The third and final episode of Des – which has been a huge critical and ratings success – entered the final phase of the case to bring Dennis Nilsen to justice. Last night, the killer’s game took a new twist when he pleaded diminished responsibility.
All the prosecution now had to prove was that his actions – the murder of young men – were planned and premeditated.
Easier said than done, especially as Nilsen was at his most slippery.
Peter Jay couldn’t believe it, and Brian Masters couldn’t believe it either. Even though he had freely admitted the murders, Nilsen was now claiming he wasn’t sure he had planned them.
This kickstarted another frantic search for more evidence, poring over previous statements and past leads – anything that could prove Nilsen had planned his murders. This search led them, fortuitously, to a vulnerable young man called Carl.
Karl had been having a recurring, disturbing dream, one that featured him being trapped in a sleeping bag and drowning. As Obi-Wan Kenobi once said: “That’s no moon.” In Karl’s case, this was no dream – it turned out that he had indeed been the captive Nilsen talked about in episode two who had luckily escaped his grasp.
Carl could prove that Nilsen had planned to kill people like him.
And so we proceeded to the tense court case. You could argue that this was the weakest element of the whole series – court hearings tend to follow strict genre rules and in a drama sense, if you only have the real story to go with and there aren’t many options for twists and turns. And yet, there were ebbs and flows, and some real jeopardy moments where the case could have gone either way.
In fact, Des managed to balance narrative thrills and spills and the real-life story very well. More so than many of its predecessors.
With Nilsen finally found guilty on all counts, we were left to ponder the allure of serial killers once more.
On this occasion, Des did a superb job of presenting the psychopathy of someone who, at once, was banal, dull, matter-of-fact, personable and intelligent, but conversely manipulative, disingenuous, narcissistic and extraordinarily dangerous.
How he began to manipulate Brian Masters was, ahem, a masterlcass – he let him think the was in the palm of his hand, but the power dynamic shifted terrifyingly quickly. Soon Nilsen was asking to borrow his tie for the court hearing. He gave an inch but he was beginning to take a mile.
And yet Masters, to his credit, fought back – angrily questioning Nilsen’s pleas of diminished responsibility and standing firm on how the book (which Nilsen still referred to as ‘his’ book) should be written and what tone it should take.
Unlike fictional characters like Hannibal Lecter, real-life serial killers aren’t the caricatured bogeymen and women we would often like them to be – in the real world they’re boring, banal and desperate for attention. In this case, because Nilsen was so dull this made him even scarier.
Serial killers quite clearly have elements of psychopathy and narcissism, traits that are present in all of us. So what makes someone like Nilsen do the things he did?
His past experiences – especially with his granddad – explained a lot. But there are also socio-political reasons, too. Nilsen was desperate for love and attachment, for attention and validation; and ultimately, for control. He found them all in his modus operandi. He lured lost young men into his lair – some of them gay, all off the streets – who had fallen through the cracks of society.
READ MORE: OUR EPISODE ONE REVIEW
READ MORE: OUR EPISODE TWO REVIEW
The series also did a fine job of showing the socio-political and economic context Nilsen was borne from and existed in. Late 1970s/early 1980s Britain was a tough place to be, none more so for young, gay men. This was ably demonstrated in this final episode when Karl was persuaded by Jay to take the stand and testify against Nilsen. He was summarily condescended to, his sexuality often equated to a lascivious kind of sex. And, let’s face it, Nilsen could have been caught in the past if it hadn’t been for the police’s dismissal of the complaint as no more than a lover’s tiff.
As a result of all this, Des was a fine drama on many levels – the study of psychopathy, manipulation and exploitation; attitudes to sexuality in the early 1980s; and the actual story of bringing Nilsen to justice.
It was also supremely acted. David Tennant was on spell-binding form throughout as the strangely magnetic and charismatic Dennis Nilsen. Whenever Tennant’s Nilsen was onscreen you simply could not take your eyes off him.
His final words in this drama? He had a last, final exchange with Peter Jay, and said: “If you hadn’t caught me that day it would have 150, not 15. I couldn’t have stopped. Good luck.”
Good luck indeed.
If Tennant was the star, Daniel May’s Peter Jay was the emotional heart of this series. He wore the case heavily on his shoulders, and it almost broke him. When asked what he thought when he first encountered Nilsen and had heard his confession, he told Masters: “Truthfully? I wondered if I was up to it.”
The final scene featured Masters (again superbly played in arguably career-best fashion by Jason Watkins, which is saying something) and Nilsen. Once again, Nilsen was attempting to exert some kind of control after he had read Masters’ book. In true narcissistic fashion, he had wanted to call it Nilsen.
“This isn’t a celebration,” Masters replied forcefully. “This is a warning.”
If writers Lewis Arnold, Kelly Jones and Luke Neal had intended this closing line of dialogue to be a mission statement for what they wanted to achieve in this series, they certainly pulled it off.
Des is being shown on ITV in the UK and is now available via ITV Hub