Family dramas aren’t as commonplace in today’s television landscape as they once were. It’s a sad truth, but viewers tend to gravitate more towards action-packed spectacles these days. However, every once in a while, there comes along a series that reminds viewers that, more often than not, the best drama happens within the family. Butterfly, the new Sunday night drama from ITV, is one of those rarities. The three-part series — penned by Tony Marchant — tells the story of a young transgender child named Max (Callum Booth-Ford), and how mum Vicky (Anna Friel) and dad Stephen (Emmet J. Scanlen) struggle to come to terms with who Max really is. It’s everything you could want out of a family drama, but it’s also incredibly informative, shining a light on an important subject matter.
It’s clear from the beginning that Butterfly isn’t your average take on a transgender story. Although it’s dark and can be quite upsetting, it’s by no means a tragic tale. The uplifting score, composed by Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon, is proof of this. Similarly, the opening titles, made by Huge Design, are equally light and playful, going hand-in-hand with the optimistic music. When we first meet Max, she is living her best life. She’s dressing up in girl’s clothes and applying nail polish. It’s clear that she’s in her element. However, conflict (both internal and external) arises when Max spends time with her dad, Stephen. Max behaves very differently here, putting on a more masculine front for her father’s benefit.
Mum Vicky and sister Lily (Millie Gibson), however, embrace who Max really is, although they are concerned for her emotional well-being. Speaking of which, the family dynamic in Butterfly is one of the best things about the series. Max might be ostracised at school, but she has a strong support network at home, and her relationship with Vicky couldn’t be stronger. It’s about time that we see a parental figure with her child’s best interests at heart, as opposed to the typical anti-LGBT+ mothers that are often depicted in dramas like this one. What’s more, Friel is truly superb in this role, delivering one of the most nuanced performances we’ve seen on television this year. In addition to being heart-warming, the relationship is also a clever way for Marchant to deliver important information about Max’s struggle to the audience, and he does so via conversations between the two characters.
Max goes on quite a journey throughout the first episode, and the pretence becomes too much for her, and Marchant conveys this in a number of ways. The primary way he does so is by having the protagonist dress in female clothes at every given opportunity. For Max, dressing up is a way of relieving the pain that comes with being born as a male. And it’s not just this that Max is struggling with, as she’s also torn up over Stephen’s departure from the family home.
The conflict is apparent from the off, especially that between Vicky and Stephen. The flashbacks are appreciated, offering us an insight into what really happened between the pair, though the subtext is enough to determine that Max’s feminine nature is what drove a wedge between the two parents — something that the child becomes aware of in the heart-breaking final scene. Speaking of which, the final moments see Max reveal to Vicky and Stephen — while dressed in a girl’s school uniform —that she’s done hiding, and would like to be called Maxine from here on out. Stephen struggles to understand why Max won’t stop behaving in this fashion, while Vicky offers a supportive shoulder, even if she is apprehensive over Max’s request. It’s a spectacular scene, and Marchant really delivers here as not an awful lot is said, but the subtext — specifically in regards to Stephen — speaks volumes.
Butterfly is informative and educational, but it’s also an incredibly well-written piece of television. As there should be with all compelling drama series, there is plenty of conflict running throughout for all three protagonists. For Max, she knows that she’s not a boy, so the conflict stems from her having to repress her true identity in order to please her dad. Meanwhile, Vicky wants to help Max in every way she can, but fears for Max’s safety should Max express herself outside of the house. Then there’s Stephen, who wants to support his child, but cannot comprehend what Max is going through. As a piece of entertainment, it ticks all the right boxes. However, while the Marchant series is a family drama at heart, it by no means shies away from the realities of what it means to be transgender. It also highlights the importance for one to be able to express their true selves — as well as the adverse effect that not being able to do so can have on an individual. This is why representation is important.
One of the most commendable aspects of the show is the fact that it also shines a light on how difficult it is for parents, in a situation like this one, to come to terms with what their child is going through. It’s an authentic portrayal of a transgender child all round, made stronger by Callum Booth-Ford, who is truly a revelation.
Butterfly has all the potential to become one of television’s most significant transgender dramas ever. Red Production Company have done it yet again, although with the likes of Marchant, Friel and Nicola Shindler attached to the project, was there ever any doubt?
Contributed by Stephen Patterson
Butterfly continues Sundays at 9pm on ITV.