This review contains spoilers.
As we’d been warned they would, the tables turn for serial poisoner Mary Ann Cotton in part two of ITV’s Dark Angel. Her social ascendency is thwarted by suspicion and the fragility of life for the Victorian poor. People around her are dropping like flies, and not all of them due to her arsenic-laced tea.
Perversely, it was only when things began to spin out of control for Cotton that the drama started to find its grip on her character. At least, that’s when a sense of her finally emerged as more than a name in a ghoulish nursery-rhyme . By the time Joanne Froggatt capably delivered that final monologue on wanting more from life than coal dust and childbirth, Cotton had a personality and inner conflict, if not what could reasonably be called depth.
After another quickie marriage and three more child murders, we saw her chased out of the Robinson house and callously insinuate herself into her best friend’s home. Out came the teapot and it was bye-bye Maggie Cotton, hello bigamous marriage to Maggie’s brother Fred. Next for the treatment was lover Joe—both pro bono kills if you will, seeing as there was no way she could collect on either’s life insurance—before her final victim: Fred’s orphaned little boy, whose death was the tipping point for the local constabulary.
Cotton met the gallows with the same arrogance as she met with most other things. Certain she wouldn’t be hanged and protesting her innocence until the end, she died declaring that ‘heaven is [her] home’. Was that another performance? Her belief in her own damnation cast an intermittent shadow over the rest of the episode, which showed her fighting (though obviously not too hard) against her sins.
Froggatt certainly paid her way in part two, which was stronger than last week’s accidentally comic teapot caper. A portrait of Mary Ann’s egotism, snobbery and need to exert control developed, finally offering at least some insight into her choices to kill. To her mind, the murders were a means to an end; she deserved more than her lot and each life insurance payment was simply another rung on the ladder up.
As Dark Angel never lost sight of how stymied the lives of working class women were in the nineteenth century, squint and you might even be able to call it a sympathetic portrait. Someone able to muster more energy than me about this tabloid-thin story might argue that Cotton’s murders were attempts to exert control as a response to the suffocating restrictions of her class and gender.
Dark Angel wasn’t ambitious enough to take anything like such a bold position on its subject. There were enough scenes of Cotton weeping over dying children and tiny graves that she wasn’t simply painted as an unfeeling monster, but just as many oddly triumphant scenes showing her ascent (the cheeky wave goodbye to Helen Robinson on the doorstep, her demonstration to Maggie that all men were the same…) in which we were invited to celebrate her chutzpah. The result was rather confused and gutless, despite Froggatt’s strong work.
Ultimately, however she saw herself, Cottan wasn’t presented here as a victim of anything other than circumstance. And as she said herself, lots of women lose babies. They don’t all become what she became.
And what was that, a psychopath? An egomaniac with a class chip on her shoulder? Dark Angel didn’t care to venture a verdict either way. It raced through its melodramatic, scandalous story, delivered Cotton to her death, and we all went home feeling none the wiser.
“Do you feel nothing?” Cotton’s third husband asked this week. After sitting through three hours of children dying culminating in a woman facing the gallows, strangely, no. I don’t.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here.