This review contains spoilers.
I don’t think I’m alone in this, but I always find the real joy of mysteries is in the set-up, rather than the resolution. The act of guessing, weighing up evidence and discarding false theories is so often more satisfying than having the conclusion laid out before you, however cleverly done. Final confrontations between victim and villain are too often histrionic to have any real pathos.
Good news then that Exile’s final instalment unwound its mystery with a quietness almost completely avoiding melodrama. And there was melodrama to be had. None of its story’s elements – an institutional scandal, a sadistic rapist, conspiracy and death – go hand in hand with nuance, but Exile managed to keep a lid on the theatrics, and instead delivered something shocking and touching in equal measure.
Monday’s episode had left us with a hefty question mark over the story of Tom’s origins as well as that of Greenlake Mental Hospital. Donald Metzler was still drifting around the side lines, yet to be pinned down, and Samuel was more unreachable than ever after the car accident.
By the end of the final episode, we knew exactly how Tom had been brought into the Ronstadt family, and his father’s motivation for the savage beating decades earlier. Metzler was on the brink of being exposed, and Tom had learned he had two fathers, one he now knew to be fiercely loving and protective, the other, an abusive rapist. It was by no means an easy watch, but by God, it was watchable.
Some smart creative decisions were taken with Exile which kept the story’s horror at a distance. It had a sensational plot which could easily have been treated sensationally, but its creators swerved away from hysterics, going for the quiet moment almost every time.
Nancy’s reaction on seeing Tom’s birth certificate was one of hushed bewilderment. Tom’s meeting with Ricky Tulse, a monster in rapid decline, was slow and carefully paced. His discovery of his real origins took place alone, in front of a computer screen. Only momentarily did Simm come over as stagey, during the climactic confrontation with Metzler. The rest of the time his character’s disgust and pain was so real as to be almost tangible.
Lighter moments did their job too, as characters in the extremes of grief were seen laughing at garden gnomes, giggling like schoolboys and making getaways on lilac scooters. The lightness didn’t diminish the grimness, it just made it easier to swallow.
The sickening secret of Tom’s origin was revealed in a clever take on Hamlet, another troubled father/son story which coincidentally gave John Simm his most recent stage role. Tom was urged by a dead father to avenge past wrongdoing and bring down a smiling villain. That the urging took place on a pre-recorded webcam vid rather than a misty rampart was neither here nor there. Here was a son set on revenge.
He was always going to get it too. Exile’s morality is such that the evil are punished. Ricky Tulse got his comeuppance through cancer, suicide, an overdose and a really nasty flat just to drive home the message. So though we don’t get to see Metzler put inside, his rattled expression as he was driven away at the end of the episode spoke volumes.
The scene in which Tom replaced Samuel’s typewriter with his shiny Mac and finished the story his father couldn’t is one anyone could see coming, but was no less effective for it. TV drama is made to jab us right in the emotions, and Exile did the job with a lingering shot of the author accreditation for the Greenlake scandal article: by Tom and Sam Ronstadt.
Despite some hard northern consonants uttered about Samuel’s reputation being all he had left (fitting for a character isolated by memories absent and too-present), Tom and Nancy opted to publish and be damned, knowing that there was more to be gained than lost by doing so.
Tom’s redemptive act honoured his dad’s legacy as well as papering over his own sins as a former celebrity hack. The stage was set for Tom’s future as a chip off the old block, telling the truth and shaming the devil.
Before all that could happen though, there was a thank you and a goodbye of sorts to be said. If the article credits didn’t touch you, then the care home scene will have. It was beautifully played by Simm and Broadbent, like a graveside monologue delivered to a living man. Throughout Exile’s three episodes, Tom, Sam and Nancy were lucky to have been brought to life by three such capable and engaging actors.
A couple of the ending’s elements did feel a little tacked on. Nancy’s pregnancy was unexplored, but I suppose without it, her character would have remained an untied thread, never popular in prime time drama. At least we know that capable Nancy, having coped with the dependency of an infant in all but age for years, should take child rearing in her stride.
Less satisfying still was Tom’s love story with Mandy, which included a nose-wrinkling moment for me as husband Mike, having agreed a rapid ceasefire with Tom in light of circumstance, gave his coded blessing to the pair. Like Nancy’s pregnancy, it all came over too easy and rushed, but I concede that for a three episode sub-plot, there wasn’t a huge amount of room for manoeuvre. The story put a nice fat tick in the ‘real friendships transcend everything’ and ‘everybody needs someone’ boxes, which is probably fair enough.
Comparisons will rightfully be drawn between Exile and Channel 4’s skilfully adapted and brilliantly constructed Red Riding noir trilogy, but I think I enjoyed this more. Dark, but not exploitatively so, full of good writing, strong acting, humour and a shedload of humanity. Telly to be proud of.
Read our review of episode 2 here.