Creator/Writer: Abi Morgan
Directors: Tim Fywell, Jessica Hobbs, and Richard Laxton
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the crowded field of television homicide detectives, the British have offered rabid fans like me their fair share of talented, quirky sleuths. From David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot and John Thaw’s Inspector Morse to Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison and Robson Green as, well, just about everyone, there’s no shortage of obsessive coppers dedicated to bringing murderers to justice for our viewing pleasure.
The latest of this breed is John River, the title character of the miniseries River, played by Stellan Skarsgård. The brilliant Swedish actor, who would have been a natural for the Swedish detective of the Wallander series instead of Irish actor Kenneth Branagh, has largely avoided cop roles since his riveting turn as detective Jonas Engström in the original Swedish version of Insomnia (1997). Perhaps he was avoiding typecasting, as his pale, worried face is a natural fit for the kind of damaged souls writers imagine homicide detectives to be.
That he took the role of River, a taciturn Swedish immigrant who works for London’s Metropolitan Police Service, is perhaps due to the efforts of its creator and writer, Abi Morgan, who brought us such polished British features as Shame (2011), The Iron Lady (2011), and Suffragette (2015). I like to think Morgan might have heard a suggestion James Cagney made about the dime-a-dozen gangster he was asked to play in White Heat (1949): “Let’s make him crazy.” Most TV homicide detectives flirt with the edges of sanity as an occupational hazard; River went off the deep end long ago. He regularly talks to and fights with a bevy of dead apparitions; only his 80 percent clear rate and the protective ministrations of his buoyant partner, Jacqueline “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker), have kept him on the police force.
We meet River and Stevie as they are driving around their precinct. Stevie sings and hand jives to Tina Charles’ uber-catchy disco tune, “I Love to Love,” as River smiles his approval. The pair grows quiet as River spots a car with a dented panel, a clue to his current investigation. He spots the driver in a mini mart and spooks the young man with a hard, penetrating stare. A long chase on foot ensues, with tragic results. River is pulled off the case, ordered into counseling, and assigned a new partner, Ira King (Adeel Akhtar). You see, the case he was working on was Stevie’s murder.
River is shattered by Stevie’s death. Even though he and Ira are reassigned to the electrocution of a construction worker who is hovering near death, he keeps on the hunt for her killer and persuades Ira to help him. Everything he says and does, including advising the construction worker’s wife to tell him what she needs to before his inevitable death in a move judged callous by Ira, is self-reproach for withholding what is plain to viewers: he was deeply in love with Stevie.
Love, trust, and the betrayal of both form the slippery undercarriage of this otherwise fairly standard mystery drama. Morgan assembles a familiar cast of characters: a cop who can’t stand River (Owen Teale); psychiatrist Rosa Fallows (Georgina Rich), who just happens to run a therapy group for people who hallucinate; and River’s sympathetic superior, Chrissie Read (Lesley Manville), who keeps reminding everyone that she lost a friend, too. Morgan also trots out the usual tropes for murdered cops—working on a side case, keeping her investigation secret from the partner who thought he knew everything about her, locating corruption inside the legal system.
Stevie’s Irish family draws instant scrutiny from the seasoned murder mystery fan, particularly when we learn Stevie turned in her older brother, Jimmy (Steve Nicolson), for murder and that he has just returned to the family fold after 16 years behind bars. Her uncle, Michael Bennigan (Jim Norton), has the oily, cheery veneer of all TV Irish patriarchs. Stevie’s mother, Bridie (Sorcha Cusack, of the Father Brown mystery series), is the typical, no-nonsense, blustery Irish matriarch that’s become a cliché, and Stevie’s doughy younger brother, Frankie (Turlough Convery), seems strangely wounded and in need of the protective shield the whole family throws around him.
Other suspects—one might even say the usual suspects in these xenophobic times—emerge as River zeroes in on a Somali man with whom Stevie seems to have been involved. His probing uncovers a small community of immigrants who don’t understand the obstacles and hatred they face from their adopted land. It’s quite a poignant moment when River imagines the voice of his quarry, Haider Jamal Abdi (Peter Bankole), speaking to his wife in a letter Ira has only partly translated; River’s feelings of loneliness and isolation are given voice in the imagined end of Haider’s letter; his emotional projections are the true source of his ghostly visitors.
One projection is hard to decipher: Thomas Neill Cream, a 19th-century serial killer known as the Lambeth Poisoner, the subject of a true crime book River is reading. Cream, played by always reliably creepy Eddie Marsan, announces that he is the anger, rage, and darkest place inside River and urges him to come over to the dark side. Now, it’s true that in the game of cops and robbers, the players can change roles quite easily, but River isn’t playing a game. Cream seems more a device to shoot scenes of River shadow-boxing with a wall or strangling the air than something motivated from within, and I found these scenes incongruous and annoying.
Opposing these are the heartbreaking scenes he shares with the memory of Stevie. Nicola Walker fully embodies the enormous life force that was Stevie, making her murder all the more tragic for us as well as those who knew her. She provides River with intuitive clues to follow, probably much like she did in life. As he circles closer to the solution, she taunts him to really see her, know her—certainly an inner longing River has to be as close to her as possible, a conjoining he could only approximate by laying in her empty bed. His fixation on Rosa, who we think River may be using as a Stevie substitute, actually turns out to be River’s desire to break through his fear of intimacy and love.
Stevie was bringing River to life, and he is blessed to have another partner, Ira, who accepts his mental derangement and tries to befriend him. We very well might wonder why so many people stand by River, but that is all down to Skarsgård’s stunning ability to convey deep pain, shame, and loss while simultaneously trying to reach beyond his limitations to embrace life. We’ve seen detectives like him before, but never one who refuses so mightily to give up on himself. He gets the ending he has earned.