by Les Chappell
Series 3, Parts 1 & 2
Original airdates: Dec. 15 and 16, 1992
When I started doing this project to review the entire run of Prime Suspect, one of my major objectives was to understand the series’ impact on other cop shows. And after three installments, it’s impossible not to see its fingerprints on the two decades worth of police procedurals, its commitment to the realism and mechanics of an investigation offering an alternative to the more populist, cowboy style of poolice work. The recently concluded The Closer has been the most frequent comparison made with both shows having a tough female investigator at the center of the show, but most any show that has such a character owes something to the force with which Jane Tennison puts herself at the center of an investigation. It’s also easy to see its fingerprints on David Simon shows such as Homicide: Life on the Street or The Wire, for its unromantic depiction of police work and the bureaucratic/societal forces that get in the way of officers doing their jobs.
Truthfully though, the show that I’m finding the most comparisons to after watching the first three series is Law And Order: Special Victims Unit. Like the long-running Dick Wolf procedural, Prime Suspect’s attentions are firmly centered on the darker side of humanity, with perpetrators like George Marlow and Jason Reynolds who aren’t over-the-top villains but quiet monsters who hide in plain sight. The cases that Tennison and company deal with aren’t the murders of high-stakes political figures or financial figures, they’re people on the fringes of society, much like the bodies that Tennison’s team uncovers and has to fight to draw attention to. And when it’s at its best, SVU, like Prime Suspect, is also a series that depicts the emotional toll the investigations take on its center detectives, and that emphasizes how over time involvement with these cases corrodes and supplants their personal lives.
With Prime Suspect 3, the series continues to embrace its darker tendencies by transferring Tennison directly to a vice squad, her investigative mind plunged deep into the world of child prostitution and molestation. And at the same time, it ensnares her deeper in the seedier side of the police bureaucracy Tennison has sacrificed countless hours and multiple relationships to rise within, a trap that forces her to make the biggest professional decision of her career—while at the same time coming to the most personal decision she’s ever had to make. In doing so, it delivers yet another installment that cements the show’s place in the cop show canon, and one that suggest the show may have a potential it never quite realized.
After the events of Prime Suspect 2 Tennison, unable to secure the Detective Superintendent position despite solving the Joanne Fagunwa murder, put in for a transfer and now finds herself heading the aforementioned Vice squad. The job appears to be a bureaucratic mire—all resources tied up in a sting operation that even the higher-ups don’t seem to have much faith in—but a new layer is added to the investigation when a fire in a drag queen’s apartment claims the life of a young male prostitute named Colin Jenkins. Her commanding officers urge her to kick the case to a different department, but true to form Tennison hasn’t learned any lessons about sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong, and she redirects the squad’s resources into a murder investigation.
Three episodes in, it’s clear that Lynda La Plante (back in the credited writer’s seat, after only writing the teleplay for Prime Suspect 2) has found the formula that works for the series. The investigation folds out organically as always, with Tennison’s careful speeches to the squad room spurring her detectives into the field, bringing back a roster of suspects to submit to her degrees of empathy and iron in the interrogation room. And the ever-present old boy’s network that stymies Tennison is back, now expanding from nuisance into outright corruption as the male prostitution scandals entwine with the recent retirement of a high-ranking officer. (Interestingly enough, after what a big deal it was in the first Prime Suspect to have a woman in the squad room, the Vice squad has two, trading jokes and running down leads with the men. Change may be slow, but it does happen.)
Prime Suspect also continues to have an unmatched grasp on the atmosphere it wants to build, aided by the deft hands of director David Drury and composer Stephen Warbeck. Once again the investigation leads Tennison’s team into the seediest places of England, now with the clear distinction drawn between the ratty alleys where the rent boys and vagrants hang out, and the glitzy bars where drag queens sing for a crowd of incognito politicians. There’s also a sense in the episode that with the series’ focus on the blurring between genders—their victim was saving money for a sex change operation, and one of their primary witnesses is a drag queen—it’s embracing how alien that concept seems to the more conservative detectives, with a more ominous score than previous episodes and slower, more measured shots of the evidence. At times, it almost seems Lynchian, particularly the opening scene: a drag queen slowly singing a cabaret song in front of velvet curtains, cross-cut with the sight of an unconscious Jenkins on a couch slowly being enveloped by fire.
At the same time, this is the first of the series where it’s starting to feel like the format may not be quite working to its advantage. Yes, three hours is a long time to follow a single case, but as the episode tries to stretch out its focus from Tennison and the investigation, several of the plots feel somewhat slim in comparison. An investigator on Tennison’s team who’s also informing on her to the brass is bitten by a street kid with AIDS, a plot development that only gets two scenes with Tennison and one emotional breakdown aside gives no indication of the character. Similarly, the revelation by another inspector that he has personal knowledge of the gay clubs their suspects frequent because he himself is gay has one moment with Tennison and another with other investigators, but moves on fairly quickly from the import to the detective. Admittedly, this could be because the respective detectives Dalton and Hebdon were only introduced this season, whereas if either of these revelations came from returning detectives Lilly and Haskins they’d have more import.
It’s hard not to consider that the show, having proven its bona fides in two miniseries, may have benefited from going a step further and taking a Forbrydelsen approach by fleshing out the mystery in a more conventional format of six, eight or even thirteen episodes. This may be flirting with disaster, especially given how horribly the latter show’s American remake fell apart in trying to do the same, but Prime Suspect proved its bona fides in the first two series, and I think if they wanted to make a longer series, they certainly could have done so. (At the very least, it’s another regret that Prime Suspect’s own American remake couldn’t make it past half a season.)
But what forgives some hiccups in the structure is, as always, the cast that La Plante and company assemble. This installment in particular is a murderer’s row of quality British actors, and a list of people who—much like Ralph Fiennes’ appearance in the first Prime Suspect—are all at points in their career before they’d come to the notice of American audiences. Most remarkably, the aforementioned drag queen Vera Reynolds is played by none other than Peter Capaldi, made famous by The Thick of It as the ludicrously profane Malcolm Tucker. His performance here, rendered meek and terrified by the murder, is so far apart Malcolm Tucker were you to watch Prime Suspect and In The Loop on separate TVs right next to the other it’s likely both would explode.
Other performances aren’t as starkly different but are no less impressive. Mark Strong makes a capable introduction to the squad as a senior detective whose girlfriend provides him some truly awful neckties, and Ciarán Hinds has a restrained and professional air as the head of a halfway house where all the mystery’s action begins to swirl around. As the first prime suspect Jimmy Jackson, David Thewlis is worlds apart from Harry Potter’s Remus Lupin, a notoriously abusive pimp who’s always got an excuse and a sneer. Particular praise also goes to Jonny Lee Miller (of Eli Stone, Dexter and the upcoming Elementary) and James Frain (of The Tudors, True Blood and THE CAPE) playing two victims of child molestation who have reacted in very different ways to their circumstances. Miller’s performance is one that’s buttoned-down and repressed, terrified of what will happen if he loses control for an instant; while Frain puts on a bohemian air that soon betrays itself as a front, culminating in a terrifying breakdown and swan dive.
Most notably for the series, Tom Bell returns as DS Bill Oatley, Tennison’s chief bureaucratic enemy from the first Prime Suspect. Oatley was forced out of Homicide after cutting one too many corners to defend his deceased friend DCI Shefford and wound up in the Vice office as well, a move that both were aware of prior to the series’ start—a move that makes sense but in some way robs us of an unpleasant reveal on one or both their parts. Oately attempts to make peace by praising her resolution of the Marlow case, but Tennison’s business-as-usual attitude and her curt response (a delightful “Well thank you very much”) indicates she’s not buying it. And she’s smart not to because he’s quickly up to his old tricks, muttering “the buck stops with you, mum” after one of her addresses to the squad room and bringing in a homeless rent-boy to interrogate after-hours without clearing it with her first.
But while the two are fighting similar battles to their first conflict, there’s a definite sense that the war between them—and by extension their dynamic—has changed. Oatley’s portrayed as a much more confident investigator this time around, able to gain the trust of the various street urchins the squad needs to ply for information, and he proves himself willing to go far enough as letting a pair of them in his car late at night. And before long, Jane notices this and is prepared to go to him as much as any of her other veteran investigators, taking him aside at a difficult point to urge him: “Dick around and see what you come up with on the quiet.” For his part, Oatley’s still got a quiet smirk on the occasions he clearly gets under her skin, but unlike the first series there’s none of the contempt or disdain for either her gender or her ambition. They’ll never be friends, and it’s doubtful they’ll even share a drink together at the close of an investigation, but something approximating respect has set in for the both.
And of course, any discussion must return to DCI Tennison, in which I continue to sound like a broken record in these pieces praising the performance of Helen Mirren. I’d say differently if it was otherwise, but quite frankly she’s been unimpeachable across three installments, professional and quick-witted while at the same time still very human. Much as her relationship with Oatley has evolved, there’s also a strong sense that she’s changing as well, the game of departmental politics and the frustrations of her cases taking a toll. “You know I’m a glutton for punishment, that’s why I’m so good at my job,” she chuckles to an old flame early in the series, a bit of gallows humor that’s far heavier on the gallows portion than before. Not that she’s become a shrinking violet though, in fact quite the opposite. When her superiors come to her threatening disciplinary action if she doesn’t back off the case, she simply scoffs at them and vows to fight every step of the way—unless, of course, the recently opened Detective Superintendent position goes to her at the close of the investigation. (A development made even colder by the fact she heard about the position from her predecessor at Vice, and wished him good luck in his own efforts for it.)
While I critiqued earlier the fact that some of the plots felt abrupt in presentation, Tennison’s personal plot is anything but. Early in the series she engages in an affair with a married ex-boyfriend, an author who’s on the book tour circuit, and at the end of the first half she learns her cuckolding has left her pregnant. The news obviously floors her in the moment, but after that moment of shock it’s free of cliché: there’s no wistful glances at other women with children, no heartfelt discussion with close friends and family, not even a quiet introspective look around her apartment. There’s foreshadowing of her decision early—the doctor instructs her no smoking and drinking, and later she shares a whiskey with a colleague—but the final decision doesn’t come until the very end, as outside her door the investigation is circling around the target. When it comes, it’s as businesslike and composed as we’ve come to expect from Tennison, calling her doctor in a calm, reasoned voice: “I would like to arrange a termination please.”
The resulting scene is nothing short of heartbreaking, and yet it’s also entirely appropriate. Tennison hangs up the phone, takes several deep breaths in an attempt to compose herself, sends Oatley out the minute he tries to come in and then turns straight to the file cabinet and breaks down sobbing. We never see the expression on her face, only the shaking of her hair and shoulders for almost a full minute. It’s a masterful choice of shooting by Drury: Tennison would never let anyone see her in this vulnerable state, this much in the throes of grief and loss of control, and it’s entirely logical that the audience doesn’t get to see her in this utterly personal moment either. When we see her face next, it’s breaking down a sobbing Vera Reynolds in the interrogation room, coldly telling him to “Stop with the Doris Day act, it’s getting on my nerves.”
And that’s Prime Suspect’s greatest strength: it’s a stirringly emotional show when it wants to be, but that emotion is one that’s masked by the professionalism of Tennison and the detectives under her command. So when it cracks, it does so in a fashion that lingers—one that, as much as other shows want emulate Prime Suspect, very few are able to touch.
Les Chappell is one of the founders of This Was Television, a freelance writer for The A.V. Club’s TV Club and founder of the television blog A Helpless Compiler and the literature blog The Lesser of Two Equals. You can follow him on Twitter @lesismore9o9.