Rules of the Game is a drama about lies, subterfuge, and deception. It follows Maya Benshaw (Rakhee Thakrar) on her first day as the newly installed HR director at family-run company Fly; she quickly clashes with Chief Operating Officer Sam Thompson (Maxine Peake), who considers Maya an obstacle first and foremost. There are shades of Succession and The Girl Before to Rules of the Game, as corporate intrigue gives way to dark secrets emerging, and a series of suspicious deaths come to light.
More specifically, though, the miniseries – which begins on BBC One on January 11 at 9pm, and is also available as a boxset on iPlayer – is about complicity in lies and deception. The series looks specifically at toxic workplaces and abuses of power, interrogating an atmosphere that Maya wants to clean up, but Sam has essentially made her peace with. Now that she’s in a position of power, she’s reluctant to let anything threaten that, sceptical of anything that might change the dynamics in play.
What’s interesting about Rules of the Game is that its lead character Sam would, in another programme, be the villain: writer Ruth Fowler has spoken about how the miniseries was written in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and it’s notable that Fowler gives her lead lines originally said by Weinstein’s lawyer as part of his defence. Maxine Peake does well with the complexities to her character, from the steely public resolve to the private moments of concern – there’s a nice thread running through the drama about what she’ll excuse and what she won’t, what she’ll turn a blind eye to and what she doesn’t even notice in the first place. The series is, if not mired in ambiguity as such, certainly willing to indulge in it in a way that flatters its character drama.
Rakhee Thakrar is similarly impressive in a key role here, very much the way into the drama for viewers; she’s a consistently charming and sympathetic presence, likeable as she bristles against structures that have been in place since long before she arrived. Her role is well-characterised too, fleshed out quickly with beats that say a lot with a little. There’s a fantastic detail in the opening where Maya, clearly anxious, is listening to self-help tapes alone in her car – but skips through long sequences of the podcast, fast-forwarding and only listening specifically to the mantra.
It’s not flawless, admittedly. There’s a plotline running through the piece about the wives of different company executives; it’s clear enough why it was included on a thematic level, but it never quite coheres on a more technical plot-based level, sitting a little awkwardly as an isolated strand in the wider drama. (It also feels perhaps a little convenient that they’re all walking-distance neighbours of one another, even the new HR director, but that’s easy enough to ignore.)
At times, too, Rules of the Game can feel a little muted, never quite the corporate thriller some described it as. In a way that’s quite an intelligent directorial choice from Jennifer Sheridan – perhaps a deliberate refusal to sensationalise the toxic dynamics that are, murders aside, quite commonplace – but it’s likely to frustrate viewers who go into it expecting something else. Equally, it’s often a good thing to challenge and subvert expectations in that way, so again it’s difficult to hold that against the show particularly.
Ultimately, though, Rules of the Game is a strong offering from BBC One. It’s full of impressive performances – not just Peake and Thakrar, but also Alison Steadman and particularly Callie Cooke in supporting roles – and handles its character drama well. There’s also an appreciable cynicism to the whole thing, with its closing scenes returning to that sense of ambiguity and letting that be its final statement on just how exactly the rules of the game work.
Rules of the Game begins on BBC One on Tuesday January 11 at 9pm, with all four episodes available on iPlayer as a boxset as well. I’ve seen every episode before writing this review.
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