The Serpent: Review

Oh boy, the story of a notorious serial killer with a 1970s Bangkok backdrop. I would have expected this show to make a bigger splash. The crime drama subgenre has thrived alongside the advent of streamed television. With big producers like Netflix and the BBC releasing quality such as Mindhunter, Criminal UK, Bodyguard, Happy Valley and much more. Written by Richard Warlow, Toby Finlay, and directed by Tom Shankland, this new addition from the BBC takes its spot comfortably, filling the niche of being set in the exotic Southern Asia of the ‘70s. But unfortunately, it doesn’t quite pack the punch of some of its counterparts.

It follows the exploits of the infamous serial killer and fraudster, Charles Sobhraj, who preyed on travellers undertaking the Hippy Trail in 1975 and ’76. One of the show’s strengths is in its production and atmosphere. There is no shortage in flares, yellow-tinted sunglasses and other ‘70s cliches. The show does an excellent job in creating the world in which it is set, especially considering the challenges the team faced due to the COVID pandemic. Most of the filming did take place in Thailand, which has changed a lot since the ’70s (I didn’t spot a single Mcdonalds in the background), but towards the end of their filming, “Tring [in Hertfordshire] had to double for Bangkok, Karachi, Delhi and Mumbai” said series co-producer, Paul Testar. Considering this, the series does an excellent job in taking the viewer to the bygone setting.

Alas, for reasons that are still unclear to me, the scenes jump back and forth between characters and over periods of months and years. There are insistent ‘3 Months Later’ or ‘6 Years Earlier’ sub-headings, sometimes happening as many as 10 times per episode. I didn’t really know what this served to achieve, and in fact, it  was jarring and greatly hurt the pacing (it simply happens too frequently). Whenever tension was effectively built, it was instantly dissolved; often the scenes would switch from Sobhraj and his victims nearing a climatic turn, to the non-offensive, Knippenberg talking to someone or on the phone. As well as this- and perhaps as a by-product of it- the show never firmly establishes a tone, with the viewer wondering if we are supposed to be repulsed, or secretly revel in Sobhraj and Marie-Andrée Leclerc’s (his sidekick lover) exploits. This is epitomized by an incredibly off-pace and uncomfortably light-hearted montage of the pair preying on travellers whilst Harry Nilsson plays in the background. This comes directly after Leclerc is shown to actually have a moral compass and starts having doubts about what they’re doing.  

Whilst Tahar Rahim does a fine job portraying the murderer, he adopts the relatively cliché serial-killer persona of a robotic sociopath and often Sobhraj’s notorious charm is absent. His motivations are hinted at, with him admiring the Vietcong and a few mentions of the discrimination he faced as a mixed race Vietnamese-Indian growing up in France, but are left underdeveloped.  As the show goes on, the character can become a bit one note and less riveting. Unfortunately, the same can be said about many of the show’s characters. This is due more to the writing than the performances. Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) is the typical woman in love with a psychopath, as she helps him in his deeds whilst emotionally detaching herself. A blank stare and pang of guilt now and then doesn’t constitute character or depth though, and she essentially amounts to a serial killer’s assistant. Herman Knippenberg is a redeeming factor, often serving to effectively dilute the thick serial-killer and ’70s clichés, albeit kill the tension in the process. He is the Dutch junior diplomat who takes it upon himself to track down Sobhraj. Refreshingly tenacious yet humble, I found myself rooting for him. Again, though, as the series drags out (as it does), he also becomes slightly one-note and boring. Billy Howle does an excellent job in his portrayal and I expect to see more from him in the future.

The story is a compelling one, but perhaps the writers tell it too truly, or go into too much depth, because as the series goes on it gets quite monotonous; the intriguing and nostalgic setting not being enough to carry it through its 8-hour duration. That being said, it does effectively tell the interesting story of Sobhraj, and it’s definitely worth a look for lovers of the genre.

Grade: B

Vikings Season 602: Fitting Finale!

After seeing the breath-taking ending to Part 1 on the beaches of Kattegat in early 2020, I must have googled ‘Vikings season 6 Part 2 release’ every single day. Finally, on a holiday with my family in Lanzarote over Christmas, I was given an answer. It was being aired on Prime on the 30th December! These ten episodes of History channel’s ‘Vikings’were the best Christmas present I could have hoped for.

I have seen many reviewers suggest this series hasn’t been the same since the death of it’s flagship man Ragnar, but I would wholeheartedly disagree. The death of Ragnar was the spark that lit the fuse on the fate of the Vikings and their way of life. Christianity versus paganism; the old way versus the new. Questions at the root of the changing world from late antiquity through the middle ages. I believe this was Michael Hirst’s (writer of The Tudors) intention, and he carried the show through the loss of its main man on the back of these huge historical questions. Other historical themes are also present, such as the meaning of Kingship, what it meant to actually be Viking, and the idea of legacy itself. Much like the Norse poems and Icelandic Sagas that it is based on, this series’ historical accuracy is deliberately dubious and embellished, but the notions it examines are real, and they are fascinating.  The question of the legacy of the Vikings and their Gods has been a central theme since the show’s beginnings and this season brings the exploration to a- with no other way to describe it- awe-inspiring climax.

These 10 episodes are beautifully mired in a sense of impending doom, with many of the characters giving the feeling that their purpose is coming to an end.

“For us, death is bliss… and I rush to bleed.”- King Harald.

This line is from the first episode (6×11) where we find King Harald, a man defined by his ambitions, on his knees, welcoming the end. The feeling of inevitable change and the end is so intense, the first few episodes can actually be quite difficult to get through. They are also quite slow, with most of the scenes being build-up and tone-setting for what is to come. I found one or two of the plotlines to be a bit unnecessary and filler-y. For example, I got the sense that they didn’t really know what to do with Gunnhild’s (Ragga Ragnars- aptly named) character, so she is just given a couple of commentary monologues that felt quite forced and artificial. Or Eric, who served his purpose in saving Bjorn and is now essentially a kingmaker of the now irrelevant Kattegat. This irrelevancy is double-edged, though, adding to the ethos of the end being nigh.  

Ultimately, these episodes do their job well and in keeping with the series since the start, are rich in deep metaphor and symbolism. Watching Gunnhild swimming out into the open ocean to “join Bjorn in Valhalla” inspired me to contemplate the legacy of the Vikings and what it truly means. Are they just floating through the vast nothingness of the past, or do they live on in our memory? This question was supported by a talk between Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen) and Hvitserk (Marco Ilsø) where Ivar says, “it feels as if I’m in an open boat, lost at sea.” I found myself sympathising with these Vikings living in a world that was passing them by. The show has done extremely well to bring such huge notions to a TV series, and make them feel just that, huge. The creators go as far as to shatter their own realism by showing us the Jorgmandr (6×13), the Midgard serpent and son of Loki from Norse mythology.  This scene conjures the feeling that one is watching an ancient Saga as oppose to a TV series- and the production team did a fantastic job. It reminded me of the scenes in Fargo when the fishes fall from the sky or the UFO appears.

At first glance it would seem the show takes the definitive stance that Bjorn Ironside (Alexander Ludwig) was the last true Viking. But as the events unfold, I started to feel otherwise. King Olaf (Steven Berkoff) is burnt alive in silence, after quoting the bible, having embraced Jesus Christ in his final moments. He was certainly not Viking. Ketill Flatnose’s (Adam Copeland) arc ends with him proclaiming himself King of Greenland. This scene is another rich metaphor, asking of the viewer; what is worth giving to be a King? As well as this, it is one of many times the series examines the struggles of the Old Gods vs the new- and man’s relationship with them. Ketill proclaims that the beached whale was given to him by ‘God’ in the singular, only to use ‘Gods’ in the plural, directly after. The idea is clearly that the struggle between Gods has always been used by man for personal gain and perhaps that is the reason it existed to begin with. This absurdity is displayed in a beautiful way, with Ketill standing alone on top of his whale, surrounded by corpses and laughing maniacally. Anyway, I got the sense that Ketill too, was not a Viking.  Which brings us to, who I felt, were the last Vikings (at least in this show’s history). There is a scene where Ivar, Hvitserk and Harald are sailing down a Wessex river in their longboats with eerie music playing as King Alfred’s (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) bishop recites the ‘Our Father’. Not only is it a beautiful piece of cinematography, but it also screamed in my face that THESE are the last Vikings. And their end is nigh.

Some, when reviewing this series, have compared it to Game Of Thrones. I was going to refrain from doing so because I think its extraneous. But for those left with an unsatisfied itch after GoT’s- *ahem*- disappointing, resolution and you want to watch a show with a good ending. Then watch Vikings. Michael Hirst and the creators of this series should give seminars on how to resolve things. Outside of maybe Gunnhild, every character’s story and every plotline end in a deeply satisfying and climatic fashion- and my expectations didn’t need that much subverting. I don’t want to go too much into the final couple of episodes as not to spoil such fantastic storytelling, but I will say this. The Vikings appropriately come to an end in Wessex, crushed by the unstoppable wall of Christendom. It is fitting and, again, awe-inspriring . Though, for the most sentimental of us, we do have Ubbe (John Patrick Smith), whose soul is the most Ragnar of Ragnar’s sons, bring the old way- supplemented by Othere’s (Ray Stevenson) new way- to the Americas and the New World.

Grade: A

Back to Life: Review

Written by Laura Solon, Daisy Haggard

Directed by Christopher Sweeney

A strong lead and interesting premise make this BBC comedy-drama a palatable afternoon’s worth of entertainment. Daisy Haggard plays Miri Matteson, a 30-something woman who has just returned home from an 18-year prison sentence. The viewer is taken with her whilst she struggles to reacclimatise to her- what should have been- normal middle-class life in Kent.

Miri is well written and believable, coming across as thick-skinned and genuine. She gave me the feeling that her time in prison was- of course- the cause for her difficult and strange circumstance, but also part of the reason she is equipped to deal with it. She is a good, likeable person that the world really is just out to get, and Daisy Haggard does a fine job in adopting and portraying this persona.

Her relationships with the other characters, strained from 18-years of neglect, are what keeps the viewer interested. Though the most notable for me, was her one with Billy (Adeel Akhtar) which is the only one which started after, rather than before, she comes back from prison. He serves as Miri’s only relief from everyone and everything else. I was touched, and happy for Miri to be able to find someone who has no pre-judgements and takes her for who she is. I found myself both believing and caring for them. Her interactions with her childhood friend Mandy (Christine Bottomley) are another selling point and reveal hidden depths as the series goes on.

The laughs can be quite hit-and-miss (though they can certainly hit), and this series won’t change your life, but it is definitely worth a watch on a Sunday afternoon.

Grade: B+

The Last Post: Misunderstood

Written by Peter Moffat

Directed by John Campbell, Miranda Bowen

This series is something of a hidden gem. Released by the BBC back in 2017, it garnered mixed critical reception and was thus binned after just one 6-episode stint. I’d never even heard of it before stumbling across it scrolling through Netflix. A bit like myself, I don’t think it was suited to live in the time it was produced.

It follows the lives of a unit of Royal Military Police personnel during a time in history that is rarely brought to the screen, the Aden Emergency in the 1960s. Subsequently, critics judged the show on its ‘troubling and problematic’ representations of the local population and the fact that it dared to be about British colonial rule without overtly showing how nasty and bad they all were (one Telegraph writer branding it ‘a missed opportunity’). When judged on what the show actually tries to achieve, I would say it does a good job. It is a nuanced look at the lives of normal British Army soldiers and their wives doing their well-intentioned best on the ultimately flawed and doomed stage of the dying days of the empire. Had it been made 10 years earlier I think the almost tragic- and fascinating- feeling it evokes from us 21st century viewers and our knowledge of the past would have been appreciated.

[SPOILERS]

The show’s biggest strengths are its character writing and the way they’re portrayed. Alison Laithewaite is the deeply dissatisfied wife of Leitenant Ed Laithewaite (Stephen Campbell Moore) who spends her days drinking heavily and sleeping with Ed’s colleague Captain Page. Moffat insights strong disdain for her from the first episode through introducing us to her kind and well-intentioned husband Ed, whilst simultaneously showing Alison spit on their marriage and his unconditional love for her. As the show goes on, we begin to empathize and understand her more. She is smart, funny, and fun-loving (revealed in episode 3 by some shameless dance moves), but she is trapped in a marriage with her only escape being a bottle of vodka. As a result, she is very sardonic and almost cold. Her character and outlook is cuttingly realistic- to the point of being difficult to watch- and serves as a comment on the absurdities of normal 20th century life. Jessica Raine is very well suited to the role and portrays the character excellently. I did find the happy resolution of Alison and Ed’s marriage to be a bit contrived and unbelievable based on what we had seen from them, but it made me feel good nonetheless. As well as Alison, the series is full of other interesting, believable characters. Honor Martin (Jessie Buckley) in particular, stands out.  

Allison and Honor

The plot also examines the unscrupulousness and hypocrisy of the British government and empire. Captain Martin (Jeremy Jones) is arrested for the release of the terrorist Kadir (Aymen Hamdouchi) in return for the captured son of the unit commander Major Markham (Ben Miles).  It is later revealed that the government themselves had been negotiating with Kadir. Kadir is also the only member of the local population with a substantial speaking role but he is portrayed as cognizant and righteous, simply fighting for his country’s freedom. Ultimately, the show does well in painting the empire as the oppressive authority it was. One in which the soldiers fighting for, as well as against, fell victim to.

It’s a shame this series- much like the British empire- was branded as outdated and confined to the annals of TV history because I feel like Moffat and his characters had a lot more to offer.

Grade: A-   

The Mandalorian: A Tribute!

When your source material is a Galaxy, far, far away, your possibilities are pretty limitless.

When making The Mandalorian, it would seem Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni acknowledged this. What they made is an original, and AWESOME, Star Wars story. It’s a Star Wars nerd’s wet dream, and (contrary to what some at Disney Lucasfilm would have you believe) there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Who would have thought all it would take is giving the opportunity to inspired creators with passion for their source material? The Mandalorian is Star Wars content, created for Star Wars fans.

It takes the viewer on a journey that is outside of the all-important crusades of the Skywalkers and the Jedi whilst still managing to stay relevant to them. It is its own, different story, but it definitely happens in the same universe. The immersion is greatly helped by the use of live-action and costumes. And whilst each episode can feel like an isolated story with little consequence, the baby Jedi master to-be, Grogu, keeps Mando firmly tethered to the bigger picture and lends credence and significance to his adventures.   

The show captures the atmosphere first introduced to fans by Han Solo and Boba Fett. Mando is a gun-slinging bounty hunter from the old-westerns, with a spaceship, hopping planets. Pedro Pascal (Mando) himself has compared his character to Clint Eastwood. Choosing Tatooine as the set for many of the episodes was a great thematic choice in this regard. Interactions with the Sand People and their hostility with Tatooine’s other residents is well explored and often funny. Favreau really embraces the old-western theme in season 2 with the introduction of ‘The Marshal’, Cobb Vanth (Timothy Olyphant) who is a frontier sheriff with a blaster.

The show has really come into its own in this season. In the first one it can be a bit slow, and at times can feel like its finding its feet or testing the water. Whereas now it was all-out, gunslinging Star Wars awesomeness from the first episode. Like I said, it embraces its identity and runs with it. Favreau’s Star Wars was legitimised by the response to the first season and thank Yoda it was. He amps up the pacing and action as well as introducing us to some amazing and neglected characters from the Star Wars canon outside of the movies (as well as one or two from them). He does these characters justice and then some. Ashoka Tano’s story is brought to a live-action series in spectacular fashion, staying true to her character whilst also making her feel real. She is an alien, wielding two white ‘lazer swords’, hiding in the woods but not once does it feel silly or contrived. Casting Rosario Dawson was a great choice, and she plays the role of the experienced Jedi Knight in solitude well.

It does what the Sequel Trilogy producers chose to neglect, utilise and draw on all the beautiful creations of the wider world of Star Wars canon. Right from the first episode when Mando captures the ‘Blurrg’ creature, I felt like I was back playing The Knights of the Old Republic (the game that also first introduced me to the culture of the Mandalorians.)

I cannot wait to see where this story goes!