Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for the miniseries, Fatal Attraction.
Fatal Attraction‘s protagonist Dan Gallagher seems to have a perfect life: a successful career; a happy home with a beautiful, loving wife and an adorable daughter; plenty of friends.
Why, then, does he risk it all for a brief, torrid affair with an attractive colleague? Is Alex Forrest an evil temptress, determined to wrench Dan away from his wholesome home life, or is Dan equally to blame for his own infidelity? The answer depends entirely on whether you’re watching Adrian Lyne’s 1987 film or Alexandra Cunningham and Kevin J. Hynes’ 2023 miniseries.
The 1980s saw a rising backlash to the gains made by the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s. Anti-feminist activists like Phyllis Schlafly and Marabel Morgan advocated a return to traditional gender roles — the man as the breadwinner, the woman as the homemaker — and fought zealously against any further advancement of women’s equality, including the Equal Rights Amendment, which to this day has not been ratified by enough states to become part of the U.S. Constitution.
Popular culture sometimes reflected this backlash, as in the first iteration of Fatal Attraction, which featured Michael Douglas and Glenn Close in the lead roles.
The Film Contrasts the Ambitious Woman with the Loving Mother
In the film, Alex is a single woman in her late 30s with a professional career as an editor at a publishing house, for which Dan works as an attorney. She’s contrasted with Dan’s wife Beth (Anne Archer), a homemaker who, as far as we can tell, has no responsibilities or even hobbies outside the home. Beth is presented as the ideal traditional wife and mother: nurturing yet attractive and sexually available, unfailingly supportive of her husband, always smiling, and devoting 100% of her time and energy to maintaining her family and household. The two women are even visual opposites — Alex is blonde and wears her hair swept back from her rather severe face, while Beth is brunette with a softer, more conservative look.
This version of Alex is unquestionably the aggressor in the affair. After canceling another date to have dinner with Dan, she spells out what she wants from him in plain language. The next day, after they’ve slept together and Dan has slipped out early, she immediately calls him and begs him to spend the day with her, despite his insistence that he must work. “You just don’t give up, do you?” he opines just before giving in to her appeals. Later, when he tries to extricate himself from both her apartment and their relationship cleanly, Alex attempts suicide to manipulate him to stay with her.
Movie Alex is an Unsympathetic Villain
From that point forward, Alex is framed as the villain while Dan is the victim. She stalks and terrorizes him relentlessly, claiming to be pregnant (which he appears to believe), threatening to expose their affair to his wife, making pretenses to show up at his house, vandalizing his car, and even murdering his daughter’s pet rabbit. From the film’s perspective, she’s a dangerous psychopath bent on destroying this upstanding husband and father.
The message is clear: Alex — the forward, aggressive career woman — is a threat to the traditional family, a dangerous temptress who lures innocent men away from their loving wives. In fact, although she appears successful on the surface, deep down she knows that her rightful place is that of wife and mother, and now she will do anything to achieve that.
The famous scene in which she sits alone on her apartment floor, listening to Madame Butterfly and turning a lamp on and off again, contrasts with a simultaneous scene that shows Dan and Beth at dinner with friends, laughing and having a raucous time: the single woman sits alone and miserable, while the married woman and her husband are happy and fulfilled. Alex even briefly kidnaps Dan’s daughter Ellen (Ellen Hamilton Latzen) so she can play-act the role of mother for a time. In the end, she attempts to murder Beth so she can take her place as Dan’s wife.
Ultimately, Dan suffers no real consequences for the affair, because, in the eyes of the filmmakers, he is blameless. He briefly succumbed to the wiles of a deranged seductress, but once she is vanquished, he’s permitted to return to his happy family.
The Series Gives Each Character More Depth
The miniseries, impressively, manages to hit most of the same story beats as the film while completely transfiguring its problematic theme, primarily through re-characterizing the three major players.
First, Dan (Joshua Jackson) is given considerably more agency in his affair with Alex (Lizzy Caplan). Episode 3 reveals that Alex has been covertly positioning herself to cross paths with Dan, but to paraphrase a line from the show, she only opens the door; he walks through it himself. When she leaves Dan’s regular hangout to get drinks elsewhere, he chooses to follow her there. After their first night together, it’s implied that he invites her to join him at the beach the next day. He asks her boss to assign her to one of his cases; later that week, he lies to his wife so he can spend another night with Alex.
Alex, too, is characterized differently. While the movie Alex is one-dimensional, the series Alex has depth. She works in Victims’ Services, and though she’s obviously dealing with some serious psychological issues, we see her talk to an abuse victim with genuine kindness and empathy.
She’s been rejected by her therapist, another coworker in whom she’d expressed interest, and a neighbor that she had believed was a friend, and after witnessing Dan’s compassion toward the family of a murder victim, she latches onto him like a drowning woman clinging to a life preserver. She’s not an innocent victim — she still stalks Dan, lies to him, fakes a suicide attempt, and vandalizes his car — but she’s a far more complicated figure than her film version.
Beth (Amanda Peet) is also given more character depth in the miniseries. She has her own career; in fact, she co-owns a general contracting business with an old friend — not a traditionally feminine job. And she’s no shrinking violet: she’s not afraid to take Dan to task when, for instance, he drives home drunk and wrecks his car. Yet she’s also sympathetic and loving; unlike the film, the series doesn’t treat a woman’s career ambition and her devotion to her family as mutually exclusive.
Series Beth is also savvier to her husband’s duplicity. While movie Beth is shocked by the revelation of Dan’s affair, the new Beth becomes suspicious long before Dan confesses, first when she finds an unfamiliar sock in the laundry, then when Alex shows up during their open house. She can obviously read Dan like a book, and she knows instantly that there is something between him and Alex when she sees them together, despite his attempt to play it cool.
Aside from the changes to the characters, perhaps the most consequential development in the series is that Dan pays dearly for his role in the affair — he goes to prison for 15 years for killing Alex. He didn’t actually do it, and we don’t yet know who did (perhaps the series will use the film’s original ending, which had Alex killing herself and framing Dan for her murder), but he doesn’t get the luxury of returning to his happy home life as if he’s done nothing wrong.
The series has all the strengths of the film — the eroticism, the suspense, the superb acting — without the painfully regressive politics. If you enjoyed the film but were put off by its problematic messaging, the series is absolutely worth your time.