31 July 2017

Shetland: Attending to the Consequences of Violence


From now on, whenever someone argues that their story or tv episode or movie or whatever absolutely couldn't possibly work without a graphic rape scene, I will think of episode 5 of the third series of the BBC show Shetland. The episode includes the kidnapping and rape of a regular series character. But we don't even see the kidnapping, only the moments leading up to it and then other characters' growing concern over the disappearance. She reappears, walking barefoot to a Glasgow police station, and at first there is relief: She's safe and she doesn't seem harmed. And then she tells the series' main character, DI Perez, that evidence will need to be collected. The rest of the episode and much of the final episode pay careful attention to her and her colleagues' work to come to grips with the event. The drama plays out through dialogue and restrained, thoughtful acting.

I tend to watch murder shows with dinner. I'm quite used to munching away amidst fictional gore. But as I watched this episode of Shetland, my dinner got cold. It was riveting, moving, and thought-provoking in a way more blood & guts shows are not. It grappled with the personal and legal consequences of sexual assault (and not just to this one character) in ways I don't remember seeing on tv before.


Shetland began as an adaptation of some novels by Ann Cleeves (which I haven't read), but series 3 took a turn away from the established format of adapting a Cleeves novel into two hour-long episodes. I liked this format, which bucked so many tv trends of endlessly deferring the conclusions of stories (every conclusion becomes, instead of an ending, a cliffhanger kicking part of the plotline into the next episode or season). I held off on watching the third series because I worried that what I had enjoyed about the show was the relative efficiency of its storytelling, which I feared would be lost in a 6-episode series. I was pleased, then, to see how the writers used the extra time to both create a bit more breathing room and probe more deeply into the long- and short-term effects of violence on people. The kind of attention to detail and character development that made episode 5 work so well would not have been possible in the shorter format.

Cleeves wrote an interesting appreciation of the episode for The Guardian, not having had a hand in the story herself. Here's some key information she shared:
What made the episode of Shetland unusual was the approach of the team behind the script. They took their time over the story and they were determined to tell it from the woman’s point of view. Gaby Chiappe, the scriptwriter, Clare Batty, the script executive, and Elaine Collins, the executive producer, consulted Rape Crisis, not with a quick phone call, but by travelling to its HQ in Leeds and listening to the staff for several hours. They asked what they would ideally like to see and what they’d hate, and were told that any graphic portrayal of sex would be problematic. At Rape Crisis there’s clearly a dislike for scenes that appear to titillate or glamorise.
Though the episode was not directed by a woman (the last three episodes of the series were directed by Jan Matthys), women were key members of the creative team, which especially in tv is at least as important as the director. They researched what they were representing, and they had an explicit goal of not contributing to harmful representations of rape in popular culture. They were careful and deliberate, and they scheduled the necessary time to make sure what they were doing was really what they wanted it to be.

At the center of the success of the episode is Alison O'Donnell's performance. She had not previously had much opportunity to stretch herself (a consequence of the shorter format, I expect; much got sacrificed to plot mechanics), and DS MacIntosh's characterization seemed a bit shallow: she's the peppy girl who likes to party, doesn't have great judgment in men, and yet is quirkily sharp enough to be a good sidekick. O'Donnell did what she could with the role, but I was beginning to feel sorry for her having to play the role of ditzy Watson. Interestingly, the lack of range the show had offered her previously increases the power of all that happens at the end of series three, because the men in the show must now recognize that they had perceived her much as we, the viewers, have: as someone who is always there, always helpful and competent and chipper, somebody who never lets a bit of adversity knock her down. Tosh in fact sees herself this way, and that self-perception helps her sometimes, but we also see how it can keep her from admitting how hurt she has been.

One of the appeals of the series for me is the basic decency of its police characters, which may of course be a fantasy, but as fantasies go, it's one I enjoy more than the endless parade of grizzled cops who drink too much and cheat on their fourth wife and are estranged from their kids and are driven to occasionally rough up a suspect because copping, man, copping is tough work. Shetland may present a too-rosy picture of rural policing, but it uses that portrayal in interesting ways. I'm all for realistic police stories (the US is, after all, a place where police seem to have a license to kill black people without consequence), but that's a different genre than Shetland, where the policing is a narrative convention as much as it is a portrayal of anything out in the real world. Since Dostoyevsky at the latest, there's a literary history of policing as a kind of epistemological force within a story rather than a verité exploration of the ins and outs of everyday law enforcement, and that's the tradition Shetland draws from, a kind of philosophized melodrama.

The basic decency of the characters is especially embodied by Douglas Henshall's performance as Jimmy Perez, and it pays off emotionally in this episode because he says and does the right things, and he also lets the events affect him as he thinks about his own relationships. The most pleasantly surprising choice in episode 5 for me was not its sensitive handling of the rape and aftermath, rare as that is for a tv show, but was, rather, Perez's admission that he had pulled back from a potential relationship for himself because the case had made him think about how men behave with women. Perez, one of the most seemingly decent and honorable cops ever to grace a television screen, was rethinking his own motivations and desires — and though in some ways that might have been just another excuse for him not to allow intimacy with a woman after his wife's death, he really does seem to be wrestling with this, and also, thankfully, salvages something of the potential of that relationship. This compares interestingly with the character of the reclusive artist Lowrie, who keeps sending unsolicited gifts and drawings to Tosh, which, after the rape, seems to her less harmless annoyance from a socially awkward guy than a violation. He's being a creeper, and she sharply calls him out on it. The show could have left it there, with Tosh regaining some of her old determination and self-confidence by confronting this weirdo and leaving him humiliated and confused. But it doesn't. It doesn't excuse Lowrie, but it also allows him some moments of grace, and Tosh is able to return and establish a less unsettling acquaintanceship with him, one that acknowledges the wounds in both their lives. She certainly wasn't obligated to do that, but she chose to, and it seems healing for both of them.

The whole third series of Shetland is about the ways that wounds stay open and the ways that people try (successfully or not) to continue their lives after one type of life has ended. As the episodes progress, it sometimes feels like a bunch of red herrings are being tossed around, but this is ultimately only true if we think the central mystery is the most important thing the show has to offer. Each dead end for a particular facet of the investigation is meaningful in its own way outside of the investigation, unlike in stories where the red herrings only serve the purpose of distracting the viewer or reader from figuring out the mystery before the story is over. Shetland's third series is not one where the solution to the inciting mystery could have been figured out beforehand; the necessary information was not available to either the viewers or the police until the final episode. What the mysteries in these six episodes do is incite investigations, and those investigations reveal connections between characters. Those connections, which reveal networks of both pain and hope across many years, are the real subject of the show. That we don't feel any real satisfaction or celebration at the solving of the various mysteries, and that the solution to the inciting mystery is more sad than anything, is part of what is profound here. The other part, and perhaps the most important, is the way the show honors its characters' endurance, their struggle to find goodness in a world that often beats them down.