• Asher Keddie in SBS drama The Hunting. (Supplied)
SBS series 'The Hunting' shows how gaslighting can entrap even the most emotionally intelligent victims, writes Candice Chung.
By
Candice Chung

15 Aug 2019 - 3:38 PM  UPDATED 16 Aug 2019 - 12:44 PM

It’s the perfect-looking present. A cocktail dress, low-cut, the colour of golden rum. But when Simone Luke (Asher Keddie) tries on the surprise gift from her husband in an early scene from SBS’s new series, The Hunting — she balks.

Turns out it’s so tight that she gets comically stuck.  

Yet moments after she struggles out of the shiny body glove, we hear her telling her husband the dress is “perfect”. She quietly commits to a diet. She alters herself to suit the gift, letting his too-slim fantasy of her live on, uncorrected.

This stifling gown would be the first of many compromises that Simone makes to assimilate to her husband Nick’s (Richard Roxburgh) world view. It’s a difficult thing to watch. Not least because Simone is smart, admired at work and manages to turn out Vogue Living style dinners while being a present, engaged mum to a teenage daughter and son.

To outsiders, Nick is charismatic, ambitious and a successful lawyer who isn’t afraid of making his opinions known. (“Shouldn’t we call this football?”  He gently pokes fun at a teacher’s parochialism when he says “soccer”, “Let’s stay for another drink.” He tells his wife as they run late to a parent-teacher meeting.)

We see that he pushes the envelope. But we also find ourselves asking - would someone who buys his wife extravagant presents, celebrates her work achievements, and regularly praises her attractiveness be truly capable of hurtful emotional manipulation?

A couple’s power dynamic often becomes clear when their core values are at stake.

A couple’s power dynamic often becomes clear when their core values are at stake. When Nick and Simone learn that their teenage son Andy is accused of posting a nude photo of a female student on a ‘slut-shaming’ site, they’re faced with a truth that jars with their manicured reality: Have they raised a sexist son who is a predator to women? And - more urgently - should they protect him regardless of what happened?

To Simone, truth matters because she cares about “the kind of man her son becomes". As she listens in agony to Zoe, one of her son’s accusers - she is visibly torn between wanting to trust her son’s innocence and the gut feeling that something isn’t right. But to Nick, truth is simply a raw material to work with. It’s also something that shouldn’t get in the way of his son’s reputation or his own privileged reality.

When the couple’s values collide, we see Nick’s ‘charms’ devolve into manipulation as he lies to invalidate Simone’s instincts.

“This girl’s obviously a bit of a fantasist,” he cuts down Zoe, moments after secretly helping his son clear his browsing history.

When the couple’s values collide, we see Nick’s ‘charms’ devolve into manipulation as he lies to invalidate Simone’s instincts.

“Well someone put the photo on her locker, Nick,” says Simone, “She wasn’t lying about that. The girl was completely distraught.”

Then - a classic gaslighter’s move. Deceit couched in benevolence:

“That’s what I love about you. You’re always looking out for other people’s kids as well as your own.”

We often think of ‘gaslighting’ in the context of seemingly dysfunctional relationships - where the perpetrator thrives on narcissistic or antisocial behaviours, and the power differential is vast.

It’s sobering, therefore, to see gaslighting rear its head in a partnership that could easily pass as ‘functional’. And in Nick and Simone’s case - at a time of extraordinary life challenge, when the person you trust most is expected to be on your team. When you should be able to rely on them at your most vulnerable.

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In a scene where Simone confronts Nick with an online story about their son’s potential involvement in the nude photo scandal, we see an almost forensic breakdown of gaslighting at work.

Specifically, we see how gaslighting can entrap even the most emotionally intelligent victims. An admirable character trait is flipped into evidence for untrustworthiness (“Your empathy for Zoe is clouding your judgment,” says Nick.), and any effort to help is reinterpreted as a move to hinder. (“If you keep pushing and pushing, you’re going to make things worse.”)

Suddenly, we see Simone stuck in emotional quicksand - struggling to stay afloat in false arguments that are carefully spliced with kernels of ‘care’ or kernels of ‘love’. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Nick is a lawyer — expert at building cases by planting doubt.

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One of the most devastating effects of gaslighting is that the victim begins to mistrust their own judgement. In a recent interview, US psychiatrist Dr Suvrat Bhargave explains exactly why internalised self-doubt is so hard to shake:

“The sneaky thing about doubt is, it speaks to you in your own voice. So we don’t challenge it - we really just think it’s [our] instinct,” says Bhargave.

“There’s a huge difference between intuition and fear. But on their most basic level, they feel the same. They’re both gut feelings. But intuition and fear couldn’t be more different. Fear is an overwhelming emotional response to something. Intuition is when you can put emotion aside and you just know something.”

One of the most devastating effects of gaslighting is that the victim begins to mistrust their own judgement.

Interestingly, it’s with an abiding faith in her intuition that Simone manages to breaks free of her husband’s warped worldview. Towards the end of the series, we see her confront her son with an unshakeable truth, “I may not understand your reason for doing this…But I was a 16-year-old girl once. Something must’ve happened for her to pursue you like this.” 

Beneath the lies, the shifting stories, the controlling gestures wrapped up as gifts, Simone finds strength in the calm water of self-knowledge - that women should be treated with respect. And that’s the world she chooses to live in.

The Hunting premieres on Thursday, August 1 at 8:30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand, and airs over four weeks.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault/abuse or family violence, call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency call 000.

For parents and teachers looking for more information can visit the eSafety Commissioner website and SBS Learn.