Last week’s opening episode of The Moorside – the re-telling of the Karen/Shannon Matthews case – was a powerful if uneven story, its focus a little bit muddled and saved by some fantastic, natural acting from the likes of Sheridan Smith and Sian Brooke. If that episode skewed towards telling this sordid, strange tale from the point of view of the community and the Moorside estate, and detailing its inspirational call to arms to help find the missing girl, this second episode narrowed its focus on the betrayal and delusions of Karen Matthews, her admission of guilt and subsequent capture. Because of this, this second episode was better as a drama.
Right from the get-go, Karen’s friend Natalie (Brooke) felt something was fishy about this whole case – Karen’s reactions to her new-found ‘fame’, her odd behaviour while interviewed by police, and now her reaction to the news that her daughter had been found. It was almost she was blocking her daughter out; staying strangely passive and limp in a situation that surely called for so much joy, celebration, relief and pure emotion.
The fact the Shannon had been found at an ‘uncle’s’ house raised the alarm bells, certainly in Natalie. Julie, on the other hand, was still full of righteous zeal, busily arranging a welcome home celebration for Shannon. She bought a tree for her, and intended to ceremoniously plant it in Karen’s garden to signify new beginnings. Karen was still maintaining she had nothing to do with Shannon’s disappearance and didn’t know the uncle, even though evidence suggested she did. DCI Christine Freeman (Siobhan Finneran, with plenty more, welcome screen time in this episode).
Julie and Natalie’s viewpoints were coming together and bashing against each other: either one was right or one was wrong, and we needed something to propel the story onwards into a new chapter and resolve this loggerhead situation. We got it in the form of Karen’s partner Craig being arrested for the possession of child pornography on his PC.
Suddenly the need for a resolution in this story – to find out the truth from Karen – became even more pressing. The fact that Craig had been arrested and the nature of the charges meant that this case had, potentially, taken on new, terrifying dimensions. Any crime writer could not have done a better job at writing a fictional story like this – somehow, real life was even more incredibly scripted than fiction in this case.
Aside from structure and the breathtaking dominos effect the case began to resemble, there were nuances and social contexts to be considered. Immediately after Craig had been arrested, Natalie and Julie sat in a children’s playground and had a frank chat. Natalie admitted to Julie she had been sexually abused by her babysitter when she was six; Julie responded by telling Natalie that her father had abused her all throughout her childhood. It was heartbreaking and gave us some idea as to how and why these women thought the way they did about the story they were involved in. The way they revealed their secrets was understated, both telling each other that they had to carry on, put it out of their minds and live life. By the end of that scene – brilliantly acted by both Brooke and Smith – you couldn’t help but have huge admiration for these two survivors.
The rest of the episode had a touch of the procedurals to it, which gave The Moorside much more structure and depth as a story. As the idea that Karen had been lying to her and the estate gnawed away at her it was down to Julie, and Natalie, to stage an intervention of sorts (on the request of Christine) to tease the truth from Karen. It worked. She admitted to everything.
But that was only part of the story. Throughout the whole two episodes, Karen Matthews was revealed to be a vulnerable, damaged and delusional woman who had been used and abused by men throughout her life. Her despicable crime deserved to be punished, but The Moorside provided real social and psychological context to her crime. And it was welcome. So often you read about murderers, kidnappers and the like in the newspapers and on television where the reports only seem to tell part of the story: that they are evil and they should throw away the key. No one is suggesting that anyone who commits murder or a crime like Karen Matthews did should go unpunished, but I always want more context: why do these people do what they do? What has influenced them? What was there thinking? The truth sometimes is at odds with the lynch-mob mindset, but the real truth is – or at least the truth this drama presented – was that Karen Matthews was in possession of almost a child-like mind, one that was desperate for legitimacy and love. But her plan to obtain these two things and to get away from her partner Craig included an elaborate plan to kidnap her own child and escape with the ransom money. It felt desperate and deluded and immensely cruel and selfish.
Some portions of social media did not like the presentation of this context, annoyed that they were being made to almost feel sorry for such a perpetrator. I, and many others, felt this context was not only necessary but also needed: why would a mother do such a thing to her own child and expect to get away with it?
In the end episode two of The Moorside was an outstanding, heartbreaking finale to a strange, strange tale. As Julie Bushby came to terms with her misplaced loyalty she gave a speech in court that was both powerful and human, which mirrored this affecting re-telling of the Shannon Matthews case.
I still question why this drama was made when it was and why it had to be made. But after a morning pondering these questions, I came up with this: ultimately, The Moorside showed how quick we are to judge and to tar everyone with the same brush. In the final act of the episode we saw the estate and even Natalie turn on Julie, but to her credit she refused to be swayed by all the emotion swirling around her.
For our episode one review go here