This week’s Silent Witness is a merciful return to brilliance after last week’s yawn-fest and fits neatly into the great crime tradition of serial killers inspired by literature with great originality, replacing the usual culprit (Dante’s Inferno) with a new, but infinitely appropriate one – Paradise Lost.
In this episode, an annoyed Nikki’s chance encounter with the guy fixing the air-conditioning at the lab leads her to Annie Farmer (an excellent Rakie Ayola), a single mother under the ominous spell of convicted serial killer Arnold Mears (James Cosmo). He’s a Paradise Lost-obsessed master manipulator who gets his kicks controlling her from his prison cell by sending her hunting for human bones (‘souvenirs’) as a kind of grotesque ‘test’; a prelude to him telling her where he’s buried the bodies of his victims that are still unaccounted for. Annie does this from a deep sense of duty to help end the agony of the girls’ families, and, we learn later, because she believes (erroneously or not – we’re never told) that Mears is behind the disappearance of her sixteen year old daughter. Ayola’s magnificent face tells us far more than her simple, but moving dialogue as she alternates between half-hysterical pleading and dead-pan acceptance. Running parallel to this plotline, in the form of the disgrace of one of Nikki’s mentors, whose obsession with challenging the very fabric of neonatal pathology itself eventually drives her to madness and suicide, is the eternal question of what makes a pathologist and what makes a butcher, and that of the desperation of chasing an idea.
James Cosmo is electrifying as Mears. Having only seen him in bit parts as unimpressive one-dimensional characters on Merlin and Game of Thrones, this part is a great relief. He truly embraces the complexity and the nauseating, hair-raising personality of Mears; the pure, demonic evil smoldering from his eyes making you recall Nikki’s lines to Harry a lifetime ago: ‘there was something so evil about it all, it felt contagious.’ His voice-overs reading Paradise Lost, which continue throughout the episode, seem to infect its atmosphere like poisonous smog; the control he exercises on those he manipulates so subtle that at first, you hardly notice it’s there. Don’t miss his magnificent duel of wits with Nikki towards the end of the double bill: both Cosmo and Emilia Fox give their great, volcanic all in the scene and you can literally hear the deafening racket of these two titanic intelligences colliding; one a monster who thinks he’s a scientist, the other a human being who knows she is.
This double bill does a very good job of supporting the narrative in a serial killer story in which you already know whodunit, and abounds with that precise, moving, tasteful use of understatement that it lacked last week, most especially in Leo’s autopsy on a six month old baby, in which you see almost nothing but the tiny plastic sheet covering the infant – a haunting, harrowing image. My only complaint is precisely that of the previous two weeks: this program isn’t as ‘loaded’ as it used to be. There’s too much plot and not enough character; usually what makes this program stand out is its ability to make both work side by side so intensely that by the end of the double bill you’re exhausted and begging for mercy. So: great acting, great script. But next week, I’d like something more personal for Nikki, Harry and Leo.