don’t want to know any more about this ten episode series, I would suggest you stop reading now.
Eric sees to be a fairly typical high school ‘senior.’ He is attractive, sporty and popular. Although he struggles a little academically, he is not stupid and has ambitions to be a doctor. At home, his mother is a single parent who while never neglectful has her hands full bringing up both Eric and his two younger brothers. Eric has a few friends at school, none of whom are terribly interesting.
Claire Wilson, meanwhile, is an unusually attractive young woman, something Eric and his other male classmates quickly note, although possibly using slightly different language to express it. Claire’s motivations remain a source of interest throughout. We realise she is very attracted to Eric early on but simple lust does not really explain her reasons for embarking on an affair with him, as indeed (belated spoiler alert) is what eventually happens. Such a course of action risks her job, her marriage, her reputation and even criminal prosecution. Such things do happen in real life, of course, but why on Earth does she do it?
Right from the outset, we get a few indications that there is something rotten in the state of Claire. Early on, she steals some lipstick from a shop. It is a minor misdemeanour and she boasts to her disapproving husband about it later. But there is no suggestion she needed to do it. Had she been caught, she would probably have been prosecuted. It was a reckless and unnecessary act. We later learn her early life was blighted by her father’s alcoholism. An amateur psychiatrist might speculate that her emotional development was frozen at that point. Or at the very least, that she might feel like she wants to enjoy a teenage experience which she feels she missed out on the first time round.
Claire and her husband Matt (Ashley Zukerman) are trying for a baby and their love life has become strained by the need to have sex at specified times to maximise Claire’s chances of conception. Intercourse has become more of a chore than a joy. Matt also shows signs of being preoccupied with forming a rock band with his friends, a perhaps slightly adolescent interest at a time when he should be focused on starting his and Claire’s new family. Neither of these issues seem insurmountable, however. Matt seems like a perfectly nice guy throughout. He doesn’t deserve what ends up happening to him.
Viewers are free to judge for themselves at what exactly what point Claire and Eric’s relationship crosses the line into ‘inappropriate’ territory. Is it when, having crossed each other’s paths several times, Claire offers to help Eric with his SATs revision out of school hours? This doesn’t seem inappropriate in itself, but Claire’s motives already seem suspect. Perhaps it is when Claire tells Eric there is no need to call her ‘Miss Wilson’ when they are not in school: he can call her ‘Claire?’ Maybe it’s when Claire accepts a Facebook friend request from Eric (the story is set in 2014). Or it could be when Claire takes Eric on an impromptu day trip to visit the college Eric is hoping to attend. When they run into some of Eric’s friends neither question their assumption that Claire is just a girl Eric is seeing. All these initial moves by Claire make an affair more likely. When Eric kisses Claire unexpectedly after class, she makes a show of being scandalised and disapproving. But before long, their affair begins in earnest.
For a while, the two co-exist in their fantasy world together. But soon, inevitably things fall apart as news of their dangerous liaison gets out. We are spared the full scandal which sees Claire losing her job, marriage and going to prison. The series picks up events afterwards.
The series deals nicely with the aftermath. Eric initially seems to have got off fairly light escaping to college and even gaining some superficial kudos from his friends who react in a predictable, “Woah dude, Miss Wilson? Awesome dude. She’s totally hot” type fashion. But he hasn’t got off lightly at all. He is tortured by residual confused feelings for her and a sense of unwarranted guilt over her fate. He dislikes the notoriety the aftermath of the scandal gives him and soon embarks on a self-destructive course of drinking and reckless behaviour. His career plans are derailed in the process and he still seems a mess emotionally years later.
Post-prison, Claire struggles too. She has a ‘scarlet woman’ reputation, cannot get a job and her marriage is over. She remains even at this stage a fundamentally unsympathetic character, however. Although ultimately the architect of not only her own misfortune but the downfall of several other people too, she remains in denial about her responsibility for what has happened. She has abused her power, thrown away her marriage with no regard for her husband’s feelings and emotionally traumatised a minor placed in her care. In the final scene, set ten years on (although don’t expect any ‘President Harris to attend King Charles’s coronation’ style headlines in the background), Eric and Claire meet again. Eric himself now effectively fills the role of teaching, teaching the older woman exactly what she has done wrong.
Adapted by Hannah Fidell from her little seen 2013 film of the same name, A Teacher is available on FX, Hulu and the BBC iPlayer.