Sherlock S03E03: His Last Vow

A garbled mess that has no idea where it’s going or why, His Last Vow is the last nail in Sherlock’s coffin; a fall from grace so precipitous and a crying shame so heartrending that the very idea of reviewing it is almost unbearable to me. Her Ladyship has, however, done appalling things for the good of her readers in the past – watching the first episode of School of Thrones and finishing that ghastly intellectual nonentity Labyrinth being among them – so she shall therefore endeavour to write her review without keeling over, screaming or dying. If the latter does occur, however: ‘To God [her] soul. To Rafe Sadler [her] books.’

His Last Vow gets off to a very promising start as we are introduced to our villain of the piece, news giant and serial blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen, who has been called before a committee to explain why Number 10 has been blessed with his presence more times this year than has been deemed appropriate. Played by an excellent Lars Mikkelsen, he loves to play on what he calls people’s ‘pressure points,’ and has an icy, creepy, unblinking and utterly revolting charisma about him that reminds you somewhat of Tørk Hviid in Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. We’re soon apprised of the fact that he has a similar lack in scruples as he blackmails committee chairman Lady Elizabeth Smallwood (Lindsay Duncan) to rule in his favour, using some explicit letters that her husband once wrote to a fifteen-year-old girl as leverage. This leads Lady Smallwood to call at Baker Street and ask Sherlock to act as intermediary between them. A fatal mistake, it seems, as this is where the entire episode starts to collapse around our ears; a string of ridiculous coincidences involving Sherlock’s feigned relapse into his drug habits and his seduction of one of Mary’s bridesmaids leading to another string of ridiculous coincidences involving breaking into Magnussen’s office,  discovering that Magnussen is still in his office at the time of the break-in, smelling Lady Smallwood’s perfume on the air, assuming she’s there to kill him, and discovering that the lady with the gun is in fact Mary, who isn’t an adorable nurse, but an ex-CIA assassin who wants Magnussen dead because he’s threatening to blow the whistle. From then on out, the episode is plot point after ridiculous plot point, piled one on top of the other with all the grace of a university student’s laundry pile (or lack thereof); mercifully interspersed with one or two beautiful scenes and unmercifully overdosed with a huge pile of poorly-written, unrealistic, tiresome and pointless ones. Further pandemonium is then brought about by the fact that this is all held together by the spit and prayers of a line of liaison so fixed on where it wants to end up that it doesn’t care which convoluted, nonsensical and utterly stupid routes it has to adopt in order to get there…or at what cost.

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One of the best things about the first two seasons of Sherlock was the scrupulous, almost medical cleanliness of the way each episode was presented: beautifully stark; impeccably precise; complex, yet minimalistic; an indestructible glass house with a baroque darkness about the people living in it; modern London as much a living, breathing predator to Sherlock as Victorian London is to Holmes. The first two seasons embodied everything that is best in British crime drama: heavy on plot, heavy on character, heavy in an inexplicably addictive and redemptive way. They also embodied everything that was best about the Sherlock-John relationship: the infectious camaraderie; the old-married-couple bickering; the almost-always-unspoken symbiosis of it, delivered with minimal words and much action. All of this complexity was kept so perfectly balanced that it probably wouldn’t have collapsed if plonked down on the end of a pin and left to fend for itself.

Oh, the good old days.

Oh, the good old days.

The problem with His Last Vow is that this characteristic sense of control and balance, indeed all sense of control and balance, seems to have disappeared across the board. The episode and its characters are allowed to run riot, and to create scenes of such havoc that one is often left wondering whether one is watching a TV series, or a particularly tedious piece of contemporary art with the aim of demonstrating the chaos that populates a writer’s head prior to a story’s actually beginning to take logical shape. Everything that this episode tries to bring to the fore – the depth of Sherlock’s affection for John, and for Mary; the depth of John’s love for Mary; Mycroft’s true feelings about his embarrassing little brother; Sherlock’s penchant for self-sacrifice and the limitlessness of his brilliant brain – all of it is done in a painfully obvious, lamentably unsubtle, sometimes out-of-character and incredibly over-the-top way that suggests that the script of this episode was not ready to be written, let alone filmed. The whole miserable business is still at the stage where it belongs nowhere but the inside of Stephen Moffatt’s head, or at the very limit, in a heavily-password-protected file in the depths of his computer where it can embarrass no one but him. All writers have one, so why not use it?

It’s all very well to sit here on high complaining about The Last Vow, but it isn’t entirely fair to do so without suggesting possible solutions. How, then, could the mess have been rectified? By a process of intense de-cluttering.

Step 1: Get rid of Lady Elizabeth Smallwood and her husband’s creepy letters. It’s a way of linking Magnussen to Sherlock that is just too round-about, wastes too much time and disappears so quickly into the general confusion that by the time we meet Lady Smallwood again at the end of the episode, we’ve almost forgotten who she is. Doing this would mean compromising on her excellent blackmail scene with Magnussen, and depriving us of the joy of seeing two fine actors like Mikkelsen and Duncan in the same scene, but you can’t have everything, and everything is something this episode already has too much of. So instead of introducing Magnussen through Lady Smallwood and then moving on, make his blackmail of Mary the premise from the start. Do a scene with him and her in which we don’t know who he is (or why he’s blackmailing her), only that she’s there to kill him. Ensure that she is prevented in some way:  do an ‘emails get sent to the press if I die’ thing if absolutely necessary – though with a man of Magnussen’s reputation it would probably take a lifetime for his henchmen to work out which one of the ten thousand ruinous emails he has waiting should be sent in the first place. Anyway, an opening scene of this kind gives Magnussen a chance to show off his initial creepiness, and Mary a chance to show off her new-found mysteriousness.

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Step 2: Get Mary to ask Sherlock for help. Not only will this be an interesting investigation into their relationship (particularly if she blackmails him to keep him quiet; which seems more in character than simply begging him not to tell); but is also a good way to educate the audience about Magnussen without all that pointless mucking about with drug dens; Janine; breaking into Magnussen’s office, and Sherlock getting shot and hospitalised. Also, if you want to be really smart, don’t let the audience in immediately on what Mary’s being blackmailed for. All we need to know is that she considers it momentous enough to end her and John’s marriage, and that the evidence for whatever it is is being held in the vaults beneath Magnussen’s house.

Step 3: So Sherlock tells John, of course; or, as in the episode, finds a way for Mary to unwittingly reveal herself. He does this regardless of anything that he’s been threatened with, and John justifiably freaks out. Don’t switch locations halfway through these two occurrences: if anything, it cuts the tension in half instead of augmenting it. The build up to the conclusion that John’s attracted to psychopaths needs to be re-written completely: Sherlock asking him a bunch of questions and making his conclusions for him just doesn’t really cut it, and neither do John’s responses to him. Actually, since our present state of things doesn’t have Sherlock injured, or clueless as to Mary’s past, leave him out of the scene altogether. Make it a matter between John and Mary, and let them draw conclusions together. A bust-up between them would also be more evocative of character than the somewhat heartless ‘we decide if we want you’ scene. The idea of the flash disk key to Mary’s past is good: keep it.

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Step 4: Find some other way of getting Sherlock and John to Magnussen’s house. That entire Christmas scene, smoking scene, drugging the entire bloody Holmes family+Mary and taking a helicopter ride with Mycroft’s laptop in tow is both too much and too far-fetched for words. Of course this poses the problem of how to get their hands on Mycroft’s laptop without his noticing its absence, and how to barter it with Magnussen without Mary finding out about it (one assumes she would want to know something about how her salvation is being brought about, since in our version of events, she’s asked Sherlock for help). Since drugs clearly have to be in this episode somewhere, use them on Mycroft only and preferably at night, so that the contents of his laptop can be copied onto some mega flash disk à la the missile plans in The Great Game; otherwise onto an external hard drive. Totter off to Magnussen’s place; do the big reveal about his vaults being a mind palace, and hold on to the episode’s present ending if we absolutely have to see Sherlock commit another self-sacrifice. Otherwise, get Sherlock and John into the sort of trouble that usually befalls people who walk into psychopaths’ houses (preferably post-mind palace conversation) and do an ‘unknown shooter’ thing (as in A Study in Pink). Police are called, Sherlock and John go home happy, unknown shooter turns out to be Mary, to whom shooting through the bastard’s window had apparently never before occurred.

Step 5: End off with John saying he’s not going to read the flash disk about Mary’s past. Fin.

This version of events does deprive us of another chance to see Sherlock giving up everything for his friends, but after The Reichenbach Fall, even more self-sacrifice seems a bit excessive.

The Last Vow is not entirely shitty. It has some lovely moments, and a couple of truly brilliant ideas (i.e. Magnussen’s non-existent vaults beneath his home). Unfortunately, the way it’s all executed is so tangled, sloppy and headache-inducing that the good doesn’t even come close to redeeming the bad, and this season of Sherlock suffers for it; ending with a whimper rather than a bang.

Sherlock S03E02: The Sign of Three

Any wedding episode that manages to be totally lacking in corniness without having The Rains of Castamere on its playlist is a jewel, and while The Sign of Three is without doubt the most atypical of all Sherlock episodes in terms of just about everything, it has the distinction not only of being a jewel, but of being a remarkably well-thought-out and impeccably-structured rendering of a fiendishly-complicated plot, and a moving and hilarious bringing-to-light of everything that is good about the Sherlock-John relationship.

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It’s John and Mary’s wedding day, and Sherlock has found the build-up to the event rather distressing, for more reasons than one. Firstly, because of a deep-set fear (that he insists on denying) that John’s being a married man will spell the end of their partnership and will inevitably consign him to the gallows of haunting crime scenes with only a skull to talk to; secondly, because he has to make a speech as best man. His fears on the first count turn out to be groundless, most obviously because John can’t imagine a life without solving crimes, blogging about it and sniggering when Sherlock forgets his pants, but most importantly (and realistically) because John has had the good (and rare) fortune to fall in love with a woman who actually encourages their bromance (Sidebar: Mary is fucking awesome, she like totally sees that they’re both afraid things will change because of her, and likes to make them sneak around together like naughty schoolboys when she’s actually the person who planted the idea of doing the actual sneaking. But anyway.) As to Sherlock’s fears about the best man speech, well, those do turn out to be justified, and it is when confronted with a hall full of loud, half-drunk, oddly-shaped wedding guests and too nervous to be anything but himself, that Sherlock sets the ball rolling across a barrage of memorable cases, anecdotes and other totally sincere praises of the incomparable John Watson that takes an entire episode to navigate, and that soon transforms into one of the most important deductions of Sherlock’s life as it becomes clear that the wedding day is also one ingenious murderer’s personalised version of judgement day.

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Structuring an entire episode around a best man speech, and managing all the inevitable back and forth craziness incumbent upon such a structure, is a huge risk for any production to take: too much, and the audience can’t follow, too little, and the audience falls asleep. In the case of The Sign of Three, the risk pays off beautifully, and a sizeable chunk of the credit for that success goes to writer Stephen Thompson, who, despite his evident prowess and talent from a technical perspective, is also wildly imaginative and unfailingly good at bringing that imagination to the screen; most especially in the devices he employs to help us see what’s going on in Sherlock’s head; some of them classic, some of them entirely new. The most intelligent, and the most entertaining of these, is the lengthy scene involving Sherlock, a lecture hall full of women, Mycroft providing helpful hints from on high, and a surprise appearance by Irene Adler (defrocked), who is promptly told to ‘get out of my head, I’m busy!’ It’s a fantastic metaphor – and it looks good too.

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Whereas last week’s episode was definitely Martin Freeman’s in terms of acting, Sherlock belongs, this week, to Benedict Cumberbatch. Sherlock is utterly unpredictable in this episode (more so than usual, I mean); acting his charming, high-functioning-sociopathic self one minute, and unabashedly praising his friend with total and complete sincerity the next, to the point of making every person present burst into tears. The language might very well have seemed cringeworthy, and out-out-character in the hands of any other actor, but Cumberbatch delivers such a deadly combination of gravity, coldness, emotion and drama that the considerable amount of gut-spilling he does in the praising of John’s character is beautifully touching, and perhaps most importantly, perfectly believable in a character who prides himself on his own freedom from sentiment. Acting kudos also go to Amanda Abingdon, who is luminous, smart and hilarious as Mary, and to Alistair Petrie, who is tragic and charismatic as John’s ex-commander, Major Sholto.

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A huge improvement from last week across the board, The Sign of Three does nevertheless leave one wishing that something more would have happened, or at least that things might have been a bit less predictable. It’s a problem that also popped up in The Empty Hearse, but The Sign of Three is simply too much fun for me to throw my toys out of the cot about it. And there’s always next week; which, considering the story on which it is based, will more than make up for these rather glaring deficiencies in plot.

Sherlock S03E01: The Empty Hearse (Review)

Her Ladyship takes time off from her wanderings in the dark corridors of fan fiction to watch the premier episode of Sherlock season 3 and to reason from what she sees.

A singularly-strange and enjoyable little episode that feels a lot more like the product of the hugely-hyperactive and oft OTT pen of Steven Moffat than the darkly-intelligent work of its actual writer, Mark Gatiss, The Empty Hearse is big on chemistry, hugely entertaining and very promising of more awesomeness to come; yet falls a little flat in terms of plot, and of the mishandling of a few subtle but entirely basic Sherlock character traits that doesn’t quite seem pardonable in a show run by a pair of Holmes junkies.

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The Empty Hearse has a lot of fun ridiculing the many fan theories (both plausible and preposterous) that have popped up since the deeply-moving rooftop scene in The Reichenbach Fall that had most of us crying and screaming into our pillows for days after it was shown. None, however, is quite so much fun as the one we are introduced to first, in the episode’s engaging and utterly-badass opening sequence that brings us everything from the strategically-placed cyclist, to the bungee-rope-not-bungee-rope in Sherlock’s coat, to the Sherlock mask on Moriarty’s corpse; as well as a range of other awesomeness of which we shall not speak (except Sherlock crashing through the mortuary window and sticking his tongue down Molly’s throat. That part was too much fun not to mention). After the opening sequence, the show loses no time in informing us that Sherlock has been fully exonerated, post-mortem, of the charges trumped up by Moriarty, has spent the past two years dismantling the criminal genius’ network, and has been recalled to London from the depths of a Serbian torture chamber by his brother Mycroft, who wants him to investigate an imminent terrorist threat to the city. This, of course, means being reunited with John, who is newly-engaged, still grieving the loss of his best friend to the point of not having contacted Mrs Hudson for two years, and will probably be none too pleased that Sherlock has knowingly allowed him to go through hell. John’s reaction to the discovery that Sherlock is alive constitutes the main crux of the episode, and it is, most unfortunately, a double-edged sword of a focal point.

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First up, John. Martin Freeman’s acting is beautifully, movingly and vividly realistic. In John’s day-to-day existence he dons the grin-and-bear-it mask that so many bereaved people wear every day of their lives no matter how much it hurts. In his quieter moments of remembrance with his fiancée Mary (Amanda Abbingdon), and in the touchingly-garbled and emotional conversation that he has with Mrs Hudson when he finally works up the courage to visit 221B after Sherlock’s death, he starts to let us in more and more as to what he’s been thinking and feeling in coming to terms with the ‘aloneness’ of a world without Sherlock. It’s in his interaction with Sherlock himself, of course, that all hell truly breaks loose, and the naturally-volcanic chemistry between Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a whole lot of highly-emotional, heartrending and side-splitting scenes together, as John alternates between listening to Sherlock trying (and failing) to explain himself in an acceptable manner; and attempting to murder Sherlock in a variety of ways for what he has done.

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It is Sherlock’s half of the equation, regrettably, that just doesn’t feel right, and the problem lies in the script’s characterisation of him. Yes, we all know that Sherlock is a sociopath and has a near-autistic inability to understand or consider the feelings of others; and this may very well lead us to make the same conclusions, in terms of his character, that Gatiss has made in the script, i.e. Sherlock believes that John will be ‘delighted’ to discover that he is alive; doesn’t display anything that could reasonably be called remorse; is quite at a loss to understand why his friend doesn’t forgive him immediately; and is willing to resort to the most callous (if typical) of theatrics to bring John’s true feelings about him to the fore.

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‘If his theatrics are typical, then what’s the problem?’ The answer to that question is in the Reichenbach Fall itself. The pathos of that scene; the incredible emotion and tragedy of it; Sherlock’s willingness to destroy both himself and his reputation for the good of his friends; the fact that we see him crying towards the end of it; the usually stunted nature of his emotions transformed in the face of death, even though the great detective almost certainly knows, at that point, that he will not die: the idea of those emotions being simulated is, to Her Ladyship at least, absolutely unthinkable. Watching it, you’re really seized with the idea of separation being just as painful for Sherlock as it is for John (even if it isn’t, John not being about to die), and as a viewer, you’re granted a rare opportunity of seeing that, unburied beneath all Sherlock’s usual bullshit. I’m not saying that I wanted Sherlock to break down and be an emotional wreck for most of The Empty Hearse. Emotion is not something he does easily or lightly: but just one, tiny particle of a millisecond of acknowledgment of how hard it must have been for him to know that for two years, his friend was just a text away from being spared complete misery and heartache, would have rendered the Sherlock we see in this episode just a little more human, and would have ensured that the Reichenbach Fall itself, arguably the greatest scene ever between Sherlock and John, was not so shamelessly trivialised.
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The original short story on which this episode is based, The Empty House, succeeds marvellously at this particular aspect of Holmes’ character, even though he is faced with an entirely forgiving Watson who does nothing more alarming that faint at the sight of him. The short story manages to preserve both Holmes’ character, and the uncharacteristic expression of the depth of his regard for Watson. Let’s look at a quote:

“I had only one confidant – my brother Mycroft. I owe you many apologies, my dear Watson, but it was all-important that it should be thought I was dead, and it is quite certain that you would not have written so convincing an account of my unhappy end had you not yourself thought that it was true. Several times during the last three years I have taken up my pen to write to you, but always I feared lest your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret (…) I came over at once to London, called in my own person at Baker Street, threw Mrs Hudson into violent hysterics, and found that Mycroft had preserved my rooms and my papers exactly as they had always been. So it was, my dear Watson, that at two o’clock to-day I found myself in my old armchair in my own old room, and only wishing that I could have seen my old friend Watson in the other chair which he has so often adorned.”

In contemporary English: ‘I was scared that you’d do something stupid if you knew I was alive. I knew what you must have been going through, I missed you like hell, and I’m sorry.’ The short story preserves Holmes’ charming narcissism and high opinion of himself, while still presenting us with a touching apology and a sincere admission of guilt. Will somebody please explain to me why this could not be done convincingly in The Empty Hearse? True, Victorian men were much more vocal about their affections for their friends than contemporary ones, but the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock could easily have portrayed emotions parallel with those of the Conan-Doylian Holmes even without saying a word, and this could have been achieved with just a tad more attention to detail and subtlety in the script. I find it very hard to believe that a writing and production team working with an actor of Benedict Cumberbatch’s calibre could not find some way of doing this properly.

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But now I’m acting as though the entire episode was ruined by this one thing; and that is very far from the truth. Most of the scenes between John and Sherlock are an absolute joy to watch, thanks to the aforementioned Freeman-Cumberbatch chemistry, and as the original storyline of the terrorist plot on London becomes more and more submerged in the interaction between their characters, we find that we don’t mind very much at all. There is a wonderful scene involving Sherlock, John, a bomb and a railway cart (V for Vendetta?) that makes for phenomenal viewing thanks to its powerful acting (I don’t ship Sherlock and John as a couple, but I must confess to harbouring sentiments distinctly of the ‘just kiss him, already!’ persuasion while watching it). A pleasant surprise is the instant and seemingly-mutual respect that springs up between Sherlock, and John’s fiancée Mary, which should provide us with plenty of interesting interactions in future episodes; particularly in terms of the way it will no doubt develop when the time actually comes for John and Mary to get married. An unpleasant surprise is the recourse to terrible jokes and clichés for no apparent reason (what exactly was the point of making such a terrific fuss about Sherlock getting his coat back, à la Captain Jack Harkness in Torchwood: Children of Earth?). But, ultimately, The Empty Hearse is well-acted enough, and entertaining enough, to keep us wanting more, and to make us give the showrunners the benefit of the doubt thanks to the awesomeness of their previous material. Her Ladyship shall return next week, to find out if the game is afoot, or over.

Fear: Silent Witness S15E11+12 (Review)

While Fear does address a controversial and provocative issue with Silent Witness’ usual intelligence and brutal realism, it is rather wibbly-wobbly in terms of structure and writing; and at the episode’s close, leaves you wondering precisely what you’ve just experienced in a way that has nothing to do with the deliberate engagement of an audience’s bewilderment.

Jodie Comer as Eve.

Jodie Comer as Eve.

Following his break-up with Janet, an awful-looking Leo is press-ganged into taking some time off by Nikki and unwilling fellow-conspirator Harry (both once again rather lamentably under-represented in the proceedings) and ends up with his friend Sean, the psychiatrist who treated him following the deaths of his wife and child. Leo soon discovers that Sean is wrestling with the death of fifteen year old Eve, a pro-bono patient with whom he shared a deep bond (in an entirely non-creepy way) and whose death has been put down to Long QT Syndrome, a heart condition that is undetectable post mortem, leading to Sean himself refusing treatment for cancer. As a result of a subsequent deal between the two men that Sean will seek treatment if Leo investigates Eve’s death, Leo is soon half-drowning in a sea of Catholic guilt and violent family frustration that eventually boils down to Eve having died of stress following an exorcism.

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The episode’s ultimate strength lies in shining a spotlight on an issue that most of us, particularly non-Catholics, don’t even think about outside the movies. Exorcism’s complexity is revealed to us by cold, statistical fact in Leo’s assertion that each Catholic diocese is equipped with an exorcist, as well as the rather alarming number of exorcisms that take place each year; and in its opposite, the portrayal of what actually goes on during such rituals. Jodie Comer as Eve is all intense sincerity and cold hysteria (when you see her, you’ll see what I mean) in portraying a young teenager convinced she’s possessed, and the episode’s centerpiece is without doubt her exorcism itself, a deeply upsetting and frankly horrifying couple of minutes that seem like hours.

Fear also somehow finds time to bring us back to the question we’ve been circling around for the whole of series 15: do pathologists understand death? Ultimately, when Leo’s self-assured question that ‘if we don’t understand that [death], then what do we understand?’ is met by an uncomfortable, almost pitying silence by Nikki and Harry, we realise, for sure, what we’ve known all along. Pathologists don’t know anything more about death than the rest of us. In Leo’s words, ‘we’ll never understand why.’

All through this episode, however, you can’t quite shake the idea that the writers are making it up as they go along. The episode whizzes here and there without much explanation, drags inexplicably and often leaves you struggling to ascertain precisely how a certain conclusion was drawn, or how we’ve ended up where we are. The script is a primary school scribbling compared to Death Has No Dominion and Redhill, the presence of two screenwriters not doing much to allay the general confusion.

All in all, despite the wibbly-wobbly script and the somewhat odd ending, Fear accomplishes what it meant to do in terms of showing the many faces and motivations behind exorcism, and could have been the best episode in the series with just a little more effort.

Redhill: Silent Witness S15E9+10

This week’s Silent Witness gives us a good old fashioned prison conspiracy headily infused with multiple narrative levels, emotional blackmail and vicious brutality, as well as a brilliant rendering of a classic mystery-story attribute that is harder and harder to achieve convincingly nowadays: a culprit that you never suspect for one second.

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When a semi-intoxicated Leo stumbles upon a dying prison inspector, he starts to uncover the whole murderous mess that got her killed in the first place. The suspicious death of a child murderer at the disreputable Redhill prison, his suspiciously-helpful sister, the dirt-spattered service record of gratuitously violent prison guard Daniel Kessler (Leo Gregory) and an overconfident DI who seems just a bit too eager to look the other way all create a sinister silence on the subject of the prison that is eventually shattered into a million pieces by disembodied screams of indignation as to what is actually happening inside its walls. While immersing himself in these issues surrounding the prison system, Leo tries harder and harder to ignore his own feeling of being a nomad in the composition of his own life, a feeling that gives him a perpetual aura of bursting at the seams with emotions too complicated to classify. Each separate thread of this complex tapestry is perfectly singled out and incorporated into the sprawling whole with great skill by screenwriter Ed Whitmore in what I would not hesitate to call the best episode this season.

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Leo Gregory is the undisputed star of the show as prison guard Kessler: a towering and utterly repulsive screen presence, his mad unpredictability, threats and usually horrific outbursts of violence embodying this show’s characteristic ability to use the threats and sounds of violence to create an atmosphere that is infinitely more horrible than an actual portrayal of the violence itself could ever be. His character, however, also gets to spend a lot of time perpetrating this violence as well as threatening it, so expect a considerable assault on both your nerves and your retinae. Gregory’s ability to make an audience avert its face along with a character is truly impressive, and this capacity to get right into an audience’s space will no doubt serve him well on whatever material he sinks his teeth into in future.

This episode also gives William Gaminara a chance to make Leo the most interesting that he ever gets without you wanting to punch the stuffiness out of him, and his statement to his partner Janet at the end of the episode, ‘I just don’t live here anymore,’ is a moving and evocative statement as to Leo’s feelings regarding his place in the world. In the course of season 15, he’s become more and more unpredictable, but it is in this episode more than any other that we truly witness a vision of a man who has seen too much and has finally given up. His life ended with the lives of his wife and child, and I think that in this episode, he realises that in spite of all his efforts, he’s not getting it back. The police aren’t going to arrive faster; criminals aren’t going to stop murdering women and children; and the world is never going to be just. We’ll just have to see where this realisation takes him; if anywhere.

Beautifully and disturbingly filmed, well-acted and even more brilliantly written, Redhill is physical and emotional violence incarnate; an original, perfectly-structured, fresh and new spin on a very old, yet eternally relevant question.

Afterword

It has come to my attention that the idiots at BBC Entertainment seem to be screening this season of Silent Witness in the wrong order. The episode numbers in my review titles will therefore not correspond with official episode lists.

Paradise Lost: Silent Witness S15E5+6 – Review

Harry, Nikki and Leo aghast at the state of Arnold Mears' brain.Photo credit: Imageshack.

Harry, Nikki and Leo aghast at the state of Arnold Mears’ brain.
Photo credit: Imageshack.

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.

And Then I Fell In Love…Silent Witness S15E3+4 – Review

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.

Adorable, but...

Adorable, but…

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.