The Europeans, whose procedurals and espionage-thrillers are, let’s face it, miles ahead of their Hollywood counterparts in writing, acting and mystery, have long been the leaders in their use of strong female characters – as both protagonist and antagonist. But now, with the centuries overdue call of #TimesUp, it’s a unique time to see how show runners and creators change and adapt their storylines, casting and outcomes as the tide washes over our culture and resulting media offerings. Two shows recently came out…within weeks of each other…AMC’s MI-6 thriller, “Killing Eve” and BBC Wales’ (here on Acorn TV) murder procedural, “Hidden” (also known by its Welsh name, “Craith”).
These series are relevant to the conversation because they are both very, very good, both very, very popular and have strong female protagonists. Yet while one has women leading the way (“Eve”), the other (“Hidden”) has decided to show us all that is wrong with the older (or status quo) ways by portraying many of its female characters as victims. To be fair, “Hidden”, like “Hinterland”, was shot twice, once in Welsh and the other in English (try acting the same scene twice in two languages for a whole season, go ahead, I dare ya), with the Welsh version originally airing back in January, so we can be reasonably certain it had its production start either before or just as the movement began to make a difference. Nonetheless, I binged both concurrently, so the comparisons were both obvious and stark.
As for the shows themselves…let’s delve in to the nitty gritty…
“Killing Eve” (AMC)
Created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Within the first ten minutes of “Killing Eve” you’ll know you’re in for an indie-feeling, irreverent ride. How? Because if you watch as much television as I do, you’ll recognize bits and pieces of “Preacher”, “Mr. Robot”, “Berlin Station” and even “SMILF”. Borrowing production elements from various shows is nothing new, but Waller-Bridge has accomplished something special. She’s taken a series of mystery novels (the Villanelle series by Luke Jennings), utilized some of the best new tools out there and crafted something that feels truly original, and of a new cultural paradigm. It is not a parody or farce. It is not a comedy. The stakes are enormous, fear is warranted, the laughs are human, the characters are numerous and unique, and death feels like real death, not make believe. Its eight episodes pass quickly yet you will feel satiated upon its completion…if not a little disappointed that we have to wait until the next season.
A large percentage of this success comes down to the imagination of Waller-Bridge, an actress most of you know as the voice of the revolutionary droid, L3-37, in “Solo” and, of course, writer, creator and title character in the Amazon Prime series, “Fleabag”. And since the most sexually and inappropriately put upon, and vocal, of those in the new Hollywood dynamic (long may it reign!) are those usually in front of the camera, it’s no wonder that we’re seeing more and more female-centric series and films spearheaded by actors who have moved behind it. And here she’s brought along a beautiful and profound sense of empathy for the ride…well…at least for the women in the story. The men don’t fare as well (unless they are bi or young). More importantly, the idea of nurture over nature as the deciding factor of what makes a woman, is at its core (and its message). And by writing the most important episodes herself, she has made certain that all the many ways of looking at adversarial relationships within the context of meaningful relationship, are crystal clear. As a result it is a very humanistic thing to watch, no matter how outrageous some of the situations are. It’s a beautiful balancing act, and it is what makes the show feel as unique as it does.
Of course NONE of this would matter or even be noticeable without great performances, several of which exist here. Sandra Oh received a (well deserved) Emmy nomination for her portrayal of American MI6 operative, Eve. She reminds me of so many of my female friends. She’s real, curious, studied, exhausted, heroic, and, mostly, empathetic. And Ms. Oh carries it all off without showing an iota of technique. But, equally deserving of award consideration, in my mind, is Jodie Comer. Like Tatiana Maslany’s Sarah Manning (et al), in “Orphan Black”, Comer must convincingly pull off several personas, and personality traits, but within the confines of a single person, all while never pushing beyond the limits of our suspension of disbelief. It is her performance that has not yet left my head since I completed the series over a week ago. Hats off, as well, to Fiona Shaw (Aunt Petunia from the “Harry Potter” series), who has taken a stock spy-story archetype and made her unpredictable, hypnotic and funny. As for the men, they’re all fine, but the standout is the amazing Kim Bodnia, who was half of the team (the Danish half) that made the first two seasons of “The Bridge” so unforgettable.
And then there is the music, or rather, the songs. Out of context, I’m not a fan of it, or the band most of it is chosen from, Unloved. But within the framework of the show, it’s perfectly chosen and makes that irreverence I talked about earlier, all the more apt.
Created by Mark Andrew and Ed Talfan
So, “Hidden” is in no way indie-feeling or irreverent. It is, however, stark, brutal and mysterious – like many of the best British murder mysteries. Alas, most of that brutality comes at the expense of a few seemingly helpless women, thus the ugly yang to “Killing Eve’s” bright yin.
But it’s good and has been compared favorably to “Broadchurch”. In many ways it’s not a bad comparison…at least to the first season of that show. It is equally creepy, sufficiently surprising and revolves around well-detailed family structures. The difference, however, is that while “Broadchurch” is told almost exclusively from the point of view of Tennant & Colman’s DI Hardy & DCI Miller. “Hidden” gives us a POV from each of its individuals and their families, while consistently tackling the same nature/nurture balance we see in “Eve”. Considering it’s only eight episodes long, that’s pretty remarkable. AND, it keeps us surprised and invested even while showing us who the bad guy is, and what he’s up to, from the very first frames of the show. In fact, the entire fourth episode is dedicated (quite needlessly, I thought) to the very horrible shit he does. Just so you are aware, NONE of his actions involve gore or mutilation. But that doesn’t make it any less difficult to watch. In fact, it’s much more difficult since our belief is in no way challenged by fake blood. We know these crimes could and do happen. It’s a shame that particular episode exists, actually, because when the BBC thinks it necessary to warn people that “what they are about to see may upset viewers”, it can’t help but take away from an otherwise really well put together show.
None of this is the fault of the performers, who, again, had to shoot every scene twice, once in Welsh and once in English! Our lead detective and protagonist is Sian Reese-Williams. She’s no Nicola Walker (“Unforgotten”, “MI-5”), Olivia Colman (“Broadchurch”, the next wearer of “The Crown”), or Sarah Lancashire (“Happy Valley”), but then again, who is? She is, however, a reasonable, bad-ass and angry counterpoint to the overarching patriarchal setup of rural and/or poverty-stricken Welsh culture. We’ll be seeing a lot more of her in shows that aren’t made for a Welsh speaking audience in the future, I imagine. Our villain is played with utter conviction, subtlety and creepiness by one of the strangest looking blokes on TV, Rhodri Meilir. He is not unlike a car crash…even though you know his nurture totally screwed up his nature, you can’t keep your eyes off him. He’s got my vote for worst villain of this century, but not because of histrionics, but because he’s SO very human in action – the quintessential “he was a quiet lad”. But, jeeezus, what this script puts Gwyneth Keyworth, Lois Meleri-Jones and Lara Catrin through, just to show us how awful that culture is. It must be said…it’s a tough watch. Other performances don’t fare quite as well, but there are enough reasonably good character actors to keep you in the environment throughout. And kudos to long-time character actor, Mark Lewis Jones, for maybe the best scene-work in the entire show.
John Hardy wrote the terrific score. It’s disconcerting and unsettling music, as it should be. But it’s all done with the subtlety necessary to accentuate the character’s traits. It’s also terrific music to write to, which is neither here nor there, but it sure helped me write this post. Oh, and the theme song shoots to the top of my favorite UK TV themes…well, maybe not “Foyle’s War”, but close.
Look ,I’m not giving anything away by saying that in the end womanhood proves stronger, and that all the men show themselves to be ruled by cowardice. But it sure is a tough road to hoe. A compelling and well performed one, to be sure, but exhausting. “Hidden”, while really very good, is for the staunchest of Brit mystery fans, or those who prefer that their cop shows stick to emotional violence as its main weapon of choice (if certainly not the only).
Written on August 9, 2018