This review contains spoilers.
This week’s In the Flesh staged act two of Kieren Walker’s fraught homecoming by introducing a pair of new characters, a conflicted romance, and a redemptive mission. It was the episode in which the narrative gears proper began to turn, and In the Flesh demonstrated whether or not it had the mettle to outlive its three-part lifespan. Yes, is the answer to that, though it won’t necessarily be the supernatural premise that sees it through.
What floated to the surface of part two, past the Rotters and shotgun stuff, was a sensitive soap storyline about love. As soon as Kieren and Rick were together on screen, it was easy to ignore their partially dead status (something Rick and his dad Bill were at pains to do anyway), and become caught up in their affecting relationship story.
As In the Flesh hasn’t yet made it explicit that Kieren and Rick are more than friends I could be jumping the gun here, but it would seem an awkward dodge at this point were they not revealed to have been in love. Penning hand-written letters to one another in the age of MSN Messenger is one tell, not to mention the many portraits of Rick on Kieren’s walls, his suicidal reaction to Rick’s demise, and prehistoric Bill Macy’s as-yet unexplained animosity towards his son’s “weakling” best friend.
Denial was the theme of the episode, from the Walker family’s awkward breakfast scene the morning after the night before, to the Bill/Rick sexuality/death hypocrisy. Will Bill come to accept his partially dead, probably gay son for who he is and not the macho construct of guns, booze and birds he’s hiding behind? Something tells me it won’t be all hugs and smiles by this time next week. At least Kieren’s dad only shoved him in a literal closet.
The Kieren and Rick plot is heightened by In the Flesh’s PDS context, but it’s in no way fundamental to their story. If the pair had been reunited after a failed suicide attempt and a war injury rather than the mass resurrection of the dead, things would play out the same between them, only with lower stakes and fewer available metaphors for their outsider status in regressive Roarton. Kieren would still be an arty misfit in a macho parochial town, Rick would still be struggling to reconcile the person he is with the image his proud but unreconstructed dad has of him.
Conversely, being partially dead is intrinsic to Kieren and Amy’s double act. She’s the likeably vivacious foil to his guilt-plagued returnee, embracing her after-life with a joie de vivre only the once-dead can muster. Emily Bevan is a jolt of electricity on screen, brightening up Roarton’s desaturated palette with her character’s determination to enjoy a second stab at life, prejudice be damned. The latter was seen in her unfazed trip to the rural, flat-roofed British Legion – those places are terrifying enough for outsiders without having returned from the grave.
Amy’s decision to go “au naturel” is an effective restatement of In the Flesh’s allegorical race, sexuality and disability readings too. She’s a walking Lady Gaga track with a Yorkshire accent, empowered by her otherness; partially dead and loving it.
(To return to the pub scene, is it deliberate that parish council stooge Philip looks more zombie-ish than any of the actual PDS-sufferers? Perhaps it’s too silly to consider whether or not the wonderful Shirley and son are harbouring a secret of their own…).
Touching young love and empowerment stories aside, part two also gave us a little more on the Z-word front. It may not be the first on-screen in-coffin moment (Buffy, Kill Bill: Vol II, Being Human and so on), but Kieren’s flashback was a smart perspective reversal on the hand-out-of-the-grave trope and indicative of In the Flesh’s whole ‘whose trauma is this anyway?’ approach to zombie uprisings.
The appearance of a family of untreated Rotters eking out a sheep-based existence in the woods put us once more on recognisable zombie ground, yet nicely complicated matters by showing so-called ‘Rabids’ providing and caring for each other. While that was a provocative twist, the location, for me, was an over-familiar one. I can’t say exactly how much of The Walking Dead’s second season (which, incidentally, I loved) was taken up with the gang stalking through the woods on the trail of a Walker, but I’d estimate somewhere in the ninety per cent range. Part of the gut-punch from In the Flesh’s episode one execution came from it taking place against a banal cul-de-sac backdrop, and so transporting the action to a more traditional zombie-hunting spot didn’t achieve the same brutality or tension.
With just three episodes to play with, In the Flesh couldn’t afford not to hit the ground running character-wise, which explains the broad strokes some of Roarton’s inhabitants have been painted with. I’m itching to see another side to Kenneth Cranham’s vicar, who’s so far little more than a pull-the-string talking toy angrily spouting Revelations whenever the camera falls upon him. Most of all though, I want to know what’s really going on inside Bill Macy’s head.
Because while Roarton is moving on, as seen in The Legion’s removal of those Abu Ghraib-style triumphalist shots of grinning HVF members atop piles of Rotter bodies, Rick’s arrival seems to have made Bill no less trenchant in his opposition to integration. How all this is going to be resolved in a single episode I can’t imagine. Luckily, that job is down to Dominic Mitchell and co. All we have to do is watch and enjoy.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, here.