Watch it with us: Netflix streaming
The trope of the doppelgänger is a perennial favorite in the thriller and horror genres. There’s something fascinating and terrifying about the idea of a total stranger walking around with your face. We think of our bodies as synonymous with our personalities or souls, so the idea of two identical bodies with vastly different souls is fertile ground for horror and suspense. The Scapegoat was adapted by television director Charles Sturridge from a Daphne du Maurier novel that explores the same territory as The Prince and the Pauper: two physically identical men who trade lives and pretend to be each other; only here, the consequences are far more serious.
John Standing, a recently sacked prep school teacher, and Johnny Spence, a ne’er-do-well running his family’s foundry into the ground (both played by Matthew Rhys), meet by chance at a country pub and exchange stories. The next morning, John wakes to find that his doppelgänger has disappeared with John’s shabby clothes and knapsack, leaving his own tailored suits behind. Spence’s chauffeur arrives to escort him home, and John finds himself thrust into the other man’s business and private life. He tries to explain that he’s not who he seems to be, but everyone is so used to Johnny’s prevarications that they ignore him. John begins repairing Spence’s damaged relationships with his family and researching what can be done about the foundry’s dwindling assets. Everything seems to be going well – until Spence comes back and begins enacting his own plans for setting his affairs to rights.
In some ways, John’s efforts to repair the lifetime of damage Spence has caused most of his family is self-serving; John has nowhere else to go and no real means of escape, and he quickly falls in love with Spence’s wife, whom Spence himself cheated on every chance he got. But he also takes the blame for Spence’s bad deeds without a whimper, a task rendered all the more painful by his ignorance of what those bad deeds are. Even though he and Spence are complete opposites in every way but looks, his identity begins to merge with Spence’s at an alarming pace; when Spence returns, he remarks, “you’ve become almost as good at being me as I am.” John struggles with maintaining his own goodness while surrounded by people who know him only as selfish and immature – are his lies by omission still wrong when they’re committed in service to his family? Is it better to imitate Spence’s caddish behavior in order to maintain the deception? And does he have any right to protect this family he doesn’t rightfully belong to?
The story is set against the backdrop of Queen Elizabeth II’s impending coronation in the early 1950s. England’s postwar uncertainty mirrors John’s own as he wrings his hands about whether it’s right to continue his long con with the Spence family; he has, after all, subverted the “natural” order of things by taking on Spence’s upper-crust lifestyle and abandoning his own working-class one. John has lost his innocence, just as all of Europe recently has; when the devil looks exactly like you, it becomes impossible to think of him as The Other. But in contending with his own dark side and recognizing it for what it really is, John gains something far more valuable: a chance to belong to a family and to help them put their shaken-up lives back together.
Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.