Kate Beckinsale spirals spectacularly as Beth Burgess, a discredited journalist desperate to save her career by latching on to the story of a young Black mother who has been sentenced to life in prison for killing her husband.
Guilty Party is unhinged and brilliant! Its tone laces social commentary on racial injustice, incarceration inequality, and journalistic integrity in the age of clickbait and social media with the dark comedy of Kate Beckinsale playing Beth Burgess, an unrelenting, despicably desperate white woman who places her own suffering at the heart of everything –even her attempts to free a Black woman who may or may not have been wrongfully accused of murder.
Beth receives a letter written by Toni Plimpton (Jules Latimer), who alleges she’s been wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of her husband. “No one cares about the truth,” she writes. “They only care that one more Black woman stays behind bars.” The letter realllly leans in to stroke Beth’s ego, ending with the line: “I know your work, Ms. Burgess, and I believe you are a genius, and the last real journalist working in Denver.” Beth is so struck by this letter —both by being seen as someone with integrity and power, and being needed in this way— that she rushes to meet the inmate in jail.
Everything around this exoneration plot is playful, turning expectations on their head: We discover that Toni has written this same letter to several journalists, word for word! It’s such a smart tactic that ends up flipping the ‘White woman coming to the rescue’ narrative into a humorous situation where these journalists who are technically in a greater position of power than Toni in jail find themselves fully auditioning to cover her story. We immediately admire and root for Toni because she’s working the system rigged against her, using the media, and capitalizing on the way Beth needs to feel validated.
Beth’s motivation is far beyond questionable: She lost her job as an award-winning investigative journalist after being accused of falsifying a quote, and now works at a website where the perfect pitch is a Harry Potter anniversary piece titled ‘Hermione’s Hottest Looks.’ Any reasonable person would understand that it’s a different market, and get to pitching some relevant stories. Beth’s pitches become almost gimmicky where she’s stuck on a ‘human rights angles’ setting: “There are rumblings that Taylor Swift is traveling from her home to her car in a large suitcase to avoid paparazzi. And I thought, why don’t we use this to tackle immigration?”
Her ridiculous rejections and failures throughout the show are thrilling to watch, especially as a person of colour, because the other characters call her out for her “white saviorism” and never take her as seriously as she takes herself. “So you want to write a story about you saving a Black woman?” Beth’s editor (Madeleine Arthur, absolutely radiating comedy gold in this show) asks. It opens up a newsroom discussion about whether Beth would find the story as compelling if Toni was white. “Right, but if Toni was white,” Beth counters, “she wouldn’t be in prison.” When her editor still doesn’t like the optics, Beth spins out in arrogant frustration. She’s impulsive, destructive, and determined to a fault. What’s fun about this show is that we find ourselves rolling our eyes and sighing dramatically alongside her colleagues, because we are all frustrated by this woman —apparently a once-successful, reputable journalist— who can’t get real for a second and think about her actions objectively.
The reflection of whiteness in Guilty Party is enjoyable because it is clear evidence of everything that white women get away with every day —without villainizing her. We see Beth struggle, we understand her bitterness and entitlement, we can relate to her frustration, but we also know a person of colour wouldn’t be where she is with the same attitude –in fact, she is told this same thing directly many times. Watching Guilty Party, we are all in on the joke. We’re not making fun of her so much as confronting her on a personal level, like –really, Beth? This again? You’re pitching stories about Harry Potter without knowing who Hagrid is. You showed up at the jail without doing any research on the inmate you want to write about. Look at yourself.
Toni calls Beth out spectacularly in a chilling scene revealing the reality of being a woman in jail: Giving birth handcuffed to a bed, never having seen her child since that moment. Beth –almost just as spectacularly in how imperceptive a response it is– tells Toni that it’s been “a really hard year” for her. The gift of this show is that Toni laughs at her, and simply walks out of that conversation; It is glorious. There’s an element of catharsis watching those scenes where Beth’s called out because it’s something we often can’t —or don’t feel safe enough to— do in real life.
Guilty Party is reminiscent of Search Party and The Flight Attendant in that we’re watching this impulsive white woman as she tornadoes her way through life. Beth is lying to sources, witnesses, and those closest to her. She ignites drama and chaos everywhere she goes –whether it’s following a lead on this Plimpton investigation, arriving late to dinner at a restaurant, believing that she’s above prison administration rules, or stealing exotic fish from her old boss’s office.
But she’s also relatable in her wildness: Beth’s desire to not explain her decisions rings true for those of us who have felt forced to claw at opportunities to have any agency at all; She can’t keep a fish alive; She wants her career to go in a certain direction and won’t take no for an answer until it does; Her firmness on the decision to not have children is significant, as is the vague deterioration of her communication with her husband as they both refuse to yield on this issue.
The show moves forward with consistently out-of-left-field reveals in the murder investigation, impeccable comedic cameos, constant bad behavior from Beth, and the ever-present mystery of whether Toni is in fact innocent or guilty…
This scene will never leave my mind. It’s truly the “There was no bookclub?!” of this show.
Geoff Stults’ delivery of “a source of cock, I get that!” is just unforgettably delightful!!— andree-uhhh…?? (@stargirlriots) November 27, 2021
The off-kilter combination of charm and comedy and heart-on-his-sleeve vulnerable adoration in this dude’s performance… CHEF’S KISS!!!!! No notes! Simply in AWE of him! Could not take my eyes off of him any time he was on screen, for like a thousand reasons at once.