Author’s Note: I want to extend my sincere apologies to our dedicated readers for the delay in delivering this content.
Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond my control, I couldn’t publish a review for you last week.
However, we are now back on track and fully prepared to bring the investigation of George Marlow to its final conclusion.
Series 1, Episode 2
Original airdate: April 8, 1991
The police procedural genre, if not one of the oldest on television, is undoubtedly one of the most prolific and highly regarded.
Wikipedia boasts a list of over 600 examples, spanning from the classic cops-and-robbers style of Dragnet to the methodical investigations seen in Law and Order and CSI, as well as the more gritty approach of NYPD Blue and The Shield.
There are also ensemble pieces like Hill Street Blues (which my colleague Cory is currently covering elsewhere on this site), character-driven shows like Columbo and The Rockford Files, and the intricate urban exploration found in The Wire.
I’ve lost count of the number of cops shows I’ve watched over the years, but I’d venture to guess that if you strung them all together, it would amount to at least a few months’ worths of viewing. (And that’s just from USA/TNT all-day marathons.)
In the grand scheme of things, the three and a half hours I dedicated to watching the first series of Prime Suspect constitute just a small fraction of my viewing history. Yet, despite this, why is it the one show that has lingered in my thoughts long after I finished it?
This question has occupied my mind for the past week and a half, and I believe I’ve finally found an answer, especially after revisiting the final interrogation scene between Jane Tennison and George Marlow for the third time.
What sets Prime Suspect apart isn’t merely its unconventional approach as a cop drama, its inclusion of a diverse team of detectives, or the complexity of its cases, which surpass those of other shows.
What truly makes it remarkable is its status as perhaps the most psychologically intricate police procedural I’ve ever encountered—a captivating exploration of both sides of the law, all without coercing the viewer into adopting a particular character’s perspective.
The effectiveness of Prime Suspect‘s psychological exploration can be traced back to a point I highlighted in my initial review—the substantial amount of time it invests in building the case.
At the outset of the second half, the cliffhanger from the first half, concerning the presence of an eyewitness against Marlow, is promptly resolved (there isn’t one), and the investigation reverts to a somewhat aimless state.
Fueled by desperation for any lead, Tennison and her team continue to delve into both Marlow’s personal life and any related cases.
This pursuit takes them on a journey further away from the main track, including a day trip to Manchester and revisiting an old crime scene, delving into the case files of the deceased John Shefford, and conducting endless searches for a garage that might not even exist.
Consequently, this investigation progressively expands, and as the magnitude of the crime widens to encompass more victims, the weight of despair grows more pronounced.
(It’s worth noting that the show’s understated musical score, featuring the haunting sounds of the viola and cello, masterfully accentuates this sense of despair when needed.)
Undoubtedly, there’s no better illustration of the toll exacted by the investigation than witnessing the strain it places on Tennison’s relationship with her boyfriend, Peter.
Throughout the series, we repeatedly observe how Tennison prioritizes the investigation above all else, resulting in her repeatedly canceling their dates and reacting strongly when he jokingly refers to her as a “dragon lady.”
The simple promise of preparing an avocado dish for dinner with Peter’s business associates becomes a symbol of her overriding commitments. She even goes so far as to have her driver, Jones, pick up groceries for it.
In the final moments, as she rushes in with an armful of bags, it becomes clear that Peter has reached a conclusion she hasn’t even considered.
“You care about your lads. You care about your rapists and your tarts,” he says wearily to her.
She’s left speechless, unable to formulate a response because she must return to the station almost immediately. The deeper conversation she longs to have remains unspoken.
What adds a striking layer to this disintegration is that while Tennison’s relationship crumbles, the home life of George Marlow seems almost idyllic by comparison.
Throughout the investigation, there’s never another suspect aside from Marlow for them to focus on. Tennison does briefly attempt to expand the inquiry to her predecessor, Shefford, but that notion is swiftly dismissed within minutes.
For over three-quarters of the series, there isn’t a single indication that Marlow might be guilty.
In contrast to shows like Criminal Minds that delve into the gruesome details of cases and the twisted pleasure killers take in their actions, all we glimpse in George Marlow’s life are the ordinary domestic moments: painting the garage alongside some undercover cops, sharing an old story with his girlfriend, Moira, and visiting his elderly mother in a nursing home.
One particularly poignant scene stands out when Marlow and his mother sing together on a pier, with an aerial shot gradually ascending to reveal the entire seaside panorama.
Is it any wonder that by the conclusion of the third episode, even Tennison herself begins to question whether they have the right man?
All the groundwork built throughout the series culminates in the final hour when a potential link between the six victims—what Tennison aptly describes as that one crucial detail that hits you like a thunderbolt—finally propels the squad into renewed action.
Once Marlow appears to be heading towards what might be his concealed car, events unfold rapidly as they scramble to tail him amid buses and taxis. This chase scene is especially striking in its swiftness, given the deliberate pace of the investigation thus far.
As if that weren’t enough, the grim reality of what’s discovered inside the garage when Marlow opens it brings the full horror into focus: the missing car, complete with blood and hair samples, and a set of manacles hanging on the garage wall that perfectly match the distinctive restraint marks found on their victims.
By the end of this ordeal, all the detectives are left in a state of shock, passing around a bottle of scotch and lamenting that they didn’t have the opportunity to confront Marlow more forcefully, claiming he resisted arrest.
Upstairs, within the interrogation room, the truth is finally laid bare. Marlow attempts to spin excuse after excuse, but Tennison systematically rebuts each one with the concrete facts they’ve meticulously unearthed during the investigation.
In a final moment of sheer exhaustion, Marlow erupts, screaming directly in her face. In that very instant, there’s a subtle transformation flickering behind his eyes (a masterful display of acting by John Bowe), and the words that have been building up for over three hours finally burst forth.
“This is a mess, isn’t it? All right. I did it,” Marlow admits. It’s a brutal, bone-chilling moment as Marlow goes on to list the names of the six victims involved in the case, pausing momentarily as he struggles to recall the last one.
All Tennison can muster in response is a slight, knowing tilt of her head, a shared recognition of the inner demon she had always sensed was lurking.
However, right at the very end, it takes a turn once more. The episode’s closing shot features Marlow changing his plea to not guilty, his chin quivering, yet his eyes resolutely fixed ahead.
It’s a concluding moment steeped in ambiguity—there’s no lingering doubt in anyone’s mind that he is the murderer, but he appears to be the sole person unconvinced of this fact.
The other facet of psychology that the show adeptly addresses is the aspect many people frequently highlight when discussing Prime Suspect: the series’ exploration of institutional sexism and gender dynamics.
Interestingly, despite its renown, Prime Suspect wasn’t the pioneer in featuring a female professional in a police setting, and it wasn’t even the first of its kind in England.
In 1980, The Gentle Touch centered on DCI Maggie Forbes, who navigated her career alongside single motherhood.
A few months later, Juliet Bravo made its debut, focusing on two female DCIs who jointly oversaw a police station in a small Lancashire town.
I haven’t had the opportunity to watch either of those shows, so I can’t comment on how effectively they addressed this issue.
However, what sets Prime Suspect apart in its treatment of this matter is its straightforward portrayal.
There are no catcalls or crude remarks directed at Tennison, no derogatory terms like “bitch” hurled her way by disgruntled colleagues, and no lewd gestures or prank calls to undermine her. Instead, what unfolds are more subtle actions aimed at undermining her authority.
This often takes the form of Detective Otley discreetly relocating files or preempting her gesture to buy a round for the team by paying for it first.
It feels remarkably authentic rather than contrived, and this authenticity can be attributed to the personal touch that Lynda La Plante brought to the show.
It’s worth noting that Tennison is based on a real person, Detective Chief Inspector Jackie Malton, who was a decorated officer in the robbery, fraud, and homicide divisions.
At the time Prime Suspect aired, she was one of only four female DCIs operating at Scotland Yard.
Tennison’s response to all of these challenges is particularly remarkable in the sense that she consistently treats them as secondary concerns to the primary goal of solving the case.
She dismisses the issue casually, commenting as her team starts to grow impatient, “Ah, you’re a bunch of old chauvinists, and there are thousands more like you!”
While she is undoubtedly aware that she cannot display any sign of weakness, as one breakdown in the squad room could erode every ounce of respect she’s earned, her composure appears to stem from her determination to be a dedicated cop first and foremost, with her gender being a secondary consideration, not the other way around, or a balance of both with equal weight.
Indeed, the moments when Tennison embraces her gender reveal themselves as the most pragmatic instances for her character.
In these moments, she capitalizes on the unique advantages her gender offers, allowing her to obtain information that a male officer might struggle to acquire.
She demonstrates an open-minded approach, sharing a drink with two prostitutes and engaging in a candid discussion about their murdered friend.
She even shares a laugh with them when a house painter on break makes an inappropriate proposition.
When Moira is brought in for questioning, Tennison carefully grooms her appearance as if preparing for a first date, subtly placing them on somewhat equal footing.
This strategic move later enables her to confront Moira with the solid evidence of Marlow’s crimes, effectively shattering his alibi. While Tennison isn’t employing feminine wiles to manipulate situations, she’s not oblivious to the advantages that her gender provides.
For instance, when her commanding officer contemplates removing her from the case, she hides out in the women’s locker room until he leaves the building, knowing it’s the one place he can’t access.
This particular moment is played with a remarkable degree of humanity by Mirren.
As the investigation unfolds, a curious shift occurs within Tennison’s squad: they begin to pay as little attention to her gender as she does.
This transformation becomes even more pronounced after Otley is removed from the force due to his disruptive behavior, which puts the investigation at risk.
They become more willing to follow her orders, speak candidly about the investigation, and even find humor in how others react to their female chief.
For instance, while Tennison and Jones are in Manchester investigating one of the murders, the local police chief’s dumbfounded expression upon encountering a female DCI is met with a nonchalant shrug and a wink from Tennison’s driver, Jones.
When Tennison “accidentally” allows a makeshift metal door to slam in the chief’s face after receiving insulting comments, Jones simply chuckles in response.
Their unwavering commitment to the case takes precedence over everything else to the extent that when it appears that higher-ranking officers might remove Tennison from the case*, the entire squad signs a document stating they won’t work with anyone else.
*The scene in which word spreads about the possibility of Tennison being replaced serves as an excellent illustration of the telephone game, with speculation gradually morphing into a firm belief as it circulates around the room. The visual imagery of this scene is also noteworthy: Tennison becomes a blurred figure in the background as everyone converses, the discussion about her future entirely beyond her control.
This scene is truly outstanding for two significant reasons. First, after hearing the news, Tennison’s typically imperious demeanor momentarily softens, revealing a genuine sense of relief and gratitude.
It’s a remarkably sincere moment, arguably one of the most heartfelt in the entire series.
What makes it even more impactful, and in line with the approach that earned her the respect of her team, is that as she begins to express her gratitude to the room, it’s immediately overshadowed the moment news breaks that Marlow is on the move.
These individuals are not just colleagues; they are professionals bound by a common purpose, and it’s this professional bond that ultimately keeps everything together.
However, more significant than any formal letter of confidence, exuberant song, or celebratory champagne toasts, the most telling indication of Tennison’s acceptance comes in the form of a subtle detail, as one might expect.
In my initial review, I noted that the entire squad consistently referred to her as “mum”—a point that often provoked her ire. Yet, in the frenetic final stages of the investigation, the entire squad subtly transitions to addressing her as “guvn’r.”
There’s no grand announcement, no explicit declaration of this change; it simply unfolds naturally.
Every bit of it was well-deserved and immensely gratifying in how it unfolded.
Tennison had earned that mark of respect, her department had earned that successful conviction, and the first series of Prime Suspect unquestionably merits every ounce of respect it receives as a quintessential example of the police procedural genre.