Confirmed for a second season and bagged by Netflix for exclusive worldwide streaming, the British detective series Marcella continues to go from strength to strength. Debuting on Britain’s ITV this April, the drama bears all the hallmarks of Nordic crime writing that has taken over the world: urban crime, realism (for the most part), and sly social commentary. Most importantly, though, the series is awash in a moral ambiguity that would make the most enticing “whodunit” pale in comparison.
Starring Anna Friel as the eponymous heroine, the series starts off with the return of a London serial killer who laid low for 11 years before striking again. His modus operandi, of tying his victims’ wrists and feet and putting a plastic bag over their face, is uncannily similar to the 2005 Grove Park murders. (The series is set in the same timeline that it was broadcast.)
Marcella Backland had worked on the 2005 cases, whose killer was never identified. She then left the police force to start a family with Jason (Nicholas Pinnock). Fast forward to today, when Jason informs her he is leaving her for Grace Gibson (Maeve Dermody), scion of DTG Construction, the real estate giant whose legal team he heads.
We first meet Marcella as she is returning from a dinner where Jason has told her of his infidelity, and we see her smash Jason’s car with the kind of unhinged violence you would not associate with a protector of the law. We learn subsequently that Marcella blacks out when she is extremely stressed, a period of which she remembers nothing later.
Hans Rosenfeldt, the maker of the hugely popular Scandinavian crime drama The Bridge, helms Marcella, and his brooding stamp is everywhere. This is London of the night, its brightly lit visage harboring dark secrets. Muddling through her recently enforced single status, Marcella decides to rejoin the force on learning that the 2005 killer has returned. Within days of her joining, a new body turns up, that of Grace Gibson, her face inside a plastic bag, her hands tied, her body dumped in a park not far from her house.
It will not be revealing too much to say that Marcella had visited Grace on the night of her murder to confront her about Jason. She promptly suffered a blackout and does not remember what transpired. As she tries to uncover the mystery, the disturbing question of her own involvement in Grace’s murder will keep returning.
Meanwhile, there is hard detective work to do. Peter Cullen (Ian Puleston-Davies), serving a sentence for his wife’s murder, is the prime suspect (he is in an open prison and works in a bakery in the daytime under middling supervision). There is the Gibson clan, matriarch Sylvie (a ruthless Sinead Cusack) and stepson Henry (Harry Lloyd), the two of whom share an icy relationship. A lot of the plot revolves around an upcoming housing project the Gibsons are developing, a project that will get intimately mixed up with the murders.
What Marcella does brilliantly is showcase the class differences that enable a modern metropolis like London to function. Down-and-out characters like immigrants, taxi drivers and prostitutes are the first to be bumped off because they make for easy targets, even as the real killer is not caught until the end. Sylvie, say, is often shown spending time on the terrace of the magnificent DTG Construction tower, taking in the vast expanse of London from a majestic height. Not for her, and people like her, the grimy, bloodied existence of the laity. Even the smell of suspicion rarely reaches that high, and when it does, it is too late to right matters.
Even when it is uniformly entertaining, Marcella does not always make sense. Several tangential storylines are allowed to fall by the wayside as the action, especially in the later episodes, focuses on nabbing the killer. Yet, the series remains largely believable. Friel, as the frail woman with a steely resolve, brings out her character’s contradictions well. The sense of unease the viewer feels at her likely involvement in the crimes is both dissipated periodically and never fully retired. I binge-watched Marcella’s eight episodes, and now that Rosenfeldt is returning with another season, I will be definitely interested.