What happens when your husband dies, only for you to discover his life was way messier than you knew? That's the story of Mrs. Wilson.
Karim: We spend our whole lives justifying the decisions we made in the past, constructing our own intricate versions of the truth.
From the beginning, there are lies. On a random afternoon, Alison Wilson (Ruth Wilson) takes her lunch break from the typing pool and heads home to spend it with her husband Alec (Iain Glen), a spy novelist who works from home. It would be just another day, except for a death in the family. However, this is no murder mystery, no Agatha Christie tale. Alec's heart simply gives out, just an ordinary death on an ordinary day of an ordinary man.
From the beginning, viewers know this isn't true. Alison, in the middle of her shock, robotically goes to the telephone and calls "Coleman" (Fiona Shaw) to tell her Alec is dead. In response, she is told to "act normally." Upon finding her husband's wallet on his person, she locks it in a rolltop desk and hides the key. When her son Nigel comes home, she lies and says his father's last words were about him. All these small things are already adding up before a late night visitor arrives and assumes Alison to be the landlady, as she is Mrs. Gladys Wilson (Elizabeth Rider) and is quite insistent that Alec Wilson was her husband.
Flashback to the War effort, when Alison McKelvie was still a single 20-something typist come to do her bit, working under the Secret Intelligence Service as the secretary to Alexander Wilson, already a famous novelist and is married. At least, for the moment. Next thing you know there's divorce papers, and even though he's twice her age and Catholic, a relationship develops after her flat is decimated one night during the Blitz. And this despite the presence of a woman who seems to be floating around in the background every time they go on a date.
Heading to see Coleman in a hunt for divorce papers, Alison finds herself hitting a brick wall, unable to get answers. Coleman seems slightly amused at her ferocity in believing they exist. After all, getting a divorce as a Catholic is hard, and forging a piece of paper to show a twentysomething that simply says you did so is easy. She must have known what she was getting into. There's no decree anywhere to confirm the divorce.
And yet Alison doesn't believe it, not until she goes to Gladys' house and sees the truth, family photos taken recently, and a typing set-up, almost an exact replica of the one in her own home. Unable to hide from the truth, Alison talks to Dennis Wilson (Patrick Kennedy), the son from the other marriage, to send the body to be buried with them. The result is a strange sort of double funeral where half the guests know Alec from one life, and the rest known him from the other, and Alison's sons arent' aware that they're standing across from their own half-brothers. There will be no headstone, after all, what name should it list? Even the birthday Alsion believed to be her husbands is not the one he celebrated with Gladys.
If that wasn't enough, she receives a second shock at the funeral when the face who floated about at their dinner dates all those years ago is also in attendance, and a war buddy from India, upon learning Alison is "Alec's wife," addresses her as Dorothy. How many Mrs. Wilsons are there? At least three, as Alison finds pictures of "Dorothy" (Keeley Hawes) buried away in the attic, as part of slides made from that period her husband's life before she knew him. The war buddy turns out to be Alec's handler before he worked for Coleman, Shahbaz Karim (Anupam Kher) and once again sends her to Coleman for answers. But Coleman will not talk, and even suggests Alison's driving need for answers could jeopardize her son's fledging entries into upper-middle-class life.
Alison keeps searching. She discovers it was Dorothy that Alec lived with before her, in the same flat she moved into after the Blitz took out her place, and they lived as husband and wife, as Alec and Dorothy Wilson. There's other child involved too, Michael. Alison tracks her down, in hope of finding someone, anyone, who knows the truth about the man she married who might be willing to talk. At least Dorothy doesn't have a writing set-up for Alec in her home too. However, it turns out Dorothy knows less than she realizes, believing "Gladys" to have been Alec's widowed sister. She did know about Alec's life as a spy though, as that's how she first met him, as part of a pre-World War II operation.
She also knew about Alison's existence as well, though. Alec, it turns out, got rid of Dorothy and Mike by sending them to Wensleydale under the guise of "staying safe from the Blitz." Dorothy came back, just in time to see her husband's budding relationship with Alison take off. She moved out completely just hours before Alison's fateful bombing. Mike, who looks uncannily like Alec, believes his father died in 1942 in the War, and as far as Dorothy is concerned it's the kindest gift she could have given the kid.
As much as Alison judges Dorothy for lying for 20 years to her son, isn't she doing the same now, hiding who Alec was from her boys, Nigel and Gordon? Especially when the lies keep piling up, including his whole nonsense about having an ancestral home in Blakefield. How much of Alexander Wilson's life was true? And how much dirty work do the women in his life find themselves doing, cleaning up after his constant deceptions? Not that Alison can keep her children from knowing the truth, as their searches reveal their father's stories about being from a high-end family, his crest, his graduating from Cambridge, are all false.
In the end, no one knows who Alec Wilson was. Alison will have to soldier on alone to find out.