The Shadow Line
**If you haven’t seen The Shadow Line, and its currently available to watch on iPlayer in full, then don’t read as some major plot spoilers will be brought to light and anyone planning to watch the series who has yet to do so will sour on me and all bloggers discussing the show with the fury of a thousand suns. You have been warned. Also, if you’ve not watched, I haven’t spent much time explaining what happens, who it happens to and why it happens, so I reckon you’ll be super-lost and really not enjoy the experience both of reading this nor of watching the series after reading this.**
Hugo Blick’s The Shadow Line, the multi-starred and dense BBC conspiracy thriller, concluded last week in a fashion as bleak and downbeat as its style had intimated. As a work of quality drama for the BBC, it was among the best in recent memory. The corporation has delivered some decent work in the last year or two, but it’s crime and thriller work tends to err on the side of predictability. The best that we’ve been given has mostly been imported, from the superb Scandinavian pair of Wallander (remade without the panache of the original with Kenneth Branagh) and The Killing (now remade in the US, again lacking the chilly atmosphere inherent in certain crime fiction from that part of the world). Spiral is super-entertaining too, but the stuff the BBC has given us tends to be peppered with great performances but often is undercut by workman-like writing. It’s been some time since a truly absorbing, uncompromisingly intelligent and dense show has come around, going back a couple of years to the likes of State of Play but then you have to dig further to the immense political saga of House of Cards or the still astounding le Carre adaptation Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
The show also arrives amid a slew of shows, particularly from the US, though the original The Killing certainly falls into this category, which employ a very deliberate style of pacing. The Shadow Line’s first few episodes, in which Blick does much of the groundwork for the faster and more scattershot finale episodes, fall well in line with this trend. Perhaps the most talked about show from the US at present, HBO’s superlative Game of Thrones, came in for criticism in its early episodes for the slow pacing and exposition. The show, as brilliant summarised by Alan Sepinwall in writing about The Wire, teaches the audience how to watch it and then dumps you into the middle of the story. The first four episodes of Game of Thrones’ first season increase in pace and action, but are mostly concerned with setting out the groundwork for the rest of the season. Once this has been done, in the utterly incredible fifth episode, the show throws the audience into the middle of the world and gets moving on the plot. All of a sudden, the pacing takes a dramatic shift and all the expository scene-setting pays off in droves. It’s a criticism also levelled at AMC’s single-case The Killing. Much praised on its opening, its begun to frustrate viewers by being unable to decide whether to retain a slow and deliberate pacing or deliver constant plot twists, many of which end up being pointless and un-exciting due to the knowledge of television language most viewers will have – anyone whose seen any reasonable amount of TV will know that the killer isn’t going to be the man accused for three episodes running in the middle of the season. That show will be better when it can break free of the shackles of the Danish series it is, in some cases scene-for-scene, remaking.
Add to these AMC’s Rubicon, swiftly cancelled after a fanfare-ridden opening due to the audience falling out of love with its very slow pacing. I, for one, love that series and think it would have been a true masterpiece if given the time to proceed. But, again, it was a show that needed to compromise slightly more on providing the audience with moments of action to grasp onto. Mad Men, the single best show on TV right now, has a fourth season in which very little happens, but they’ve earned the ability to have episodes of people talking and interacting, of relationships between characters being subtly explored, because the show did so much groundwork in the early seasons that the stakes inherent in all the relationships (evidenced in the peerless ‘The Suitcase’) provide enough drama to sustain the audience without the need for action.
The Shadow Line’s opening episodes do a pretty masterful job of driving forward narrative threads while focusing mostly on expository character moments, setting up the groundwork for the remainder of the season. If the pacing feels a little forced at times, that’s mostly driven by the difference in episode quantities, with this series only given seven episodes to tell, what appears to me, a ten episode arc. This lack of episodes means that the pace has to quicken at times when you may not want it to and some characters and narrative moments are lost in the drive. But this series can still sit alongside those other deliberate works proudly, if that lack of episodes does mean that the overall quality and impact isn’t quite as memorable.
If nothing else, The Shadow Line is brilliantly made. The quality of cinematography and style on display is the equal of the higher-budget US imports we are treated to. Blick’s scripts are indulgent and clipped, full of long scenes of dialogue which appear to have taken cues from the crisp writing seen on shows like Mad Men or The Wire. The latter has been consistently compared with this series, a comparison which is both unfair and unhelpful. The Wire is sixty hours of television, unfolding in the form of five interlinked novels, and is, by my estimation and in the estimation of the majority of those to have devoted themselves to it, the greatest series of television ever created. The Shadow Line has ambitions well below that of The Wire. Blick, though focusing portions of the story on institutional corruption and including a side-narrative about the power of the press, crafts a narrative more in line with a mass market paperback thriller. He aims maybe a little higher than that, but the machinations that unfold are for entertainment and thrills. The Wire, unsurprisingly given their involvement in the writing of the show, has more in common with single-city crime authors like Richard Price, Denis Lehane or George Pelecanos plus the high-low society exploration of Dickens. The show is aiming, and strikes, much higher and so comparison are unfair.
The plot of The Shadow Line progresses in a fashion that is presented in a relatively new way, with certain character moments which don’t fall into the stereotypical category of crime and conspiracy shows. The wife (a fleetingly excellent Lesley Sharp) of Joseph Bede (Christopher Ecclestone), the flower salesman enlisted by drug dealers to run the operations as a clean business, has Alzheimer’s. That, in and of itself, is a different arc and motivation for the character, but the overarching profile is of the man in for one last score before he leaves the game. His eventual demise comes as little surprise when taken in the context of the rest of the show. Jay Wratten (Rafe Spall), the unhinged son of Harvey Wratten, whose murder marks the opening scene and stands as the macguffin of the entire show, begins the series looking like a typical, post-Joe Pesci violence merchant but slowly reveals there is more under the surface than we had been led to believe.
But the series goes on to pile on twist after twist, revealing more and more people as bad guys and throwing in certain moments which appear only to arrive to provide excitement within an episode but appear to have little to do with the grand picture. The death, in episode six, of the lovechild of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Jonah Gabriel during the attempted assassination of Stephen Rea’s Gatehouse by accident at the hand of elusive gangster Peter Glickman, doesn’t appear to have nearly any bearing whatsoever on proceedings. Gabriel himself appears upset at the time and at the funeral, but the remainder progresses as if that barely happened. For a show which spends so much time illustrating the horror of early onset Alzheimer’s for a childless couple, this seems like a startling oversight to fail to explore the devastation he and his mistress would feel at the death of their child in front of their eyes.
As things progress, more and more people become players in this too grand conspiracy. Pretty much everyone Gabriel works for and with appear to be involved in some way or another. The final scene of the show, in which Kierston Wareing’s Lia, up to this point the only trusted partner for Gabriel, murders Gabriel with a sniper rifle at the behest of Gatehouse, felt like one step too far. The reasons for the conspiracy to have started – a vast money laundering and drug dealing operation carried out by policeman with misguided altruism for the benefit of police pension funds – is convincing enough a reason, but doesn’t seem to be something that Wareing’s character would have fallen for. The portrayal of her up to that point was as a trusted and dedicated officer, so it seems unlikely she would so easily turncoat for a promotion and a payday in her sixties.
But where the plot twists and turns may become slightly tiresome, the style, writing and acting deliver on nearly all counts. Ecclestone is quietly excellent in his role, painting a persuasive if far-fetched character with pepperings of his time in kitchen-sink dramas. He appears entirely suited to his role as a drug dealer and is myopic enough to look away from the ugly side of things for the benefit of his home life. He’s ably supported by Rafe Spall. His performance has been the subject of much debate but I think it just about falls on the right side of cartoonish psychopathology. There are moments when his presence on screen is genuinely unsettling in spite of the hamming, particularly a disturbing early scene where he is threatening a pregnant woman.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is good enough, though if there is one weak link, he’s the place to start. He has a sense of earnestness which works well for the character (who has a bullet lodged in his skull and selective amnesia about how it got there) early on, but as layers are added and Gabriel becomes more compromised that seriousness starts to be a little wearing.
Best of everyone, and most indicative of the entire show, is Rea’s Gatehouse. A near-omnipotent force of evil, the character makes himself known two episodes in and progressively shifts from unsettling to downright terrifying. He murders multiple loose thread characters, threatens children and essentially anyone who gets in his way. He’s a brilliant creation, but at the same time, is so illustrative of exactly where this show diverges from any sense of realism. Gatehouse is a ridiculous being. Having been shot twice (not sure why further bullets were not fired to ensure the job got done, but there you go), Gatehouse is then set upon by another double-agent style character (Glickman’s mistress and the occasional extra-marital paramour of Bede). He lies in a hospital room and, as she prepares to murder him, he wakes up and kills her instead, then getting straight back to business. Bare in mind, this shooting and miraculous recovery comes shortly after Gatehouse is blown up by Glickman. He’s the T1000 of this world, a relentless, indestructible killing machine and completely unrealistic.
That may well be, but this show is entertaining as hell. It is very bleak and comes to its conclusion with everyone either dying or turning towards the dark side. But the journey to that point makes this feel like a starting point in Blick’s career for bigger, better things to come along in the future. His directing and writing are perfectly in sync with each other, as is the cinematography and cold style. The mistakes and mis-steps in the storytelling could be ironed out with more attempts. Over seven episodes, the level of conspiracy he is trying to write in is just too much, two steps too far, and he loses sight of some points in favour of focusing on the action and the twists. But the quality of the writing, particularly in terms of dialogue, is very high and, though this may have failed to connect with audiences in the way that it should have done – primarily due to its uncompromising portrayal of violence and its unswerving commitment to expository dialogue scenes in the first couple of instalments – Blick’s future in creating great drama looks very strong right now.