If Becky Sharp were alive in contemporary America, she would almost certainly be working in Donald Trump’s White House. It’s too easy to imagine William Makepeace Thackeray’s grifter antiheroine slapping on an Ann Taylor shift dress and pearls to lavishly praise the president on CNN, only to spin her way to a seven-figure tell-all and a prominent perch on the speaking circuit. As Thackeray wrote in his 1848 novel, “Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions,” even though—impossibly!—he’d never even heard of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
So there’s something almost comforting about Amazon’s new seven-part adaptation of Vanity Fair, whose opening credits position Becky (played by Olivia Cooke) on a carousel, spinning round and round and going nowhere. Such is the nature of human frailty, the series suggests; things were ever thus, and ever will be. Thackeray subtitled his most enduring book as “A Novel Without a Hero,” and there’s some misanthropic pleasure to be drawn from his parade of imperfect characters, especially during the season of goodwill to all men.
In part, that’s because their self-serving subterfuges are totally transparent. The center of gravity in Vanity Fair has always been Becky, a brilliant and beautiful orphan who scams her way to the upper echelons of society, only to fall all the way down again. In the opening scene of the series, Becky is being dismissed as a French teacher at a girls’ boarding school for her habitual insouciance. (“You forget your station, Miss Sharp.” “I do, yes, daily, and most sincerely.”) While packing her things, she appeals to the tender heart of Amelia Sedley (Claudia Jessie), kicking off a cycle that persists throughout the rest of the story: Becky finds new marks and manipulates them until she either outstays her welcome or dreams up an even better con.