It is perhaps understandable that after last week’s labyrinthine plot, the producers of Silent Witness thought going for something a lot simpler in this week’s episode would help give the audience a bit of a rest before things get really dark again: the TV equivalent of the gatekeeper scene in Macbeth. They have, to a certain extent, attained that goal, but what results in this episode focusing on a ring of British Pakistanis that kidnap white teenaged girls for prostitution is a creation that leaves you emotionally disconnected rather than desensitized.
The episode starts out on a rather jokey note with Harry calling Nikki from a temporary sleeping arrangement on his bathroom floor because of the frankly alarming racket that the builders next door are making. This is juxtaposed with the flight through the streets of a half-dressed and haggard young woman who is eventually hit by a car a couple of feet away from where Nikki has been chatting to Harry on the phone. As Nikki succeeds in resuscitating her, Harry’s bathroom blows up. Cut to opening credits, and thus endeth the last part of this episode that seems to make structural sense.
Here’s what I mean by structural sense. Huge chunks of this double bill are devoted to the process by which pimps woo and lure their captives: charm, shopping, clubbing, drugs. We also see a lot to do with the dangers of Facebook in aiding these criminals in finding victims, keeping tabs on them once they’re in the ‘recruitment’ process and terrorizing them if they happen to escape. All this is recreated with the noblest of intentions, and I fully support the role television can play and has to play in preventing these kinds of tragedies from taking place. The problem is that it’s all done with a lack of subtlety that is unworthy of this show and that even the dimmest teenager could see through right away.
The actual plot of the episode appears to have been structured around the contents of a Wikipedia article about seducing teenaged girls for prostitution when it should have been the other way round. The ‘seduction’ sequences drag and bore us to tears: surely for them to be effective, we should be on the edge of our seats during each of them muttering ‘Run away run away run away’ under our breath. Even the rape scenes, which are filmed from the drugged victim’s point of view, completely lack the pathos of such a perspective despite their being filmed in a vivid stream of consciousness style. And yes, we could say that the intention here is to represent the numbness of a victim rather than the pathos of an atrocity, but why choose either? Personally, I feel that rape has no place on television at all, and that suggesting it is always more effective than portraying it if you want to get a message across. Unfortunately, the whole point of this episode seems to have been getting a message across, and that, regrettably, is its most basic weakness.
Another issue that this episode could have delved into better and come out on top with is the issue of race hatred, which is mentioned twice, I think, in the entire double bill. Silent Witness has always done a terrific job on issues affecting immigrant, often closed communities in London, as well as their complex and sometimes catastrophic relationships with the ideology of their adopted country, such as 2008’s exquisite Judgement, which addressed a series of brutal homophobic murders inside a London community of Hassidic Jews. The British Pakistani sex offenders in this episode have a hatred of ‘white girls’ that is not explained beyond the observation that they’re all ‘whores’. Race hatred is an incredibly complex issue and the motives behind it can often make your head spin. During this episode, I was just confused, and considering the series’ aforementioned aptitude in dealing with the complexity of race hatred, I was also rather disappointed. A lot more trouble could have been taken.
BUT: all is not bad. Outstanding acting from many of the younger actresses playing rape victims, particularly Amy Wren as Shannon Kelly and Chloe Cuthill as Hannah. Much relief from boredom in Nikki’s decision to let Harry move in with her while his flat is being fixed, their scenes together boasting their usual playful and electrifying chemistry so that these small parts of the episode end up sparkling like stars in an otherwise muddy firmament.
While still far and away better than any episode of CSI, this is not the best that Silent Witness can do, and I hope to see a return of glorious existentialist script and incandescent acting in next week’s episode.