It’s been three years since the second season of The Missing aired – a show that launched the careers of creators Harry and Jack Williams, who have since gone on to become one of the hottest properties in crime drama television. Although the show deftly mimicked the emotional dynamic of earlier European hits like The Killing by focusing in detail on the families involved, the real breakaway star was it’s taciturn detective Julien Baptiste (played wonderfully by the charismatic Tchéky Karyo). It was a performance so notable (and well-loved by viewers) that it has earned him his own spin-off show, Baptiste – and it’s a high-calibre affair written again by the Williams brothers, with Börkur Sigþórsson (Trapped) on directorial duties.
We start off on the gloomy beaches of Deal, England – which gets remarkably gloomier when a man masquerading as a gas engineer suffocates a trusting pensioner with a plastic bag before swiftly dismembering his corpse with a chainsaw. It’s quite the opening scene and I’m sure there were a few spluttered cups of cocoa across the country tonight in what is traditionally a much cosier Sunday drama slot.
The action then switches to Amsterdam, where we catch up with Baptiste (or Bappers as our editor Paul likes to call him) – looking a lot happier (and healthier) than when we left him at the end of The Missing. The brain tumour that nearly killed him then bears a visible legacy in his dyspraxic movements, but he seems settled and content with a new life approaching something towards domestic normality – sharing a space on holiday with his long-suffering wife Celia and ex-junkie daughter Sylvia, visiting with her partner Ron and now raising her own child.
We are thrown into the mix quickly when Baptiste meets with Maartje Horchner the Amsterdam Chief Of Police, who just so happens to be a former lover of the Frenchman (viewers might recognise actor Barbara Sarafian from Professor T). She has a case that requires his unique skill set – a missing girl that might lead to a larger criminal conspiracy. Baptiste is reluctant, his confidence shattered by his health issues – but the lure of the mystery presented is enough to convince him to contribute. Natalie Rose, a local sex worker, is missing and her disappearance is presumed related to the activities of a Romanian gang of human traffickers. She was reported missing by her uncle Edward Stratton (Tom Hollander), who we see desperately canvassing the red light district in a bid to find his niece (in scenes not that dissimilar to the Williams’ recent fish-out-of-water clunker Strangers).
The stress is too much for Edward, who collapses in the grip of a panic attack. Maartje asks Baptiste to visit him in hospital, and the pair bond over a hot dog in the rain. Edward explains he raised Natalie when her parents died in a car crash, and his difficulties with her growing up seem to mirror Baptiste’s struggles with his own daughter. Edward believes a gang of traffickers led by an enigmatic Romanian crime boss called Dragomir Zelincu kidnapped Natalie as she knew too much about their operations, but this in turn feels like a lot of information for an average man to know – is Edward as trustworthy as he claims to be? Either way, Baptiste manages his expectations by saying he “isn’t the man he used to be”.
It turns out Edward is half right – although Dragomir is more of an urban myth and the real culprit in this case is drug lord Constantin, who is the link to his missing niece (“Find Natalie, find me”). He also seems rather well connected to the police investigation, having been informed by persons unknown that Baptiste is on the case. We know Constantin is a very bad man already because we last saw him chopping up a pensioner, but here he also beats a man half to death with a billiard ball just to reinforce that. Later on he inexpertly hides behind a pineapple to spy on Celia in the supermarket before laying down some light threats about her husband (and bugging her handbag for good measure).
Meanwhile Edward and Baptiste patrol the seedier areas of Amsterdam looking for clues, before giving chase to a teenager who is taking a keen interest in their activities. With a little monetary grease he reveals the owner of a transsexual brothel called the Dream Room is asking after why they are looking into Natalie’s disappearance. There, they meet with boss Walter who balks at the mention of Dragomir but not much more – and it seems the mysterious Romanian’s name has the same chilling effect on most of the patrons around town.
The fact they are making waves doesn’t go unnoticed however, and they are soon meeting with cafe owner Kim Vogel (Talisa Garcia) who also runs a collective for sex workers. Kim tells them Natalie’s drug habit was out of control and she had taken to stealing, subsequently getting in debt with the Romanians – and eventually deciding to abscond to Germany. Kim’s motives in telling the duo this seem a little disingenuous but the news is a hammer blow to Edward, who is beginning to fall apart in the futility of his search for his niece.
Baptiste makes the connection through a Rita Hayworth poster found at the Dream Room and Kim Vogel’s DVD collection of the Hollywood star to put two and two together and magically uncover that she actually used to be Dragomir Zelincu, having transitioned to a woman to start a new life away from crime and also make amends in her support of sex workers’ rights. Baptiste correctly expounds that Natalie found this out, and Kim offered to protect her in a bid to hide her secret. With this revelation hanging in the air, Kim gives Baptiste the address of Natalie’s location – and upon meeting her there she sensationally reveals Edward isn’t her uncle, a fact laid gruesomely bare when we see him return to his house in England, complete with a severed head in the basement. Is Edward actually seeking Natalie to kill her, and is he in collusion with Constantin?
It’s classic Williams stuff, packing a tremendous bait and switch ending with enough loose plot strands to keep us rabidly theorising until the next episode. It also already feels like a show in it’s own right away from the aesthetics of The Missing, with a distinctly darker underbelly. Amsterdam pulls double duty as a beautiful green space of a city as well as a sickly, neon-lit pit of misery and looks spectacular in either role. Karyo fills the role of Baptiste with a charming sense of guile, and it’s great to see his family again (although how happy they remain is up for debate). All the elements are in place for what feels already like a roller-coaster ride through a complex case that only the erstwhile Baptiste can unravel – but this time with a kind-faced killer (Hollander rapidly finding his niche in polite psychopaths by pulling another Bird Box) already known to us, the dynamic has shifted away from mystery to thriller. Whether or not the strength of the set up can sustain itself over six episodes remains to be seen, but so far the signs are very promising.