In the first episode of this six-part series we were introduced to John River and his partner Stevie. One was taciturn, sullen while the other was bubbly, lively and liked to laugh. It was another classic instance of a chalk-and-cheese police double act: one ego, one id; one light, one dark; and, in this case, one alive and one dead. yes, the big twist in this series is that River’s partner Stevie was shot dead two weeks before this story started, and the person we see on-screen is River’s ‘manifest’ of her – a construct from his subconscious to aid him in his grief. What could have turned out to be a cheesy ghostfest was turned into something of sensitivity, depth and poignancy by writer Abi Morgan and an outstanding case, led by Stellan Skarsgård and Nicola Walker.
River’s life is once again empty. He walks the London streets in slow motion as people walk past. To him they’re not real – the only people that are real to him at the moment are the manifests that soothe him and torture him. The balance of what’s real in the conscious mind and what are vivid constructs produced by his brain has tipped over into an unhealthy equilibrium.
His beloved Stevie. How can he let her go, especially when she’s still so alive?
Abi Morgan might have found a way.
Once again we saw River go over the CCTV footage from the night Stevie was shot over and over and over again. He was sure he’d missed something, and when he zoomed in one more time he did see something he had missed – a look of recognition on Stevie’s face as she turned her head to face the oncoming car. She knew the people who were driving that car.
It was a breakthrough, and River excitedly (as excited as River can get) told Reid. She dropped her own bombshell: Stevie’s DNA had been found in Christopher Riley’s car. He was a drug dealer, and Stevie being in that car before tied him to the case. This piece of information served two purposes. It not only let River off the hook for his death (I’m glad that little narrative was tied up quickly) but also something far more important… it started to alter our perception of Stevie. As it did with River, too.
Why was Stevie’s DNA was found in a dealer’s car? Was the beloved Stevie – who we’ve been set up to think was whiter than white and extremely likeable – not quite who she seemed? It was clever writing, subverting what looked like a perfect relationship.
And all this, on the day of Stevie’s wake.
In fact River and Stevie’s relationship began to twist this way and that throughout the episode. She was in it a lot less this week, but when she was he questioned her. What the hell was she doing in a dealer’s car? Have your criminal family got something to do with all this? She couldn’t give him an answer because she’s not a real person and the dead don’t give answers. Instead, she put him through memory retrieval techniques, and she also encouraged him to be more social and engage in small talk with people. Of course, this was his own subconscious telling him this.
After attending the wake and rubbing shoulder with her family, as well as dealing compassionately and sympathetically with Riley’s mentally ill partner, River found Stevie’s second secret mobile phone in his car, suggesting that she really did have another life he hadn’t been privy to.
That’s the thing about manifests and memories of people we have lost – they’re perfect, idealised versions of someone who we loved and still love. By adding these little twists, Morgan is trying to taint River’s perfect version of Stevie. There’s nothing like a good dose of reality to pull you out of extreme introversion.
As for the case, River established that Christopher Riley did not drive the car from which the shots that killed Stevie came from. It was stolen. So the hunt was now on for not only the car but a man who wore an old-fashioned coat. Not a lot to go on.
But again, the case co-existed with an examination of something deeper. River was developing a new relationship with psychologist Rosa, despite his initial reluctance. There was significant development. In a formal session she asked him if he had ever been prescribed medication before. He said no. But, when he had had a mini-breakdown late at night in the office, she happened to be walking through. He admitted to her that he had been prescribed medication before, and that he had always had a problem. Stevie was the only person in the police who knew about it, and she helped him with his condition. Another layer to their relationship. The world, he said, did not recognise those who didn’t want to go out for a pint or talk about small things. Or who were different. Stevie recognised that and helped him shield his condition from the rest of the team. The rest of the world.
In The Bridge Saga Noren’s personality is not labelled, the inference being that she suffers from Asperger’s. In River, I get the feeling that River’s long-standing but untreated condition (schizophrenia perhaps?) is about to be diagnosed. It’s interesting that these shows have a mental illness at their heart. Does River fetishise a particular condition, make it part of a flawed detective paradigm? No, I don’t think so.
John River feels like a three-dimensional character. He exists, he occasionally smiles, he eats, sleeps, shouts and cries. He’s scared, but he’s trying. In that respect John River is like all of us.
He’s a good officer and Rosa saw how empathetic he was in the interview room with Riley’s girlfriend. He also listens to music and likes nice furniture (I want his apartment, please). Mental illness does not define him. But for dramatic purposes, it’s a feature here and River’s journey will be one of diagnoses and treatment as a form of redemption.
If this was an American show, I would wager River would be more two-dimensional, both in character and narrative structure. An American equivalent would have had a case to solve every week with the under lying arc of finding Stevie’s killer flowing through it. I honestly though that this was the way River would go. But I’m thankful that time is being taken with just one story – that of finding Stevie’s killer.
For our episode one review, go here
For an interview with Stellan Skarsgård, go here
4 thoughts on “Review: River (S1 E2/6), Wednesday 21st October, BBC1”
Stellan Skarsgård – wow, what a charismatic performance. He totally dominates the screen. Just how much angst can a man deal with? This is top stuff from the Beeb.