Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone betray, backstab, and scheme — with sublime adversarial chemistry — to win the affections (and proximity to power) of Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne in director Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film, The Favourite. (Both Weisz and Stone are nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category for their performances in the movie, which nabbed 10 nominations, at this year’s Academy Awards.)

The story and stage on which Weisz and Stone’s competition plays out provide useful lessons on how toxic, stressful environments breed toxic behaviors, encouraging us to think less about individual misconduct and more about the conditions that cultivate undesirable actors.  

Weisz plays Lady Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, who’s serves as the Queen’s closest confidante (since childhood) and governmental adviser. With superior intelligence and a quick wit, Sarah outpaces the Queen, afflicted with ongoing health problems (gout, gastrointestinal troubles) and increasing mental deterioration, by miles, craftily manipulating state affairs in her husband’s interest. As the Queen’s lover, Sarah successfully soothes and manages her mercurial temperament as she frequently seesaws between deep depression (she lost all 17 of her children), madness (she replaced them with 17 bunny rabbits), and childish tantrums (at one point, she commands a servant to look at her, then screams: “How dare you?! Close your eyes!”)

Their mutually beneficent union, however, comes undone when Sarah’s cousin, Abigail, arrives at the palace destitute and seeking employment. At first, Abigail is confined to extreme forms of drudgery and filthy, smothering sleeping conditions where fellow servants slumber together, sardine-like.

Spoiler alert: This analysis reveals key plot points.

But once a lady herself and graced with good looks, charisma, and ample brainpower, Abigail refuses her lowly station and uses every imaginable wile to slither her way out of poverty and into Queen Anne’s heart. That includes a dizzying rotation of cruelties and deceits — feigning romantic interest in powerful people to secure her station; assaulting her own face and laying the blame on Sarah to sully the Queen’s opinion of her former paramour; poisoning Sarah’s tea before she sets out on horseback; and on and on.

Underneath the dark comedy of it all, one hears a somber note reminding us that desperate people do desperate things. Abigail’s cruel climb to the top speaks less about her character, and more about societal hardships for women of little means in 18th-century England, as well as the Court’s all-around stress-inducing dysfunction and brutality.

By the end of the saga, Abigail is totally disconnected from her former self, broken and burned out.

In a recent paper, Christina Maslach, Ph.D., a psychology professor at U.C. Berkeley pinpoints six areas that can breed burnout in the workplace (yes, even Queen Anne’s royal Court of courtiers counts as a workplace!) — and in The Favourite, Abigail contends with all of them at once. When working conditions swing out of balance in relation to an employee’s sense of control (i.e. lack of decision-making authority), reward (lack of recognition for work), fairness (lack of equal treatment and respect), values (in conflict with the establishment’s ideals and ethics), community (hostile work environment), and workload (excess labor), burnout easily manifests. Only people in positions of power within the organization (in this case, the Queen) have the ability to steady the pendulum in these six areas. An individual, Maslach notes, cannot.

While many will see Abigail as a power-hungry villain, she’s really a victim of a rotten lot in life — and a good reminder for us to closely examine the situational factors (like unfair working conditions) that inform behaviors antithetical to our ideals.

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  • Stephanie Fairyington

    Contributing Writer at Thrive

    Stephanie Fairyington is a contributing writer at Thrive. A New York-based journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic (online), The New Republic (online), The Boston Globe, and several other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her spouse Sabrina and daughter Marty.