The word 'nest' has several connotations - vipers, cuckoos, supernatural entities - so many malevolent associations pop into my head. A 'nest' in a gothic context is anything but a place of safety, so I settled down to watch BBC One's 'The Nest' ready to give my overactive imagination some exercise with gloomy nursery images of spooky rocking horses and dolls. Those of us who have undergone fertility treatment know that, with the best care in the world, it can feel like a very precarious process and I was anxious to see the subject treated sensitively and free of sensationalism. The five-part drama also coincided with lockdown, with its distressing implications for patients and clinics everywhere, and an enormous, overarching reality of its own.
BBC One's surrogacy drama promises a central story of a couple's infertility journey against the moody backdrop of cold northern lochs and atmospheric cityscapes. As it's also billed as a thriller, I expected no good at all to come of the central premise of the story - a wealthy young Glasgow couple, Emily and Dan, unable to conceive a baby, whose lives, through a series of unlikely coincidences, become entangled with volatile eighteen-year-old, Kaya, just out of the care system. Their attempts at IVF have resulted in a small number of viable embryos but their surrogate - Dan's loyal sister Hilary - cannot face the prospect of any more harrowing failures. Kaya offers to carry their remaining embryo and give them one last chance at parenthood. What could possibly go wrong?
The temptation for story-tellers to simplify the narrative of surrogacy as a straightforward 'poor woman exploited by rich couple' story (as if only 'rich' couples end up infertile) turns out to be quite compulsive here. Kaya is indeed poor, has no family or support system beyond her long-suffering social workers James and Janis; released from the care system, she is housed in a tower block and rebuffs most offers of help with gruff hostility. She also has a secret and is clearly traumatised.
Emily and Dan, on the other hand, are financially secure, live in a (spectacular) timber and glass home by the loch and in a now familiar short-hand for well-appointed wealth, drive the sort of enormous SUV that bounces silently in and out of the drive. Emily's purse is stuffed with crisp banknotes, which she disburses unhesitatingly on Kaya. Her collection of cashmere jumpers alone would probably have financed a round of IVF, but unfortunately the couple have unexplained infertility, and have rather painfully come to the end of the road, having exhausted all other possibilities. The details are vague; in the first episode we see Hilary, a warm, capable nurse, in a low-key but devastating scene in A&E in which she realises she is miscarrying Emily's and Dan's baby at the exact time as she is treating Kaya for an injury.
When Kaya offers the couple the chance of parenthood, Emily is quickly persuaded. It was 'meant to be' she tells Dan, eyes glazed with excitement at the happy prospect. Here the story performs a sleight of hand in the sense that anyone who has any experience of IVF will immediately recognise; a single embryo transfer, or two, or three, is by no means a guarantee of a pregnancy, just as a pregnancy is no guarantee of a successful outcome. This is an uncomfortable observation and is carefully glossed over in the drama in favour of playing out the different dynamics of each character.
An ecstatic Emily invites Kaya to stay with them at the loch-side house, where a bond is, tentatively made, and Kaya is force-fed high-end salads, presumably to promote her folate intake. When Kaya understandably cracks in the suffocating environment of Emily's care (and presumably, the prospect of yet more pea shoots for dinner), a suspicious Dan is compelled to find out more about Kaya.
What took him so long?
The sense of characters stranded in liminal places and trapped in their own secret realities is evoked through the haunting use of water imagery throughout the series. The loch on which Emily and Dan's house is built acts as a Greek chorus, echoing stormy feelings, danger, a sense of being stranded between land and water, as well as calm and solace. The juxtaposition between this place and the city of Glasgow, with Kaya's flat in the Gorbals and the genteel nineteenth century ambiance of the city centre, feels like an obvious commentary on class - the only reason Emily first happened upon Kaya in the Gorbals was due to being 'lost' on the way to a concert. Kaya's own mysterious lost childhood, on the Isle of Lewis, is a further signifier of barrier and separation. There is enough in the attention to detail of the photography to keep the viewer invested in the character and the story.
It is not giving too much away to say that the tension arises mainly from the way the characters' motives are gradually revealed. Social worker James, has too much camera presence to be a mere facilitator for Kaya's tantrums. Kaya herself, played by Mirren Mack, is an ethereal, believable lost soul, who keeps the viewer guessing for long parts of most episodes. Sophie Rundle as Emily is an ultimately decent woman whose dream of her own baby has temporarily blinded her to anyone's needs but her own, alienating her supportive sister-in-law and leading to some risky choices. Martin Compston is convincing as a local boy made good - street-smart but sensitive.
'The Nest' is an enjoyable drama which requires a massive suspension of disbelief both in matters of assisted conception and surrogacy. The neat unravelling of secrets and tensions within this group of characters is sympathetically done: only one character is unceremoniously dropped, motivations only partially explored, to make way once more for the central narrative. It is always tempting to fear an exploitative angle when infertility is given top billing in a drama. In real surrogacy, the fear of exploitation is a recurring theme; here it becomes a supporting theme and questions who is exploiting who. 'The Nest' is sad, beautiful to look at, and unexpectedly tender and touching in parts. There is plenty to enjoy if you are willing to put aside 'insider' knowledge of assisted conception and invest in the characters' tortuous journey to self-realisation.