We’ve quite taken to Silent Witness and its strung-out CSI:London vibe on dark, late-winter Monday & Tuesday evenings over the last couple of years. Last night I even tweeted about sitting down to watch it. I thoroughly enjoy the pathologist-procedural perspective, the slowed pace compared to US equivalents, and the quiet drama of scientific discovery from intense analysis of mutilated cadavers.
After last night it’s apparent that I’ve even grown quite fond of the trio of lead characters, especially Harry. Cheeky, charming, care-free bachelor-pathologist Harry, driving a Golf GTI (a few seasons ago) and living in a swanky London flat, occasionally almost falling for beautiful foreign detectives out to bust girl-trafficking Eastern European mafia gangs, but never quite ready to settle down. Harry, who ended last night’s episode having been shot, several times, at very close range, and then doused in petrol and set alight.
There can be no trick here. Harry is not going to emerge, Commissioner-Gordon-like, from a faked death. Professor Leo Dalton did not arrive in time to save him from a grizzly fate of being chopped & flamed (or whatever the phrase was). There is no misunderstanding. A well-loved character in a high-profile BBC drama series just got offed, and in absolutely unrepentantly brutalist fashion.
Three things struck me. Firstly, my emotional reaction, which I wasn’t expecting. Empathy isn’t the first word I’d associate with my liking of Silent Witness. I like the discovery, the science, the Holmesian logic and unravelling of what happened. But I was upset by Harry’s death.
Second point; I was upset by the sheer brutality and surprise of it. We the audience were tricked into expecting Harry would be saved or escape, that Leo would arrive on time. Heroes don’t die. Harry’s not a hero; this is the point. He’s a pathologist. Harry died. We saw him shot in the leg and incapacitated, which was shocking enough. We saw the killer approach him, stamp on the wounded leg, and level the gun at Harry’s face. Doubly shocking. We saw the petrol can and understood that this foreshadowed a terrible end. We saw the montaged footage of Leo approaching in a taxi, surely to the rescue. We saw the petrol poured and the match lit and Leo arrive seconds too late. I don’t think I’ve ever been as shocked by a death on TV, and I’ve watched a lot of 24. Was it uncalled-for? My office have been chattering about it today. Facebook and Twitter went mad last night. It got a reaction. I don’t read TV magazines or websites so had no inkling that Tom Ward, the actor who plays Harry, was leaving. Brutal.
Third point; wtf does this say about the Western European, and specifically British, attitude towards Eastern Europe? How many Danny Dyer films have there been with gangs of Bulgarian murderers eating British tourists on stag-dos in Romanian forests? How many Hostel sequels? How many Liam Neeson violent revenge fantasies featuring Albanian mafia? How many incidents like this in “intelligent” primetime drama where awful Eastern European criminal stereotypes commit absolutely dreadful crimes under the watch of corrupt police? In (what seemed like) the middle of a major city? I’ve not been to Eastern Europe but I know friends who have, who’ve had wonderful times, and who’ve managed to completely avoid being shot, raped, set on fire, or cannibalised in forests.
EDIT – He’s alive after all
So then Harry woke up and it was all a dream. Or, rather, a deception. A fake. Who better to fake a death than a pathologist? Harry chipping his crown out while opening a beer bottle with his teeth early in the first part became a ruthless piece of foreshadowing as, with the aid of a little deus ex articulated lorry, he overcame his assailant, causing the attacker’s accidental death, and then did the classic clothing switch and burnt the body. Popping his now-loose crown into the gangster’s mouth served as enough evidence to sway a preliminary identification.
So do I feel silly? Not especially. A little duped perhaps; I, like hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of other people, was tricked into a false period of grieving, and for someone who didn’t even exist. This is the power of television, and especially drama, where, even if they’re cut to look as if they are, things don’t necessarily happen in the order presented.
But the Eastern-European-specific xenophobia continued, as it was revealed that the mafia weren’t just trafficking prostitutes but duping them into falling pregnant and then selling the babies (telling the mothers they were stillborn) to domestic dignitaries or moneyed foreigners. The corrupt police were superceded by corrupt politicians and corrupt doctors.
But, at the crux, the finale, the most corrupt policeman found his conscience, and the most corrupt individual was revealed as the English ambassadorial official. This, alongside numerous references to the fact that a police detective in Budapest earns as much as a burger-flipper in London, helped this story find a layer of sophistication that I was worried had evaporated in the name of shock.