No Sense of an Ending

Warning: This piece contains spoilers for the 2014 series Amber, 2014 series The Missing and 2018 series Kiri.

There has been a trend in recent years for drama series to give is slightly more nuanced endings than we have sometimes expected. Perhaps all the questions haven’t been answered. Perhaps its unclear by the end, which characters have behaved in a honourable fashion. We’ve had heroes. We’ve had anti-heroes.

And then there are series where the story just isn’t neatly wrapped up. Sometimes that might because the way the show was produced meant it wasn’t possible (e.g. Lost – where writers needing to write 20 episodes a year neither kept track nor really cared if there wasn’t an ending that made sense), or because the writer wanted to leave things that way.

We know that real life doesn’t come neatly packaged up. A terrible murder is committed, but the police never catch the killer. Years after someone is convicted, evidence shows a wrongful conviction and someone is freed. (How many other wrongful convictions are there?)

A good example of this would be the RTÉ 4-part series Amber. I saw it when it was broadcast on BBC Four in the UK. It follows the story of a young teenager who has gone missing. We saw the story over an extended period of time, starting in the immediate hours and days, and then running into weeks and months after the disappearance. In the end, we never truly discovered what happened to the girl. And that’s probably realistic in many cases of disappearance. Did the person run away? Were they murdered? Who knows.

BBC One’s The Missing also entered similar territory, again leaving us with no satisfying conclusion after eight hours of television.

It’s certainly brave television making. Audiences tend to expect murder series to resolve the key plot points – who murdered who and why. Ideally they also want to see the murderer caught.

I want my television to make demands of me. I know that murderers aren’t all caught, and missing people aren’t always found. There are miscarriages of justice, and there are cases of poor policing.

But that doesn’t really excuse not providing an ending of any kind after I’ve made an investment in a series. Jack Thorne’s Kiri is a case in point. The series is about the disappearance and murder of a young girl. She’s a black child living with white foster parents, but has let the child visit her birth grandparents where the child is able to meet her birth father despite the social worker believing the parent and grandparent to be estranged.

When the child is reported missing and then is found dead, suspicion falls on the father, who has been found guilty of neglect and other drug offences. He runs away, but is persuaded to hand himself in, and due process is then followed.

The tale is tragic on many levels, since a “good” social worker loses her job, the father is revealed not to have been the murderer and true murderer – the foster father – is never caught by the police, his family covering up his heinous crime.

The whole piece is immaculately acted by a strong cast, and the direction gives a good sense of setting around Bristol. This is a classy piece of work. It also examines race, class, social workers and the police. And the story is pacily told. This might be four hours of drama, but it never sits still. The dialogue is authentic and its genuinely a lean piece.

And yet, it didn’t have an ending that could be called in any way satisfying. As the true details of events were slowly released to us as viewers, we obviously rooted for the police to capture the true murderer, and yet as the clock ticked on towards 10pm in the final episode, it was clear that this wasn’t going to happen.

OK. So the murderer gets off. What about the innocent father? Things aren’t looking good for him, despite evidence existing that showed that the foster mother lied to police to put the blame squarely on him. Well we never find out, because the last we see of him is showing up at court.

Is he found guilty? We don’t know.

Does the foster mother, who has had the truth heavily hinted at by her oddball son, leave her murderous husband? We don’t know.

Does the son who knows everything, tell anyone what he knows? We don’t know.

I think it was the fact that we weren’t told the outcome to the trial that really annoys me. Of course life isn’t neatly wrapped up. But there is a court case, and we surely deserve the right to learn what happened. If the series was true to form, the birth father would have been wrongly found guilty, but even that we viewers were denied.

This just left me generally nonplussed by the entire story. While this wasn’t a police procedural, and a series of pat solutions would have been wrong, I just feel that the story really had no ending at all.

Happy Valley

I’m not certain why it is that I started watching Happy Valley. I knew that it was written by Sally Wrainwright, who most recently had written two series of Last Tango in Halifax. Except that I’ve not watched that series (something I may be correcting fairly soon).

It starred Sarah Lancashire, an actress who I’ve come across, but not been especially excited about ever. Indeed, I thought, mistakenly, that she’d won her fame in Coronation Street. But that’s not true.

But a brief sitdown with Bill and company on the BBC Breakfast sofa persuaded me that I should watch and from the first scene in which Lancashire’s police sergeant Catherine Cawood has to deal with someone threatening to set fire to themselves in a kids’ playground, I was hooked.

Happy Valley is easily the best thing on television at the moment, and it airs its final episode tonight.

Saying that I “enjoy” the series is a bit misleading, because it’s grim up north. The West Yorkshire town it’s set in seems to have a pretty nasty drugs problem, and in general a lot of ne’er do wells. Cawood deals with them in her stride. But, initially at least, we also follow a few other characters and their stories.

There’s Kevin Wetherill (Steve Pemberton), an accountant in a local firm who believes his boss, Nevison Gallagher (George Costigan) is being unfair in not giving him a rise so that he can afford to send his kids to a nicer school than the local comprehensive. So, in a fit of pique as much as anything, he dreams up a plot to kidnap his boss’s daughter.

Then there’s Ashley Cowgill (Joe Armstrong), a local caravan park owner who’s really dealing in drugs. He employs some dodgy characters – notably Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), who’s just been released from prison. Cawood blames him for causing her daughter to commit suicide following what she suspects was a rape that left her daughter pregnant with the son she now brings up.

The broader cast are all really good. I believe a certain number have graduated from soaps, but there’s the right amount of experience and freshness that means everyone’s on the top of their game.

At first the plot was a little disparate, but as the episodes passed, the strands tied together, and you ended up with a very nasty little thriller that is just beautifully written, directed and performed.

It’s hard to say exactly why I think it’s worked so well. But I think the characterisation is simply superb. Everyone feels real, and have real conversations with one another. It’s not just about pushing the plot forward, but giving the characters time to breathe.

And despite lots of events happening, the obvious tropes aren’t followed through. Any character who has an affair with another character in most dramas tends to get found out. Here we have Cawood sleeping with her ex, even though he now has a new partner, and in the end they just both put it down to a mistake.

Cawood’s sister is an ex addict, and in far too many dramas, that would lead to some kind of scene in which she falls back into the old ways. Something would “push her over the edge.”

There is the much quoted Chekov:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

But too much television follows that rule religiously. We’ve seen too many productions. We know how it works now. Yet real life doesn’t work like that, and if you’re trying to produce true characterisations, we’re going to be given information that really is surplus to requirement and doesn’t drive the narrative forward.

And it’s that characterisation that I like about this programme. Another example. Cawood drives her car around a fair bit, and since she’s mostly on her own in the car, she has conversations over the police radio about the usual kind of office tittle tattle. It’s meaningless, but it’s an accurate reflection of what most workplaces are like. And the petty bureaucracy is revealed too.

Stories unfold rather than in big exposition dumps. You slowly learn about backstories. That said, that initial scene I mentioned above, does cleverly incorporate a great deal of exposition hidden inside a little speech from the forthright Cawood.

The other thing about the programme is that you’re never entirely sure what direction it’s headed in. Will the criminals’ plans work, or go awry?

Even the credit sequences and Jake Bugg sung theme add to it all.

Is it all believable? Probably not. When a certain event happens, it’s rare enough that I believe the whole of West Yorkshire would be knee deep in police dragged in from miles around. And I suspect that if a dangerous criminal is on the loose, the police would be forced to pair up at the very least.

But these are niggles really.

The obvious comparison would be Broadchurch, a series that got much more broadsheet coverage than this. Another small community; another ghastly crime. We know who the criminals are here, but we don’t know how it’ll be resolved. And because just about anything could happen, I’ll be glued to my sofa tonight to see…