Series 3, Parts 1 & 2
Original airdates: Dec. 15 and 16, 1992
When I embarked on the project of reviewing the entire Prime Suspect series, one of my primary goals was to comprehend its influence on other police procedurals.
After three installments, it’s impossible to overlook the impact it has had on two decades’ worth of police procedural shows.
Its dedication to the realism and intricacies of investigations offers an alternative to the more sensational and cowboy-style police work.
While The Closer, which recently concluded, is frequently compared to it due to both shows featuring a strong female investigator, any series with such a character owes a debt to the way Jane Tennison places herself at the heart of an investigation.
Furthermore, the influence of Prime Suspect can be seen in David Simon’s shows like Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire, which depict the unromantic side of police work and the bureaucratic and societal obstacles that hinder officers in their duties.
However, the series that I find most comparable after watching the first three seasons is Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Similar to the long-running Dick Wolf procedural, Prime Suspect’s focus is on the darker aspects of humanity, with perpetrators like George Marlow and Jason Reynolds, who are not over-the-top villains but rather quiet monsters who blend into society.
The cases that Tennison and her team handle involve individuals on the fringes of society, much like the bodies they uncover and struggle to bring attention to.
When at its best, SVU, like Prime Suspect, portrays the emotional toll these investigations take on their lead detectives and highlights how involvement with these cases gradually erodes and replaces their personal lives.
In Prime Suspect 3, the series continues to embrace its darker themes as it places Tennison directly in a vice squad, immersing her investigative mind deep into the world of child prostitution and molestation.
Simultaneously, it entangles her further in the seedier aspects of the police bureaucracy.
Tennison, who has sacrificed numerous hours and multiple relationships to rise within this system, finds herself trapped.
This situation forces her to make the most significant professional decision of her career while also confronting the most personal decision she’s ever had to make.
In doing so, the series delivers another installment that solidifies its position in the realm of police procedurals and hints at untapped potential.
Following the events of Prime Suspect 2, where Tennison couldn’t secure the Detective Superintendent position despite solving the Joanne Fagunwa murder, she requests a transfer and now leads the Vice above squad.
The job initially appears to be a bureaucratic quagmire, with resources tied up in a sting operation that even the higher-ups lack faith in.
However, 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.
While her commanding officers advise her to hand the case over to a different department, Tennison, true to her nature, refuses to heed such advice and redirects the squad’s resources toward a murder investigation.
Three episodes into the series, it’s evident that Lynda La Plante, back in the credited writer’s seat after only crafting the teleplay for Prime Suspect 2, has discovered the winning formula for the show.
The investigation unfolds organically, with Tennison’s carefully delivered speeches in the squad room motivating her detectives to hit the field.
They bring back a list of suspects for her to assess with varying degrees of empathy and assertiveness in the interrogation room.
The ever-present old boy’s network that obstructs Tennison is also making a return, now evolving from a mere nuisance into blatant corruption, especially as the male prostitution scandals intersect with the recent retirement of a high-ranking officer.
Notably, despite the initial significance of having a woman in the squad room in the first Prime Suspect, the Vice squad now has two women engaging in banter and pursuing leads alongside their male counterparts. Change may be gradual, but it does occur.
Prime Suspect maintains its exceptional ability to cultivate the desired atmosphere, thanks to the skillful direction of David Drury and the musical composition of Stephen Warbeck.
Once more, the investigation leads Tennison’s team to England’s seediest locations, with a clear distinction between the seedy alleys frequented by rent boys and vagrants and the upscale bars where drag queens entertain a crowd of anonymous politicians.
The episode also conveys a sense that the series is exploring the blurring of gender lines, with their victim saving money for a sex change operation and one of their primary witnesses being a drag queen.
This concept appears foreign to the more conservative detectives, emphasized by a more ominous score than in previous episodes and slower, more deliberate shots of the evidence.
At times, it almost takes on a Lynchian quality, especially in the opening scene: a drag queen’s slow rendition of a cabaret song in front of velvet curtains, intercut with the sight of an unconscious Jenkins on a couch slowly succumbing to the flames.
Simultaneously, this marks the first point in the series where it’s starting to seem like the format might not be working entirely to its advantage.
Indeed, three hours is a considerable length of time to track a single case, but as the episode attempts to expand its focus beyond Tennison and the investigation, several of the subplots come across as rather thin by comparison.
An investigator on Tennison’s team who is also providing information to the higher-ups is attacked by a street kid with AIDS, a plot development that receives only two scenes with Tennison, and aside from one emotional breakdown, it offers no significant insight into the character.
Likewise, when another inspector reveals that he has personal knowledge of the gay clubs frequented by their suspects because he is gay, it garners a single moment with Tennison and another with other investigators but then moves swiftly away from the detective’s involvement.
It’s worth noting that this could be because the respective detectives, Dalton and Hebdon, were only introduced this season.
If either of these revelations had come from returning detectives Lilly and Haskins, they would likely have carried more weight.
It’s challenging not to contemplate whether the show, after establishing its credibility through two miniseries, might have reaped benefits from taking an approach similar to “Forbrydelsen” by expanding the mystery over a more conventional format spanning six, eight, or even thirteen episodes.
While this might have been a risky move, considering the unfortunate fate of the American remake of the latter show when it attempted the same, Prime Suspect had already proven its credibility in the first two series.
If they had chosen to create a longer series, it was entirely within their capabilities. (It’s at least another source of regret that Prime Suspect’s American remake couldn’t endure beyond half a season.)
However, what compensates for some structural hiccups, as always, is the ensemble cast curated by La Plante and her team.
This installment, in particular, boasts a remarkable lineup of talented British actors, many of whom, much like Ralph Fiennes in the first Prime Suspect, had yet to capture the attention of American audiences at that point in their careers.
Notably, the drag queen Vera Reynolds is portrayed by none other than Peter Capaldi, renowned for his role as the outrageously profane Malcolm Tucker in “The Thick of It.”
Capaldi’s performance here, displaying timidity and fear in the face of murder, is so distinct from Malcolm Tucker that if you were to watch Prime Suspect and “In The Loop” side by side on separate TVs, both might spontaneously combust.
Other performances, while not as drastically different, are equally impressive.
Mark Strong makes a strong entrance as a senior detective with a penchant for truly awful neckties.
Ciarán Hinds exudes a composed and professional demeanor as the head of a halfway house where much of the mystery’s action revolves. David Thewlis, in the role of the first prime suspect, Jimmy Jackson, stands in stark contrast to his portrayal of Harry Potter’s Remus Lupin.
He portrays a notoriously abusive pimp who always has an excuse and a sneer.
Special mention must also be made of Jonny Lee Miller (known for “Eli Stone,” “Dexter,” and the upcoming “Elementary”) and James Frain (of “The Tudors,” “True Blood,” and “The Cape”), who play two victims of child molestation who respond to their circumstances in profoundly different ways.
Miller delivers a restrained and repressed performance, driven by a deep-seated fear of losing control, while Frain adopts a bohemian facade that eventually crumbles, leading to a chilling breakdown and swan dive.
Notably, in this series, Tom Bell reprises his role as DS Bill Oatley, who serves as Tennison’s primary bureaucratic adversary, a character familiar to viewers from the first Prime Suspect.
Oatley had been pushed out of the Homicide division due to his tendency to cut corners in defense of his deceased friend, DCI Shefford.
He subsequently found himself in the Vice office, a move that both characters were aware of even before the series commenced. While this transition makes logical sense, it somewhat deprives us of an unexpected revelation on the part of one or both characters.
Oatley attempts to reconcile by complimenting Tennison on her handling of the Marlow case.
However, Tennison’s business-as-usual demeanor and her concise response (a wry “Well, thank you very much”) suggest that she remains skeptical.
Her wariness is well-founded, as Oatley quickly reverts to his old habits, muttering “the buck stops with you, mum” after one of her squad room addresses and bringing in a homeless rent-boy for interrogation after hours without obtaining her clearance first.
However, while they find themselves embroiled in similar battles to their initial conflict, there’s a noticeable shift in the ongoing war between them, which, by extension, alters their dynamic.
This time around, Oatley is portrayed as a much more self-assured investigator.
He successfully garners the trust of the various street urchins whom the squad relies on for information and is even willing to let a pair of them into his car late at night.
Jane soon takes notice of this transformation and is ready to approach him, much like any of her other experienced investigators.
At a crucial juncture, she pulls him aside and encourages him, saying, “Dig around and see what you come up with on the quiet.”
For his part, Oatley still sports a subtle smirk on occasions when he clearly gets under her skin.
However, in contrast to the first series, there’s no trace of contempt or disdain for her gender or her ambition.
They may never become friends, and the prospect of sharing a drink at the end of an investigation is doubtful, but a semblance of respect has developed between them.
Of course, any discussion must inevitably get back to DCI Tennison, and once again, I find myself reiterating my praise for Helen Mirren’s performance.
If it were otherwise, I’d express it differently, but the truth is she has been exceptional across three installments.
She embodies professionalism and quick-wittedness while retaining her essential humanity.
As her relationship with Oatley evolves, there’s a strong sense that she is changing as well, grappling with the intricacies of departmental politics and the frustrations of her cases, which take a toll on her.
Early in the series, she shares a bit of gallows humor with an old flame, saying, “You know I’m a glutton for punishment, that’s why I’m so good at my job.”
However, the humor is darker than before, heavily laced with a sense of resignation.
This doesn’t mean she has become timid; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
When her superiors approach her with threats of disciplinary action if she doesn’t back off the case, she dismisses them and vows to fight every step of the way—unless, of course, she secures the recently vacated Detective Superintendent position at the conclusion of the investigation.
This development is made even more chilling by the fact that she learned about the position from her predecessor at Vice and wished him good luck in his pursuit of it.
While I previously criticized the abrupt presentation of some plots, Tennison’s storyline is anything but rushed.
Early in the series, she engages in an affair with a married ex-boyfriend who is an author on a book tour.
By the end of the first half, she discovers that her affair has resulted in pregnancy.
While the news understandably stuns her in the moment, the subsequent development is devoid of clichés.
There are no wistful glances at other women with children, no heartfelt discussions with close friends and family, and not even a quiet, introspective examination of her apartment.
There is some foreshadowing of her decision early on—the doctor advises her to avoid smoking and drinking, and later, she shares a whiskey with a colleague.
However, the final decision doesn’t manifest until the very end, with the investigation closing in on its target just outside her door.
When the moment arrives, Tennison handles it as businesslike and composed as we’ve come to expect from her.
She calmly and rationally calls her doctor, saying, “I would like to arrange a termination, please.”
The resulting scene is profoundly heart-wrenching, yet it’s entirely fitting.
After hanging up the phone, Tennison takes several deep breaths in an attempt to regain her composure.
She sends Oatley away when he tries to enter and then immediately turns to the file cabinet, where she breaks down sobbing.
Her face remains unseen, with the camera focused on the trembling of her hair and shoulders for almost a full minute.
It’s a brilliant choice of cinematography by Drury.
Tennison, a character who would never allow anyone to witness her in such a vulnerable state, is depicted in the midst of grief and a loss of control.
It’s entirely reasonable that the audience doesn’t get to see her in this intensely personal moment.
The next time we see her face, she is in the interrogation room, breaking down a sobbing Vera Reynolds.
She addresses him coldly, saying, “Stop with the Doris Day act; it’s getting on my nerves.”
Prime Suspect’s greatest strength lies in its ability to be profoundly emotional when needed, all while that emotion is concealed by the professionalism of Tennison and her detectives.
When that professionalism cracks, it does so in a manner that leaves a lasting impact.
As much as other shows may seek to replicate Prime Suspect, very few can truly measure up to its emotional depth.
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