For this Abi Morgan-penned six-parter the BBC has assembled some serious talent. Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård and British favourite Nicola Walker are a bit of a dream team, and anything created by Morgan is absolutely worth a watch. But of course this pedigree doesn’t guarantee a good series. Thankfully River turns out to be pretty much everything you hope it would be – all your favourite tortured cop tropes and character traits, but with a different twist.
Things kick off in jovial fashion. Two police officers are on their way home after a long night shift. One’s a man in his fifties and looks tired, the other is woman, in her thirties or early forties, still full of energy. As she reprimands him for screwing up a burger order at a drive-through window, it’s evident that the two have worked together for a long time. She finishes his sentences for him, jabs him for his Swedish mannerisms and turns the radio up to sing along to pop songs. They’re like a an old, married couple. She gives him energy and he can’t help but laugh at her cheesy jokes.
And then he sees it. A car. A car he recognises. He follows the driver into a shop, who immediately runs off. After a pursuit through an estate and into a flat, the suspect jumps off the balcony hoping to hang onto a TV aerial. It doesn’t take his weight, and he falls to his death.
The male detective – DCI John River – is admonished for this incident by his superior (Chrissie Read), and is told that this is the third car he’s seen that matches that description. It won’t bring Stevie back, he’s told. What does she know, laughs the female detective who appears at his side. He laughs back/ Yeah, what do they know? They turn to walk back to their car. But there’s something different about his partner we’ve not seen previously – she has a whopping great, gaping hole in back of her head. This woman, the woman who was laughing and joking in the car with River is, in fact dead. This is Stevie.
“It won’t bring her back.”
The mood changes in that instant. Those opening scenes set us up for another odd-couple crime drama, but instead we were then plunged into something entirely different. DI Jackie Stevenson was shot in the head two weeks ago and her partner, John River, is desperately trying to come to terms with her death. The way he’s dealing with her death? By chatting away to her ‘ghost’ and following leads to find her murderer when he has been explicitly told not to. He just can’t say goodbye to her yet. He doesn’t know how to. He refuses to throw away a fast food plastic drink carton from his car because it’s still stained with her lipstick; he still listens to the songs she listens to; he basks in her residual energy. The way Skarsgård plays this beaten, tortured man is superb, and he oscillates between a glow when he sees and interacts with Stevie’s ‘ghost’ to a broken man when he snaps back into reality. His facial lines look more pronounced, deeper when Stevie isn’t around. You just can’t help but feel sorry for him. Our sympathy is heightened because of the personality of Stevie, still giving him advice, still taking the piss out of him, still there. Nicola Walker plays Stevie as a breeze; a cheeky, likeable woman. To see Nicola Walker smile in a role is a good thing all of its own.
It turns out Stevie is not the only person River talks to. His subconscious is making manifests (he finally admits to his psychologist at the end of this first episode) and one of them is the victim of a murder he and Stevie were working on when she was killed. A young woman called Erin Fielding – who I initially thought was his daughter – was hanging around his apartment, complaining they had run out of breakfast cereal. He also sees a character from the book he’s reading (Victorian serial killer Thomas Cream, played by Eddie Marsan), and the man who fell to his death at the start of the episode. Erin Fielding’s boyfriend is in jail having admitted to killing her, but refuses to tell the police the whereabouts of her body. With the help of his manifests, River is able to determine that the boyfriend is lying and that it, in the end, was a suicide pact that had gone horribly wrong. And that’s what we might have here. A murder case to solve in every episode, plus two story arcs – one solving Stevie’s murder, and River’s sessions with the psychologist, trying to process his grief and guilt. At least we might have. Who know where this is going to go?
With a new partner in tow, Ira (Adeel Akhtar), River muddles along in a city and a life that now feels utterly alien to him. His career is on the line and so is his sanity (he’s forced to see a psychologist). In River’s case he just can’t let go, so much so he still talks to his dead colleague. It’s an intriguing idea – bringing the dead back to life thanks to the idea of constructs – but a cheesy ghost story this most assuredly isn’t. The dead are treated like real characters because they are, and River’s psychological condition reveals that they are still as much a part of him as they always have been. The trouble is he can’t consciously chose who appears – he gets Stevie, as well as the victim of a terrible accident, and a Victorian serial killer, who must surely represent the darkest recesses of his subconscious.
There are a lot of familiar aspects at play here, but they all seem jumbled up in a new and fresh(ish) way. It helps to have actors of the ability of Skarsgård and Walker ability to bring it all to, ahem, life, but I’m a little wary – I wonder if this idea of manifests chatting away might wear a little thin as the series goes on. But certainly in an opening episode as an opening conceit, it helps to give the tortured detective trope an emotional depth others don’t, or can’t, produce.
The final scene, with River in a karaoke bar is both touching and heartbreaking at the same time. In his head he’s singing I Love To Love by Tina Charles (the song Stevie was singing along to at the start of the episode) with Stevie. He is, in fact, singing it on his own.
Even if he’s laughing, he’s on his own.
For an interview with Stellan Skarsgård go here
For an interview with Abi Morgan go here