By Les Chappell
(Author’s note: Since the fourth series of Prime Suspect follows a different format than the other series—being split into three individual stories—we’re going to approach coverage in a different way as well and cover each one separately. Closing the series, “The Scent of Darkness.”)
Series 4, Part 3: “The Scent of Darkness”
Original airdate: May 15, 1995
Much as the successful investigation of the George Marlow murders made Jane Tennison’s career, it was the success of the first series of Prime Suspect that drove a lot of my initial good will towards the series. In three and a half hours, the series told a compelling tale of how Tennison climbed the ladder from outsider to respected investigator, while at the same time going through a murder investigation from start to finish in meticulous detail. It dealt with acts of horrific violence without glorifying them, and conveyed the toll that such a long and brutal investigation took on the men and women who conducted it. And the initial cat-and-mouse between Marlow and Tennison was set up in such a fashion that while Marlow’s guilt wasn’t exactly in doubt, it was never confirmed until the very end, with Marlow delivering a confession that was terrifying for its casualness and Tennison practically exhaling relief with her last cigarette.
As such, it makes sense that the creative team behind Prime Suspect would feel the desire to want to revisit Marlow’s case at some point, which they do in the third and final installment of Prime Suspect 4, “The Scent of Darkness.” While it may not hit the emotional levels of “The Lost Child,” it’s in many ways a fitting close to a trilogy that used shorter cases to get under Tennison’s skin. “The Lost Child” showed Tennison’s immediate reactions to her decision to terminate her pregnancy, and “Inner Circles” reflected her frustration with the bureaucracy and semi-mentorship of another female investigator. “The Scent of Darkness” goes a step further, jeopardizing what is to Tennison more important than ideas of motherhood or feminism: being a detective.
Thankfully, Prime Suspect doesn’t try to cheapen itself with a sensationalistic approach by springing Marlow from jail, opting instead to play a more psychological game. A body turns up underneath a bridge wrapped in plastic, and sporting marks that make Tennison and fellow veteran Haskins exchange some very loaded glances: wounds with a long thin blade, hands knotted behind the back, and wounds on the arms that make it looks like she was “strung up and clamped.” Tennison proposes a copycat killer at first, but her squad—helped along by a supposed tell-all book espousing Marlow’s innocence—start to wonder if maybe their fearless leader didn’t get things wrong the first time around, an idea only made worse by her steadfast refusal to let them reopen any of the old case files to look for potential connections between the two.
As someone who’s enjoyed all the installments of Prime Suspect without feeling like they’ve surpassed the peak of the premiere, this return to the original case brings back a lot of memories. Case files are opened up, names like Della Mornay and Karen Howard are spoken aloud again, and the ugly images of bound and tortured bodies are dotting the boards of the squad room. It invests the investigation with the weight of the evil that had come before, hooking the viewer in with more of an emotional commitment because there’s a history. A particularly effective scene is when Tennison finally gives into her squad’s alternate theory of the original murders, and revisits the original storage locker Marlow appropriated as his torture chamber—now repurposed as a furniture shop with gentle classical music playing. “It was like walking into hell when we first found this place,” Tennison muses quietly to herself, reflecting how much things can change.
The decision to reopen the case also means that the pressure’s on Tennison to a degree we haven’t seen in some time. Tennison’s certainly never held back in any of her investigations, and there have been moments of desperation when she thought a case was slipping through her fingers. But now, her career’s in jeopardy in a way that it hasn’t been for a long time—cases have needed to be won but they haven’t been career-enders—and she’s fighting the doubts of her subordinates as much as she’s fighting her own. It adds a new flavor to the tension she experiences, necessary because this is yet another squad room where she’s entering as an interloper and locking horns with the commanding officer who’s already there, a well the show keeps going to with diminishing returns. (It also helps aesthetically that Tennison’s started smoking again since the end of “Inner Circles” and is chain-smoking her way through this investigation as the pressure rises, as I continue to hold that no one makes that habit look classier than Helen Mirren does.)
As such, she’s taking increasingly off-the-book steps to solve the case, first by confronting the man who wrote the tell-all book about Marlow, a move that gets her back in the papers again and gets her booted off the case. She doesn’t let this stop her, making an unauthorized visit to see Marlow’s elderly mother, presenting herself as a friend of the family. “Are you looking after George?” Mrs. Marlow asks cheerfully. “Oh, yes,” Tennison replies without missing a beat.
This leads to another great return to the first series, as Tennison takes Mrs. Marlow out to the same pier that Marlow took her to sing “Walk On” in the eerily beautiful aerial shot from the first series—a pier that we learn held very unpleasant memories for a young George, and colors that whole scene in an far darker retrospective light. As Tennison turns her interrogative powers on a woman clearly growing more confused and frightened as it progresses, it provides the missing link to prove Marlow’s guilt, but does so in the ugliest way possible for our heroine.
Unfortunately, the return of the George Marlow case is hampered by the fact that its antagonist isn’t quite the same person he was before. John Bowe didn’t return to portray Marlow a second time*, and the role is instead filled by Tim Woodward. This works on a surface level, as time in prison would have changed him somewhat, and in the right light Woodward looks enough like Bowe if the years had allowed him to work out more and whittled him down to his darker essence. But at the same time, the character feels like he’s missing that odd spark of conviction that Bowe brought to the role, the feeling that Marlow legitimately believed he was innocent despite all evidence to the contrary. The scene where Tennison and Marlow meet again is appropriately tense and paced, as any one of Mirren’s interrogations is, but the ambiguity is gone and consequently along with it the chemistry.
*The loss of Zoë Wanamaker as Marlow’s girlfriend Moyra is also keenly felt after how good she was in the first series, but it’s explained by Moyra dying of cancer in between episodes. And her death is actually used very effectively as a narrative tool, both because she recanted her confession to Tennison—major fuel for the book on Marlow’s innocence—and her behavior in her final months proves to be a clue that cracks the case wide open.
Thankfully, the episode maintains series continuity within the police department. DI Haskins, as both a member of the original team that worked on the original Marlow investigation and someone who’s stood by Tennison’s side through several other investigations, gives her someone to lean on professionally—particularly in a wonderful scene when they meet by the river after she’s been reassigned, and he reaffirms his support. And there’s even support from a man who’s been an administrative block for much of her career, Detective Chief Superintendent Mike Kernan. John Benfield’s delivered a more than competent job for the entire series as the career officer who Tennison’s learned politics from—more often after botching something—and it’s oddly touching to see the moments where he offers her a lift home after being taken off the case and then unambiguous statements in her darker moments: “I know you got the right man, and you have my support.” Yes, it’s as much his ass on the line as hers if Marlow was innocent, but it speaks to just how good of a cop Tennison is, that her commanding officer will stand behind her as much as she can.
The other side of that equation however, is the fact that Tennison’s spent as much time burning bridges as she has solving cases, and as the internal pressure mounts it allows the series to bring back some of her familiar antagonists. Detective Superintendent Thorndike, who led the inquest following a suspect’s death in Prime Suspect 2—and at the end usurped the DS position Tennison had been angling for all series—is back, exploring the possibility that the Marlow investigation may have been botched from the beginning and asking loaded questions: “If there’s been no miscarriage of justice, has there been unprofessional behavior in Tennison?” And Commander Traynor, who nearly stripped Tennison of her rank and shield in Prime Suspect 3 when she refused to let up on an investigation that implicated a higher-up officer of pedophilia, is the one leading the disciplinary charge against her, tearing her to shreds and suspending her immediately for daring to speak to Marlow in prison.
As a result, the conflict is much more interesting this time around. It’s been part of the series’ DNA from the start that it’s Tennison against the “old boys’ club” that runs the department, and now the reaction is less about institutional sexism and more about the fact that she’s made enemies in her effort to get to the top. In its own way, it’s almost a success for her—she’s climbed the hurdle of gender save it being a source of insults, and is now disliked entirely on her own terms.
And yet, this episode also contains the most real relationship that Tennison’s had in the course of the series. Doctor Patrick Schofield, who Tennison consulted as a source in “The Lost Child,” returns to the series as Tennison’s love interest. The series doesn’t bother with any sort of courtship—leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks after the hesitant message she left in “Inner Circles”—and they’re shown as having the rhythms of a couple that’s been together for some time, joking about how they’re both late to the same date and then drinking wine in the bathtub together in the next scene. The series has treated Tennison’s relationships more as obstacles to her professional development, but this is the first time that she actually feels like she’s in a relationship, actually allowing herself to be happy and open up a bit, a decision that lets Mirren show more earnest emotion than the character has permitted herself. Particularly notable is a moment early in the episode, right as the clouds are gathering over the Marlow copycat investigation, as she and Schofield toy with calling in sick to work: “This is the first time in my life I’ve had the feeling that I don’t want to get up, go to work, don’t want to screw up another relationship. This is the first time in my life that I’ve ever felt like this.”
Of course, she doesn’t call in sick to work; and of course, the relationship hits the skids before too long. Stuart Wilson gives a fine performance as someone who’s both rational and calming enough that you can see why Tennison would be drawn to him, and yet honest and pedantic enough that you can see why he’d still grate on her at times. Tennison can’t help herself from picking his brain for theories on the case, and none of them are the ones she wants to hear. First he dismisses her theory that it’s a copycat killer, and then he offers the possibility that maybe she did get it wrong—a theory that basically turns Mirren’s eyes into hate-powered lasers. (The latter discussion is even more interesting because it’s set in a jazz club, producing some terrific diegetic music for the scene.) And when things finally crack open when she thinks he’s been using her as a source of research, he explodes by turning his powers of observation on her and pointing out what we’ve spent four series learning:
“I am telling you that you are never going to sort out any of your relationships until you find some way of separating your private life from your work! You are never going to learn anything about yourself because you interpret everything that anybody says to you as some kind of a personal attack! What is it with you?! There’s some kind of machismo that’s driving everything you do, it’s patently obvious that you don’t enjoy it but you seem perfectly incapable of resisting it!”
It’s a fight that’s surprisingly ugly for a relationship that we’ve only been invested in for an hour and a half, almost as ugly as any of the politics performed by Thorndike or the mind games played by Marlow, and one that speaks to how well Prime Suspect can generate friction and cast its lead character as her own biggest obstacle. While “The Scent of Darkness” may not have recaptured the adversarial relationship that made the first series so poignant, it paid dividends on many other relationships and closed out the fourth series with more than a spark of that original fire.
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.