The dominant theme pervading each aspect of last season’s premier was depression: this time, it’s death, as Nikki, Harry and Leo navigate a grey mist of suicide, serial murder and loss in this complex opener of Silent Witness season 15.
The many tiny, silken and vitally important threads of the episode’s spider web plot are established in a beautifully contrasted opening sequence of seemingly unrelated events filmed in the series’ characteristic disjointed, arthouse style. In voice over, Nikki reads Dylan Thomas’ poem And Death Shall Have No Dominion with iron composure at her father’s memorial service, her voice resonating through the beautiful, near empty cathedral; through the brutal murder of a pathologist at a crime scene the police were meant to have secured; through the subsequent, deafeningly silent suicide of her grieving sister; through a policeman gazing fixedly at an enormous image of a demonic-looking woman; and even through the pulsing death metal of violent young men packing up knives and stun guns. The sequence introduces early on the many different forms and effects of death that will build up in the episode like a house of cards, as well as the theme of the importance of the cooperation between police and pathology. In this episode, the character who comes to embody both these themes is Leo, as the pathologist’s sister who committed suicide was a close friend of his who is erroneously believed to have misled the police, sending him into a grief-driven mistrust of the police that reaches paranoid proportions, creating plenty of awkward moments as Nikki and Harry try to calm him down.
These two themes continue to work side by side as the plot of the episode is introduced, and the team’s investigation of a triple murder involving the suffocation of a child and the rape and immolation of a young woman puts them smack bang into the middle of a twelve year old police enquiry charged with tracking and capturing a serial killer known as The Wraith (awesomest serial killer name EVER), who gets her kicks from goading lower criminals into committing horrific crimes and watching them do it. The dynamic between master and accomplice comes to personify the different dynamics that police and pathology have with death. The dark, existential obsession of the police working on the Wraith Inquiry, exemplified by a frankly horrifying identikit of the killer that hangs permanently in their offices, shows a willingness to glamorize death, to make it ghastlier, more compelling, more interesting than it is. The Wraith is often referred to in devil-like or demonic imagery, turning her into a sort of ‘poster’ representative of death. Pathology’s view on death is given to us straight by Harry: try as we might to make death fascinatingly horrible, it often turns out to be disappointing: the most boring theory tends to be the right one, so that death rarely lives up to the big deal we make of it. This ‘disappointment’ is the Wraith’s accomplice, the triple murderer, a spoilt and frankly idiotic mother’s boy who has created a sort of army base from his room and likes to believe he’s damaged, disturbed and gangster. As complex as all this is, it can’t hope to tell us everything about how people who work around death each day of their lives actually see it; when work ends, when home begins. In this episode, Leo lost a friend – he’s also lost his wife and child; Nikki’s lost both her parents, her father’s death ending almost two decades of abandonment; last season, Harry lost a lover and her unborn child. They all wade neck-high in death, and though death is now the center of everything in both their personal and professional lives, they mourn, and keep buggering on. This, I believe, is the ultimate triumph of the pathologist’s standpoint on death: death has no dominion.
The complex plot made this episode extremely plot-centric, and while the plot itself is flawless, acting, character interaction and the series’ usually perfect equilibrium suffers because of it. The only person we really spend some quality time with is Leo, and this is my major complaint. Making Leo the protagonist in a season premier is a really bad idea: as a character, he is not half as interesting as Nikki or Harry, and in my experience, episodes focusing on either of them tend to be exponentially better overall than those focusing on Leo. There is also the fact that cannot be helped of Emilia Fox and Tom Ward both possessing an effortless charisma that simply makes both of them much more compelling to watch than poor William Gaminara. It was also going to be extremely difficult to live up to the artistry of last season’s incredible premier episode, and in committing the above errors, this goal has not been accomplished. Nevertheless, it’s a mesmerizing episode with a number of shocking twists right at the end that sport playfully with the viewer’s composure and promise us that the rest of this season is going to be absolutely enthralling.
*BBC Entertainment obligingly screens Silent Witness in a double bill, said double bill being what I mean when I say ‘the episode.’