No Clue What Happened on “Leopard Skin” but Carla Gugino as a Mean Queer Psychic Domme? Yes

The following review of Peacock’s Leopard Skin contains spoilers in the sense that, yes, I do reveal specific plot and character details and even some of the twists that occur on Leopard Skin, but in my opinion this is a show that is not really possible to spoil, because I could tell you every single thing that happens on Leopard Skin and you’d still watch it with a non-zero amount of confusion, intrigue, and surprise. I, for example, watched all eight episodes of Leopard Skin and am not quite sure I could tell you what happened on Leopard Skin.

My experience of watching Leopard Skin — a new half-hour heist series from Peacock — can be summed up by the fact that at the end of each episode, my girlfriend and I said to each other: So, they’re all dead and have been dead this whole time, right? My experience of watching Leopard Skin can be summed up by the fact that I watched it in a haze of cold meds and yet do not think they can be to blame for the dizzying and feverish sensations Leopard Skin incites.

I will now attempt to tell you what this show is “about.”

Leopard Skin centers on Alba (Carla Gugino), a famous documentarian who is possibly psychic but also bad at being psychic? Like, her visions are sometimes just a hair off. But she can accurately guess a stranger’s name, and she has successfully avoided death when, multiple times, lethal tragedies have befallen her documentary sets and claimed the lives of everyone in her crew. All of this is somehow just backstory and has little to do with the central plot of Leopard Skin. Alba’s husband left her for a younger woman, a cocktail waitress named Batty (Gaite Jansen). Batty killed the husband, and Alba has proof, so she blackmails Batty into doing her bidding day in and day out. The two former wives of a bad man live together in a sprawling mansion in a remote coastal town in Mexico under these strange parameters, but one day their little rituals are interrupted by a knock on the door from a trio of seasoned criminals whose latest diamond heist went sideways. Now, Batty and Alba — along with housekeeper Inocencia (Ana de la Reguera) and another woman Maru (Amelia Eve of Bly Manor) who was just kind of in the wrong place at the wrong time — are hostages. The diamond thieves (played by Gentry White, Nora Arnezeder, and Margot Bingham) holding them hostage also start to turn on each other when they realize they’ve all been set up by the same bad guy (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who they’re also all sleeping with as part of a business arrangement. I feel like I’ve possibly given you too much information and also not enough to possibly begin to understand Leopard Skin.

The show feels a bit as if David Lynch were to try his hand at a softcore Cinemax production. It’s visually gripping and erotically charged — often in strange places. The dialogue is utilitarian in some moments, overly poetic in others. The movement and images throughout the series have a dream-like quality which, again, led me to constantly wonder if characters were actually dead and living out some sort of strange limbo loop. As with a lot of crime thrillers, fucking with time becomes a device, frequent flashbacks pulling us out of the present and into scenes that are supposedly meant to add context but often merely over-complicate or over-explain. So much exposition could be trimmed.

And yet, there’s something about the show that makes it difficult to stop once you’ve started. Not because it necessarily feels like a puzzle box worth solving but because of just how weird it is in its use of the erotic. Leopard Skin seduces in the strangest ways. Alba and Batty’s dynamic begins with blackmail, but they both gradually succumb to it, end up confused about what it is that they really want. Alba asks Batty to lick her boots clean, to serve her, perform for her, give herself entirely over. Alba’s cruelty is outsized in comparison to Batty’s wrongdoings. But also they both seemingly come to crave this extreme dominant and submissive dynamic. It’s all very fucked-up and fascinating, and yet I’m not sure Leopard Skin even understands what it’s doing here. It feels too big and too messy for the show to every properly engage with it. Carla Gugino and Gaite Jansen manage to bring nuance and velocity to a story that doesn’t ever seem to know what it’s doing or why.

Leopard Skin is obsessed with sex and yet somehow also doesn’t just come off as schlocky swill, which is impressive and more than a little confounding. There’s an entire scene of Batty just pouring milk on her naked breast while half asleep in the middle of the night, and I cannot for the life of me figure out what the scene is doing, but it does lead to a later scene of Alba asking Batty to lap up milk from a bowl like a cat. Perhaps it’s those performances from Jansen and Gugino that keep it all afloat and away from full-on shlock territory. Batty and Alba finally do have sex after a lot of lead up, but it’s almost not as skin-tingling as that preamble. The actual act of sex isn’t where Leopard Skin does its seduction; it’s in the games that come before.

But again, I’m not entirely convinced the writers know that. Just when Leopard Skin starts to get good, it cuts away. It’s overstuffed and underbaked, a draft with a ton of potential that needed a rigorous revision. Its sense of humor at times hints at a Killing Eve sensibility — uncomfortable, farcical, and macabre. And Alba and Batty’s relationship manages to make Eve and Villanelle’s look vanilla.

The show was created by Sebastian Gutierrez, best known for the 2006 fever dream that was Snakes on a Plane. But with Snakes on a Plane, the premise was at least, well, all in the title. There were snakes, on a plane. Leopard Skin is, on the other hand, is impossible to encapsulate in such a neat and straightforward package. Snakes on a plane would have been so much easier to digest. It has all the right pieces to be a dazzling erotic thriller but throws them into a blender with little regard for measurements or an order of operations, blitzing them into oblivion. There are a few stabs at saying something about power, desire, violence, control, but Leopard Skin dulls its own blade with excessive exposition and a porous script. Zooming in on Alba and Batty’s arc gives you a brilliant psychosexual two-hander horror story, but for some reason that gets wedged into a more sprawling, time-jumping action-drama and therefore goes underexplored, the show’s most interesting questions disappearing before they really get a chance to resonate.

Again, I can’t really tell you what happened on Leopard Skin. For all the boldness in its visuals and erotics, it doesn’t know what it wants to be.


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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 470 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. “Alba asks Batty to lick her boots clean” I’mma stop reading right there and add this to my to-watch list. Because. Um. UMM? The sheer horniness contained within 8 words. Will report back with my opinion, <3 thank you Kayla for whatever fuckery I am about to witness.

    • Sebastian Gutierrez may be best known for writing Snakes on a Plane, but he *should* be best known for his work with Carla Gugino, including the TV series Jett (also starring Gaite Jansen) and the movies Women in Trouble and Elektra Luxx. I absolutely loved Leopard Skin and dug the unusual structure. Amelia Eve is also pretty funny, which I definitely didn’t expect after Bly Manor.

  2. Reading Kayla’s review I expected a more confounding story but what I saw didn’t throw me. It turned me on. I agree with the sense of humor having some of Killing Eve’s elements but this seems next level. Reading through other reviews it seems like the writer director knows what he’s doing in terms of erotica so “The actual act of sex isn’t where Leopard Skin does its seduction; it’s in the games that come before” appears to be the entire point. It’s refreshingly positive about it.

  3. I was wondering when there would be a review of this show. It absolutely took me by surprise and I loved it, I couldn’t stop watching. It absolutely felt like a dream and I didn’t want to wake up.
    Also, it made me think of The Duke of Burgundy and if anyone has recs on the genre I’ll take it.

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