Dark Angel episode 1 review

Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt plays a real-life serial killer in ITV’s two-part drama Dark Angel…

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This review contains spoilers.

Life was tough for the nineteenth century poor. If the insalubrious lodgings and back-breaking work didn’t get you, Typhus would. Or Gastric Fever. Or childbirth, if you were unlucky enough to have a functioning womb and had a husband that wouldn’t “whip it out” before he was done.

Another existential threat lurked in the compact form of Mary-Ann Cotton, dubbed ‘Britain’s First Female Serial Killer’. Played here by Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt, Cotton is the subject of two-part drama Dark Angel, adapted from David Wilson’s biography of the prolific poisoner.

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Dark Angel does a solid job of establishing the wretchedness of life for Victorian working class women – if largely by having characters deliver lines like “Buck up, love eh? Cos that’s just how life is for women and no amount of mithering will change that.” A lack of birth control, high infant mortality, poor employment prospects and scant support from the state formed a perfect storm of dispiriting, exhausting poverty. We’re shown a heavily pregnant Mary-Ann endlessly on her knees scrubbing infested lodgings, pumping water from the communal source and struggling down smoggy alleyways laden with buckets and baskets. If you saw a way out of this mess, suggests Dark Angel, you might just take it too.

Mary-Ann spies her way out in the form of a bottle of arsenic and a life insurance pay-out on her husband. Using a family heirloom teapot, she brews her way out of her marriage and into receipt of half a year’s salary. And then she remarries and does it again, and again, and again, until she’s eventually sent to the gallows, which is where we first meet her before Dark Angel rewinds to start its story.

That story is chronologically baffling. Choosing to forgo the clutter of date subtitles, viewers are left to deduce how much time has passed between scenes by counting the number of urchins clinging to Mary-Ann’s skirts (not a perfect system by any means due to the rate they pop their little clogs, whether due to mama’s helping hand or God’s plan). One scene she’s puffed up and pregnant, the next she’s trim-tummed and nursing, and the next she’s a beach ball standing over another tiny grave. She’s no sooner felt up by Jonas Armstrong’s lascivious cad in a filthy alleyway than she’s bouncing a new-born son on her knee.

And for a drama that tries to paint a sympathetically pitiful picture of Victorian women’s lives, childbirth is entirely skipped over. One pregnant twinge at the sink cuts to Mary-Ann sat up cheerfully in a spic and span bed cuddling a bonny daughter as if she’d been painlessly removed from a Velcro-sealed pouch.

The same goes for her relationships. No sooner does Mary-Ann make eyes at a fella than they’re married. Appreciating that there are a lot of dead husbands and kids to tick off the list here, the result is less efficient storytelling, more unintentionally comedic.

Driven by dire circumstance to murder her first husband, Mary-Ann takes to killing with all the moral complexity of someone taking up bridge. Second hubby not bringing home sufficient bacon? A spoonful of arsenic makes the medicine go down. Mother acting suspicious about the speedy dispatch of husband number two? Get the kettle on, everything’ll look better after a nice cup of poison tea.

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By the end of part one, we’ve watched Cotton kill a handful of times, but still know hardly a thing about her, not least how she’s affected by the murders. Instead of getting under the skin of a killer, Dark Angel turns serial poisoning into a sketch show that doesn’t just lack seriousness, it’s actually silly. When Mary-Ann turns to her trusty teapot, a cheeky wink to camera wouldn’t feel at all out of place.

Silly, yet thanks to the subject matter, bleak and so far offering no insight you won’t find on Cotton’s Wikipedia page. Dark Angel is a missed opportunity.

Dark Angel concludes on Monday the 7th of November at 9pm on ITV1.