This review contains spoilers.
When In The Flesh’s creator Dominic Mitchell said he had one or two ideas up his sleeve for a second series, he was being modest. This week’s episode introduced so many plots, characters, mysteries and settings it was hard to know where to focus. What was once a contained allegorical story about grief and guilt is now a supernatural teen soap spilling over with capital ‘I’ issues: substance abuse, depression, racism, peer pressure, prostitution, PTSD, civil rights, bed-wetting… Episode two featured enough youth topics this week to fill an entire term’s PSHE curriculum.
None of which is a problem. In The Flesh was made for BBC Three’s audience, not HBO’s. Those of us with mortgages and chronic back pain are the interlopers here, so we can’t very well complain if the content goes a bit Hollyoaks.
What we can justifiably feel peeved about is when so much content is crammed into an episode it muddies what made In The Flesh an extraordinary zombie drama to begin with. This week’s hour traded series one’s quiet humour and emotional honesty for soap storylines and a politics lesson in why oppressing people is, like, bad and that.
Admittedly, there was fun to be had in the script’s wry handling of the Give Back scheme, especially in the accompanying instructional video. In The Flesh’s gentle satire of government-sponsored rhetoric has always been enjoyable and well-observed, and that patronising voiceover was no different. Also fun was Kieren’s going-away breakfast (any script containing the words “eggy bread” gets my vote), a rare moment of levity in an otherwise heavy episode.
This week’s revelation that brains – sheep, human or otherwise – act as a mood-enhancing drug for the Risen was a strong idea. It might have been more welcome, however, if the series wasn’t already crowded with zombie pharmaceuticals Blue Oblivion and homemade Neurotryptaline. What In The Flesh does with this new thread is yet to be seen, but hopefully we’re not facing another tired addiction plot, particularly after Simon’s confession about his past as a user to Kieren. Like True Blood’s tiresome adventures with vamp blood hallucinogen ‘V’ or Willow’s cringe-inducing scenes with magic dealer Rack in Buffy’s sixth season, a show can easily get into trouble when the moral of the story starts to outweighs the story itself. Fingers crossed that won’t be the case here.
Philip’s undead brothel was something else that’s become a cliché through overuse in fantasy and sci-fi. Sex-bots, vampire strippers, demon prostitutes… we seen supernatural fiction’s obsession with the scummier side of human sexuality all before. What’s next for In The Flesh? An illegal underground zombie fighting ring? The rug-pull that it wasn’t kinky sex Philip was after but a soppy DVD and a cuddle with an Amy lookalike pulled the scene back from the brink. Philip’s obsession with Amy will likely serve a later plot point, but for now, it, like so much else this week, feels like one complication too many.
As ever, some real positives came from the cast, especially Harriet Cains whose layered and sympathetic portrayal of Jem was the focus of the episode. Her transformation from shy teenager to bragging ‘war hero’ to traumatised child rang true, all the way to her inevitable murder of poor lovesick Henry. As if she didn’t have enough haunting her, poor kid.
As Kieren, the always-affecting Luke Newberry had less to do than usual thanks to the busyness of this week’s plot, which piled woe after woe on his head. Thematically, this was the ‘all hope is lost’ episode for Ren. With the chance of an escape to Paris snatched away from him and the prospect of hard labour for no pay in his immediate future, things are bleaker than ever for him.
He’s not the only one. The Give Back scheme and local prejudice have made Roarton’s Risen an increasingly disaffected and marginalised social group. Its response? Hedonism, growing resentment, civil disobedience and planned attacks on the establishment, as seen in Rob’s schoolboy experiment with Blue Oblivion. The real-life parallels will escape few viewers, and they leave us with a question: what precise point is In The Flesh making? That society is unfair to some groups? That radicalism flourishes under oppression?
Whatever its purpose, we’ve zoomed far out of the personal and into the political. Last year, In The Flesh distinguished itself from other undead dramas by making its revenants characters first and zombies second. It stood out because of its depiction of Kieren as a person, not a political avatar. Let’s hope this idea-packed series doesn’t watch him disappear into the crowd.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, here.
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