Episode 1: “The Start Of Us”
Episode 2: “Keep Calm, Come To No Harm”
Episode 3: “Bubblegum and Bleach”
Episode 4: “Deborah”
“We talked about this and you agreed.. This young girl, she needs us.”
“If June is one of us, she’s in danger.”
“We both ran away to be who we wanted to be..”
“Look! Look! It’s me!! Harry, it’s me!”
“This gift… is greater than any of us.”
“You’re a young woman in a frightening new world.”
– From The Innocents, trailer #1
There was actually much advanced talk before the release of this 8 episode series — and I missed most of it. It was only a few weeks before the show “dropped” (you have to love the terminology that’s being given to entertainment nowadays) that I happened to catch a trailer — fortuitous? The trailer gave an impression of a Gothic-like, Mary Shelly-inspired modern day take on Beauty and the Beast. Maybe. Or perhaps “My So-Called Shapeshifting Life.” I was concerned it could be either:
- Great to a point: the crunchy outside just what I was hoping for, but hampered by a teenage gooey centre; or
- Mediocre: the gooey exterior containing an insightful inner drama that was too brief, too enslaved by the concerns of what kind of audience it was aiming for.
So part of my bank holiday weekend was dedicated to finding out what the promise of this intriguing 2 minute trailer was capable of, given 8 hours of screen time. I am (it’s no secret) not really a fan of binge watching. There’s something diminishing to me about rushing through a show, burning through a narrative journey so that the destination, instead of being anticipated, is almost there before the appreciation of the journey has begun. But I am old school. This show looked to be a mixture of old and new — modern day setting, but with an atmosphere out of the 1800s — mists, bleak vistas and perhaps a few old fashioned scares along the way?
The premise? Two teenagers decide to escape their lives in the north of England in order to be together; not just so that their burgeoning romance can flourish, but in order to “be who they want to be” (a motif that seems to resound in the early episodes) — away from the metaphorical and sometimes, literal, constraints that dominate their lives at home. Both have difficult circumstances particular to them: Harry is relied upon to take care of his seemingly-half comatose father, whilst his mother Christine works as a police detective; June is almost a prisoner to her father’s (John’s) unexplained paranoia — taken to school (all the way to her locker), only given a mobile phone once there in case of emergencies — then collected promptly, whereafter she looks out for her older, agoraphobic brother Ryan (who is locked behind a pass-coded door in a small outhouse next to the main home). The mysteries are starting to pile up. On the TV at Harry’s home, a documentary about the mimic octopus is playing, guilty of heavily foreshadowing the events to come, but actually The Innocents isn’t quite as obvious as that in the majority of its narrative so far (4 episodes in). It withholds much and leaves a good amount of space to involve its audience in the lives of the young escapees and their fraught parents. It’s more an ensemble piece in some respects — dealing with the secrets our parents withhold for what is supposedly our own good, through to the effects that our sincere actions have on our siblings or our friends.
So far, so slightly not-normal. It doesn’t take long before we are shown a mysterious set up somewhere in Norway, where Guy Pearce’s character Halvorson is helping three women to overcome some kind of “issues” in a secluded set up deep in the countryside. Suffice to say something isn’t “normal” here either. Especially when our initial encounter with them (a flashback) is Halvorson’s chasing of a man known as Steinar — who it turns out, is also the same man sitting comatose back in the “lab.” So there’s two of them?
Not quite. As it moves on we see the “Steinar” being chased is actually a woman known as Runa — a woman who can shapeshift and take the place of anyone she touches, leaving the original in a coma-like state whilst she assumes their identity. Did I mention a coma-like state before? Indeed I did — I likened it to the state that Harry’s father is in when we are first introduced to the characters.. Mmmmm… the plot thickens.
And that brings me to the the central (as yet to be disproved, halfway through the season as I am) McGuffin of the show.
On June’s 16th birthday, she and Harry escape the lives they have been trapped by, and seek the freedom of the open road. And like all good ideas in any kind of drama, it does not go according to plan. The man we met earlier — Steinar — is tracking June with a message from her mother, alongside a syringe full of a sleeping agent in order to kidnap her away from her current life. And that’s when things get complicated.
June it will turn out, is also a shapeshifter — just like her mother, who is one of the three women under Halvorson’s care — and Steinar is Halvorson’s partner in crime. I won’t go into too many spoilers on how we find out about June (though damn the trailer for too many giveaways), as the initial mystery and drama derives it’s thrust from trying to establish what is happening, and what the connection between all of these characters actually is. It’s a well-played idea. The mystery is built not only by what is shown via classic methods –– effects such as the slight de-saturation of the colours and preternatural glow on the screen at various moments; the use of traditional score to build tension rather than teenage-friendly indie songs (though they are used often, but mostly to good effect and not used to glorify or diminish the trauma in the script) — but by references to things not yet explained or people not yet seen. Much like an episode of The X-Files, we discover much at the same moment as the characters. It’s a shame that, once the first episode has built much of the tension focusing on the escape of the lovers from their families and the north of England, the potential in the mystery is then mainly derived from the scenes in Norway and the uncertainty of what is being achieved by the doctor and his patients. Understandably the world has opened up for the young couple in terms of new experiences and helpful opportunities along the way, but the suspense becomes more regulated by more everyday threats — passing strangers, drugs, lack of money etc. That’s not to say that these things are in any way less dramatic (and certainly the secrecy and past trauma that is being explored by the parents of the runaways is maintaining a strong hook) but perhaps it’s partly the fault of the trailer and the associated TV press that the overall impression given of the show is not quite what is being delivered (i.e where are the scares?). Well, so far anyway.
June’s shapeshifting in these initial 4 episodes is not used often, not used for fun, or for that matter, controllable, which is a nice change from the obvious avenues that could be taken. What it does do in an interesting way (I don’t know yet if this is intentional) is place June into the bodies/situations which could foreshadow her future… A girl high on drugs in a life that she may have fallen into because of desperate times; a pregnant nurse who has chosen to have a baby without a partner in her life… Both of these could be seen as possible futures for a young girl finding her way in adulthood. Is this series to be a metaphor for the choices facing June? Too early to tell, but it’s interesting to note that, 4 episodes in, it’s a possibility.
Another element that seems quite clear is within the title: The Innocents. Some of the characters at the moment seem very much so: either at the mercy of circumstance or choices in life, they all seem to have a strong moral code and to act out of compassion or the need to do the right thing (OK, that might not make them innocent per se, but it’s in keeping with virtuosity, a lack of corruption, and a drive to do what is seemingly right). It’s obvious that the two main teenage leads are the most innocent — after all, they have yet to really do harm within their lives, intentional or otherwise. But this does seem to extend to other characters too. June stays with a young girl that she seems to have hurt by shapeshifting, despite the danger of doing so; Harry breaks down at the sheer weight of the challenges ahead and the unknown aspects of what is happening to his girlfriend, but stays with her no matter what; and, despite what seems to be a lack of trust, both Christine (Harry’s mum) and John (June’s dad) join forces in helping to find the kids and work on how to get them home safely. They seem decent — misguided in terms of John perhaps — but with the best of intentions. Maybe that will all unravel as the series moves on; maybe it will be made obvious that, as we move into adulthood, childhood innocence falls by the wayside: we become more embittered, driven by selfish, as much as altruistic, needs — dictating that we know best simply because of our own experiences, unable to allow our children to make their own mistakes. There’s an implication of malice behind some of the adults so far, but when the reasons are revealed it reshapes our ideas of what we thought was the truth of things. The only character who does not seem to be quite as easy to read is Halvorson. His remote waystation, and his need to help the women under his care, do not appear to be as altruistic as perhaps we are to assume. Or is this the show playing with us; perhaps the danger is not without, but within? We have already seen Steinar, who it seems started out as a man wanting to help someone who helped him earlier in his own life, turning to drastic measures to get his partner Halvorson what he wants. His actions at the moment seem overzealous and extreme. Is there something more that we don’t know?
The Innocents is a series that doesn’t play up the “supernatural” element, but lets it develop alongside the emotional complications of running away and the trouble that brings to everyone’s life. Yes, there’s an overarching plot there, but it’s not forced into the story at the cost of character investment or stark realism. All the actors fall upon their swords in terms of giving the piece real commitment — there’s no screen hogging or scenery-chewing. If anything, moments are downplayed. The almost-kiss between Christine and her superior (and friend) DCI Doug Squires on the stairs in her house — so easy to give in to the moment, but so real to leave it as an unspoken need, at a time when emotions are running high and desperation is beginning to set in. Again with our two runaways, the delayed sexual union between the two is not played for the typical YA (Young Adult) requirement that, in the middle of a crisis, of course you have the time, lack of anxiety, and opportunity to get naked and get it on. No, here, it’s secondary to the twists of fate that have pursued them and it feels earned — that they both have to come to terms with what’s happening and how they feel about each other first. In other youth-oriented dramas it’s traditional to forgo common sense for audience expectation.
All the performances are great; uniformly natural and unforced, they add credibility to what are incredible circumstances. The camerawork is unhurried in a way that suits much of the intimate drama, but has an urgency driving the obvious moments of tension and danger (the club scene in particular is well executed and gives a substantial contrast to the bleaker moments elsewhere). Added to that. some real thought on the framing of shots and exclusion of unnecessary background details adds a slight air of timelessness — there is no strong sense of modernity throughout. Technology is used just in service of the story. For instance, in Norway the only technology used seems fairly old (the ancient mobile phone that is used for the message between Elona and June, or the old-school slide projection used in the sessions Halvorson conducts) and that, together with the blank-canvas empty vistas, and the directives of not sharing secrets or details of their outside lives, keeps the scenes and the characters there in some sort of twilight zone. They are out of place — with the world, and perhaps with their own sense of self. Where June and Harry want to share themselves completely with each other, to escape the mundane day-to-day world and the dictates of their parents, June’s mother Elena and the other women are encouraged to be separate and alone, to keep their secrets to themselves, to stick to the daily chores outlined. Will this be what is needed to survive as a shapeshifter? Or can Halvorson “cure” them of their triggers, to enable them to return to the larger world and survive in it?
As for the main plot? It bubbles along nicely, with the juxtaposition of the almost-bland but beautiful, restrictive Norway elements contrasting with the London-based frenetic chase that Steinar and June’s father/brother are engaged in. Furthermore, whilst at this stage I don’t know if there is any sort of purpose to the shapeshifting or Halvorson’s role in any “grand scheme,” I am happy to let things gain speed at the pace they are moving along — cautiously, but with hints dropped about what, if any, destination we are headed towards. The mention of the “Pennine Five” back in the North of the UK seems to reference five people who entered a comatose-like state in the past; which is likely to have something to do with June’s mother Elena before she took off, or was forced to leave, depending on who you believe. The tapes of the sessions that Halvorson keeps: is this to help with future subjects, to help others who cannot control the shifting? Or is there a nefarious purpose to his “helping?” Is this assistance disguising experimentation? And finally at the end of episode 4, with YouTube almost exposing June worldwide (or at least helping to pose inescapable questions), who is the young man seemingly on the other side of the world, watching, posting “I know what this is. I can help”? Is he another shapeshifter or just someone with tertiary knowledge of what is happening to June and the others, that has answers to the questions they have?
All will be revealed soon I hope…