“The closer you get to the truth, the further you get away from me. An then you’ll see who I really am. Solve this, Mr Magoo, and you know what happens.” This was the inescapable truth. We were being set up for an emotional climax, a climax that would contain something that I and River dreaded – saying goodbye to Stevie.
But there was a lot to get through before that. At the end of episode five, Tom Read was arrested and was being held at the station. River wanted Chrissie to be there, but she took some persuading. In the middle of a supermarket, River cornered her, but she told him she hated him. Hated him for uncovering all this and hated him for being so good at his job. She had spent 30 years, she told him, of back slapping and taking shit from male colleagues and missing valuable family time. For what? For nothing.
It was a powerful scene, highlighting just how good Lesley Manville has been in this series.
Chrissie came in to observe the interview. Tom admitted everything – yes, he took bribes from an unknown source to grease the wheels of litigation, and yes, he spoke to Stevie on the night she was murdered. She had threatened to tell Chrissie everything – about the bribes, about the affairs. He said that when the call came in about Stevie, he and Chrissie held each other that night, telling each other that at least they had each other. But it was all a sham. They didn’t love each other anymore and hadn’t for a long time.
The Tom angle had closed, but Ira quickly found another one – Michael Bennigan’s car company, which was part of the migrant scam. Ira led a search party of his offices and recovered a laptop, which had some corrupted data on it. Obviously this would take some time to untangle – a narrative device used liberally in this series – so River took a look at Stevie’s laptop, which had been sitting on his desk since, well, the previous episode. When he flipped it open and went through her personal photos there was a theme – they were all of Frankie, the younger brother who she had asked River to look after in the event of something happening to her. And there was more. In a video, a young Stevie was seen tossing an even younger Frankie up in the air, Bridie Stevenson in the background calling Frankie Stevie’s boy.
Stevie was Frankie’s mother.
It was all starting to unravel at a pace. River spent some time with Frankie, who told him he was drowning from the experience of the death of what he though was his sister, and then took him home to Bridie. There River found something hanging in the hallway – the same coat that was described in the second episode; the same coat a suspect was wearing when he (or now she) dumped the car they wanted to get rid of. It was Bridie.
And there were more revelations. River stormed around to Michael’s house, who knew he was coming. He told River that well, what did he expect? Stevie was threatening to expose the family yet again and that was something he could not let happen. So he got Frankie to do the dirty deed for him. Frankie, he said, was furious with Stevie for threatening the family with exposure. So he shot who he thought was his sister to shut her up for once and for all.
This left River with a moral conundrum, and Michael knew it. Would he really bring Frankie in, after what Stevie had asked of him? It would break him. It would break him even further to know that she was his mother. And who was the father, River wanted to know. It was Michael. Michael, her own uncle, had sexually abused her when she was 14, and Bridie took the young lad under her wing.
River was appalled. What should he do? We’ve seen these moral conundrums in series like The Killing and, only the other week, From Darkness. But unlike From Darkness, where its main protagonist shot and killed the murderer and it went straight to the credits, all of these revelations came within half an hour. It was breathless stuff, and very neatly and plausibly done.
We were being set up for an emotional last act, which would tie things up instead of scarpering.
The motherhood aspect of this case was interesting because it bled into River’s own personal background. During one of Rosa’s open sessions, River explained that his own mother abandoned him when he was a child. With Thomas Cream once again chirping on his shoulder, River launched into a full-scale physical attack on his nemesis. To onlookers he was fighting thin air, but to him he was engaged in a battle royale to extinguish the darkest parts of his subconscious. It was a score draw.
He decided to arrest Frankie. The young man revealed himself to be in a state of psychosis as he flipped during his final conversation with River. He seemed to intimate that he knew Stevie was his mother, and that no one knew what it was like being left with the tyrannical Bridie. As he alternately sobbed and shouted in anger, there was a touch of the Full Metal Jacket’s Vincent D’Onofrios about him. It was a scarily good passage of acting.
And then it was the moment I had dreaded. With the case wrapped up, River had to say goodbye to Stevie, or at least do something he failed to do on the night she died – tell her he loved her. But River being River, this last scene was approached uniquely.
He got dressed up in his best suit. The manifest of Erin Fielding (who we saw in the first episode) helped him with his choice of tie. The manifest of Christopher Riley (who we saw last in the second episode) gave him some moral support as he made his way to his date. He got to the very same Chinese restaurant he met with Stevie the night she died, and there she was… eyes twinkling in the candlelight, a big smile creasing her face. As their fellow diners looked on incredulously as this strange man, who came in with a bunch of flowers, sat at a table for one and talked into thin air. He laughed and joked and talked. To no one. And yet in his mind, River was talking to the woman he loved. And she loved him, too. If only he could tell her.
It took a re-enactment of her death outside on the road and River to hold his dying partner in his arms to tell her that he loved her; he loved her more than life. And then they danced. Danced like loons in the middle of the road, in a scene straight of a Dennis Potter series.
It was an incredibly emotional scene to watch. It affected me that much. Through everything this series was about – grief, relationships, making connections with people and, most importantly, holding onto those connections as life swirls all around us – this was a love story. An unrequited/requited love story that had huge emotional impact.
And really, it shouldn’t have worked. Another grumpy detective with flaws who sees dead people? Come on now. But it did work because the writing – especially the dialogue – from Abi Morgan was utterly fantastic. Every character had nuances – from Chrissie to Ira (who I both grew to really love) – and each one was acted fantastically. None more so than Stellan Skarsgård, who was simply magnificent. I’d seen him in lots of things before, mostly in supporting roles, and he’d always been solid, but here he was just so, so good. I remember it dawning on me during episode four that there were only two episodes to go of this and feeling sad. Sad because I would miss John River and I would miss Stellan Skarsgård and his great, hulking frame; his kind, sad face, his confusion, his tenderness and his madness. It’s not often a character makes you think that about them, but John River did.
River wasn’t all sweetness and light. It was flawed in places – the Partridge-esque title; sometimes the crime element to the piece felt a little stilted; River’s frequent interviewing without lawyers started to grate a touch; Chrissie Read’s occasional use as a conduit for mild exposition, too; and Thomas Cream was perhaps one manifest too far for me, or at least his Victorian appearance didn’t fit with modern London – but these are small things.
Overall there were moments of such dazzling work – writing and acting – that it was hard not to have enjoyed this intense, thoughtful and sensitive series.
I’ll miss you John River.
For our episode one review, go here
Four our episode two review, go here
For our episode three review, go here
For our episode four review, go here
For our episode five review, go here