Friday, 6 April 2018

TV Review - Survivors S1E09: Law and Order

Survivors tends to be at its' best when it's examining an issue - how a problem or area is affected by the death, for best results something that's taken for granted in everyday society. "Law and Order" is probably the most extreme example and certainly the best. It's again from Clive Exton under his Wodehouse-baiting M K Jeeves pseudonym and it's one of the most brilliant and disturbing pieces of television ever made.

The episode starts off with a bit of day-to-day life in the Grange, rapidly revealing that at least three of the male members of the commune are all but useless at everything. There's actually a general building up of idiocy and people getting on each other's nerves, with Arthur's aloof personality and indoorsy personality not gelling well with Tom's slacker ethics and Greg not really having time for anyone's shit thank you very much. There are lots of good little scenes to show everyone on edge and it's interesting to see that Tom has quite rightly pegged the more obviously upstanding Arthur as a food-hoarder, with Paul catching him in the act. 

There's an odd recurrence of Wendy apparently having teenage behaviour traits again, though, eating separately from everyone and not often enough (Paul quite rightly points out that Abby's built like a twig as well). Last episode (I forgot to mention it there) about her only scene involved Emma overruling her on a brandy offered by Arthur; if Julie Neubert was older or looked older than the character outline you'd think they'd rewrite it a little bit but it's clear that we're meant to be thinking of Wendy as something like 16 years old. She's treated more or less the same way as Barney by everyone. 

It all leads to the decision to throw a party in order to allow everyone to blow off some steam and have some fun. Obviously all concerned learnt nothing from early celebration and this corn dolly of an idea ends with Wendy stabbed to death (brutally too) in her room by Tom after repeatedly rebuffing his advances. Even this is just a preamble for the serious stuff to come - as the Dostoevskey-baiting title (hey, he worked with Tom Stoppard, it's likely intentional) implies what follows is an examination of post-death crime and punishment.

The episode is smart enough not to play particularly on sentiment over the loss of Wendy, who we never really knew that well. Instead the emotional core comes from the whole trial of errors that forms the group's investigation. Hapless Barney, who had been trying to dance with Wendy (and everyone else, including Emma) is suggested as a suspect and while not everyone agrees - and it's crucial that it's the less forceful characters like Jenny, Emma and Charmaine who don't - no real alternative is suggested, though the viewer is shown instantly that Tom, barring an insane twist, did it as he hides a bloody bundle under the floorboards of his room.

This is where "Law and Order" stops being interesting and starts being downright fascinating. Tom initially protests Barney getting the blame and tries to warn him to escape; an uncomprehending but trusting Barney attempts it but is soon caught by Greg and Paul, now redoubling their belief that Barney is guilty because why else would he run? Now, thanks to Talfryn Thomas possibly being the best technical actor in the cast there are swathes of interpretation available. Tom is as thick as pig shit and doesn't seem to have murdered Wendy with premeditation. Is he setting Barney up to take the fall or is he genuinely trying to get his friend away, either to have him harmlessly convicted or simply because he doesn't want him killed? 

I personally can never quite decide but Tom's reactions when he realises his crime is going to rebound onto his protege suggests that he simply hadn't thought this far ahead and his attempts to get Barney to run seem genuine - especially willing him on when he's being chased. He's established as an impulsive thinker or he'd never have killed a girl in the house he was staying at. It plays interestingly with the characterisation he's had in the past couple of episodes where he's been cleaned up and toned down, enough that at no point does any serious suspicion fall on him. You can almost see his train of thought at the party - he's contributing to the commune to some extent, he's cleaned himself up and he attempts to act the gentleman and he's still getting nothing. The message here though is that this has perhaps only been an act and the nasty side would come out when he didn't get his way sooner or later, and personally he seems emboldened when he feels Arthur is higher up Greg & Abby's shitlist than he is.

While Tom isn't portrayed in a nice light neither is anyone else. It almost seems too easy for the community to pin the charge on Barney with only the absolute flimsiest of circumstantial evidence - in a further twist mainly furnished by misunderstanding Tom's attempts to get him to run giving Barney knowledge only the killer should have. You get a queasy feeling in the stomach as Greg posits that this might not be the first time Barney's killed - and who is to say that the reason Barney is by himself in the Grange but not obviously starving or unwell isn't because he was expelled from some other community that took the easy way out when he killed someone? If you approach the episode as a whodunnit they blow things too early by showing Tom chasing a clearly distressed Wendy up the stairs and him hiding the evidence but I actually think it works better this way, watching helplessly as our heroes barrel down the wrong alley.

Greg's speeches about the nature of crime, responsibility and punishment are brilliant, emphasising further that he understands the post-death world and what needs to be done in order to rebuild some semblance of society. It might just be Ian McCulloch's best acting in the show and perfectly illustrates Greg's refusal to shy away from things just because they're difficult and will upset people. Crucially this time he faces little serious opposition; Abby attempts to find middle ground that can't exist and none of the rest are willing to be truly accountable. As Greg says he doesn't want Barney killed but with no-one coming forward there's simply no alternative. That he carries out the sentence himself when he draws the short straw only underlines his resolve to stick to his principles; here the show goes easy on us; picturing in your head Barney sitting there with his befuddled smile while Greg aims a gun at him adds to how heartbreaking it all is - the character's not actually seen after the scene with the children.

Then there's the sting in the tail when Tom finally chooses the moments after Barney's execution to reveal his guilt. It's an interesting decision as it shows Tom isn't quite a complete monster, just a weak and nasty man, and at the end he's clearly deeply upset and regretful. You have to wonder whether the actions taken would have been the same if he had confessed earlier as here while Greg initially attempts to cave Tom's head in with a shotgun he quickly agrees to cover things up with Abby - the final insult for poor Barney being that the community is left thinking he's the killer. The irony is that while Greg feels the shooting comes back to him he can still evaluate things like he did before and Abby's reluctance to put up any serious opposition basically sees her cede any last vestiges of authority she has.

The reason given is that it would leave them too short-handed, with the underlying feeling that Greg's had more than enough of capital punishment for one day. But you wonder if having someone with some idea of defending themselves, even if they were someone as unpleasant as Tom, might have dramatically changed the course of the 'trial' - with Barney the discussions are almost abstract, something brought home when the children release him during the proceedings and he plays happily with them, only caring whether his sheep are being looked after and showing complete unawareness of anything special going on. You wonder if it makes it easier for everyone else not having someone begging and pleading for mercy, and if someone like Tom might actually be easier to contain, control or fob off on someone else. It's certainly easier to picture them packing him off in disgrace, though at the same time a crucial part of the episode's moral bind is the question of what exactly could be realistically done with a murderer in the post-plague world.

In some ways it's actually commendable for Greg to eschew the change for revenge or easing his personal guilt by not just handing Tom over to mob justice and getting a cheap catharsis but his iron will to keep the settlement strong and united wins out. The reflection on losing Tom leaving them shorthanded is an interesting moment as the same would have surely have spared Barney as they've just lost Wendy (and there are a couple of scenes explicitly showing that Barney's actually quite handy to have around). I'm not sure if it's a damning attitude as to the attitude towards the mentally challenged from the characters or if Greg & Abby are just sickened by the whole business.

Quite what exactly is wrong with Barney is never really explored and for a good reason - none of the characters have any clue about mental illness. Even those who try to bring it up at making the killing as one of purported diminished responsibility like Emma and Charmaine clearly are unsure what exactly they're talking about. Abby even goes as far as to liken Barney to a sick animal. Throughout all of this are some superb moments of characterisation for everyone, even little moments like Arthur and Charmaine giving different verdicts with it being heavily implied this is the first time she's ever openly disagreed with anything he's said, while Vic's panicked reaction to locking Barney up and leaving him to rot is an excellent touch too. The performances are superb across the board too, especially Thomas and John Hallet.

That a 40-year old TV episode I've seen probably 15 times can still be ambiguous is a sign of real strength and "Law and Order" succeeds in being multi-layered, with few right answers, no comfort and no catharsis for characters or viewers. Many of the issues transcend the show but it works even better in the full context and even with this much distance it's a real debate starter, genuinely upsetting but never manipulative and always forcing the audience to ask what option they would have to take in these circumstances.

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