Warning: contains major finale spoilers.
In the end, it wasn’t playing any kind of game. Deadwater Fell’s first two episodes presented as a whodunit thriller with all the ingredients required to guess the villain: a small community, an appalling crime, a cast of suspects, emerging clues…
In the drama’s second half, there was no need for guesswork. The mystery trappings had fallen away, leaving behind a raw, emotional drama that told the simplest and saddest of stories – but one with an urgent purpose in its telling.
David Tennant‘s character Tom killed his family. Why? Because he felt that they were his to kill, that his control over them was worth more than their lives. He felt threatened and he felt entitled. And in all of the most important ways, he didn’t feel anything at all.
Having been inside Cush Jumbo’s character Jess’ memories for episode two and Matthew McNulty’s Steve’s in episode three, the finale gave us access to Tom’s. We saw his repeated lies, and his arrogant attempts to win favour and control others’ perception of him (repeating “I was a good husband. I was a good father” so often he must have believed it). We watched his discovery that Kate was about to leave him, his blank-faced preparations, and his actions on the night of the fire. Blessedly, the episode looked away from the girls’ actual murders, characteristically choosing restraint and taste over sensationalism.
The finale stayed on the side of taste and responsibility in its closing minutes. Where another drama might have staged a noisy, high-stakes climax – Tom takes a hostage, say, or finishes the job he started and ends his life – Deadwater Fell allowed him all the attention and respect he deserved, which is to say, none. After Tom’s second arrest, he was forgotten. The drama finished with a movingly understated scene that pointed to a healthier future for Jess, Steve and the boys, and left us with an image of Kate, laughing.
In a world where news headlines can seem to go out of their way to make excuses for the perpetrators of domestic killings, Deadwater Fell’s closing tribute to its victim is no small thing. Nor is its commitment to the idea that Tom’s actions weren’t provoked by, or the fault of anybody but himself. There was no reason for the murders apart from: Tom, he was the reason. He wasn’t traumatised by an abusive childhood, or pushed to unreasonable extremes, even though he tried to make both cases, he was – as Jess told him – banal.
If there was a hero in the finale, it was Jess. She stood up to Tom, crucially giving Carol the resolve to do the same, and made Steve realise that he needed to open up about his feelings for his own sake and that of his boys. Taking Tom to task, mothering Steve and gently insisting that six-year-old Lewis needed to talk about his grief, Jess was part-saint, part-superhero – her superpower being the ability to always have the right emotional instinct. Glowing with innate nobility (or is that just Cush Jumbo’s cleansing routine?), Jess might have been too perfect to swallow had writer Daisy Coulam not given her a bit of complication early on in her infidelity.
The characters around Jess were far from perfect, but faultlessly cast. Steve, lost to anger and funnelling his distress only through outbursts, was vividly played by Matthew McNulty. Maureen Beattie as Carol, living with her guilt about having lied to protect Tom from the start, was totally convincing.
David Tennant was, like Kate’s Anna Madeley, reliably excellent. If there’s a criticism of this tight four-parter, it’s that we didn’t see enough of her. The drawback to the thriller format used to tell this story is that the requirements of the mystery robbed us of any real access to Kate’s inner life.
Even supporting roles like Lisa McGrillis’ Sandra were put to good use by having her repeat an oft-heard perspective in cases of domestic killing. “If Kate was scared, why didn’t she just leave him? She had money, she had a job…” Uninstructed responses like Sandra’s are the reason to dramatize something as painful as this story. Compelling, well-made, empathetic fiction like Deadwater Fell exists to sharpen our real-life awareness and help us to answer that question so that it doesn’t have to be voiced again.
Deadwater Fell is available to stream now on Netflix.