Warning: contains massive spoilers for Marcella series one (obviously).
The first thing to know about Marcella, the TV detective played by Anna Friel in her eponymous 2016 ITV series, is that it’s pronounced Mar-chella as in cherry, not Mar-cella as in Marcel Marceau. Lock that down and you’re on your way.
The next thing to know about Marcella is that she suffers from dissociative fugue, a psychiatric disorder that causes her to enter an amnesiac, often violent state at moments of intense stress. This means that Marcella can suddenly wake up after several hours utterly baffled as to what’s happened or why, much like the viewer after the series one finale.
To say that Marcella left questions unanswered would be like suggesting Russia is sort of biggish. Series one bashed its way screaming through several plotlines, scattering fistfuls of red herrings into the air as it went and leaving behind a series of structural integrity-threatening holes that left the whole thing teetering.
With series two approaching, here’s our attempt to recap the first run’s major action.
We first meet Marcella-with-a-ch in the bath, covered in blood, mud and bits of twig. She doesn’t know where she’s been, but seeing as she used to be a detective before taking a career break to raise her family, it shouldn’t take her too long to think… a forest?
It was a forest. Well, Hampstead Heath. In one of her fugue states brought on by the stress of her husband Jason (Nicholas Pinnock) leaving her, it turns out that Marcella visited the notorious dogging spot to bury the corpse of a murder victim. Complicating matters is that the murder victim was Grace Gibson (Maeve Dermody), the seven-weeks pregnant women with whom Marcella’s husband had been having a three-year-long affair. Was Marcella her killer? She would have to find out!
Marcella series one was a double bubble detective show. Our lead was chasing a serial killer who just might be her. That’s right, a serial killer. Grace was murdered by asphyxiation—a plastic bag taped over her head using insulating tape, her hands and feet bound by cable ties. It was the exact MO of several other recently discovered victims, and the same as that of three unsolved murders from eleven years ago, a case Marcella investigated when she was still on the force.
Blimey. She didn’t do those murders too did she? No, that would be silly. Marcella’s instances of fugue, as her psychiatrist calls them, only began after the so-far unexplained death of her and Jason’s baby daughter Juliette, who would have been six years old now (they also have two older kids at boarding school). It’s only the current murders Marcella may have done, and specifically, the Grace one.
Before that night on Hampstead Heath, Marcella receives a visit from DI Rav Sangha (Ray Panthaki), who wants to pick her brains about the 2005 killings, pricking her interest and prompting Marcella to return to work as a detective sergeant. Recognising her talents, Marcella’s former colleague Laura (Nina Sosanya), now a DCI, welcomes her back and puts her on DI Rav’s team.
Marcella immediately gets on DI Rav’s tits with her lone wolf ways and insistence that the culprit is one Peter Cullen (Ian Puleston-Davies), the chief suspect for the 2005 killings on whom she was unable to pin anything. Cullen has spent the intervening years in prison for murdering his wife, and is currently on a day-release programme from prison and working in a nearby bakery, selling murder-bread.
A pattern is quickly established at work where Marcella posits a theory (‘Peter Cullen did it!’) and her colleagues (DI Rav, DC 80s Morrissey, comedy tech-nerd Mark) all roll their eyes and look annoyed until Marcella is eventually proven right. A second pattern is also established in which Marcella charges into danger, alone and radioing for urgent back-up, just before an ad break.
Marcella is a charging-into-danger type. She wears the ponytail and fluffy-hooded anorak of a maverick.
More victims turn up with the plastic-bag-and-insulating-tape treatment, and a platter of potential suspects is set afore us. There’s Clive Bonn, a suspect in the 2005 killings with a link to one of the new victims, and who was spotted on CCTV on Hampstead Heath the night of Grace’s murder. There’s Marcella’s favourite Peter Cullen, seen threatening a fellow inmate by putting a plastic bag over his head.
Marcella investigates this parade of suspects while covering up her own murky actions on the night Grace died by editing herself out of CCTV footage and generally lying like a fifteen year old whose mum just found weed hidden in his PE kit.
When it’s revealed that Grace Gibson and Marcella’s husband were romantically involved, you might think she’d be taken off the case faster than you can say fugue state to a goose, but no. At Edgware Station, they take much more of a ‘you okay hun?’ approach to this kind of situation. Having ascertained that yeah, Marcella is fine, she’s allowed to keep working on it.
Over at Jason’s place of work—posh London property developers DTG, also the workplace of Grace, her boss mother Sylvie (Sinead Cusack), Sylvie’s toy-boy husband Stephen (Patrick Baladi), and Sylvie’s step-son Henry (Harry Lloyd)—they have a more robust firing policy. When Jason’s affair with beloved daughter Grace is uncovered, he’s immediately sacked. Lucky for him that Grace’s step-father was secretly in love with her, knowledge that Jason uses to blackmail himself back into a job.
Jason is DTG’s legal advisor, by the way, but blackmail trickles through Marcella like a leaking drainpipe. Everyone in this show blackmails everyone else eventually. They do it as casually as if they’re exchanging Christmas cards.
(Later, Marcella sleeps with former colleague DI Tim Williamson, played by Jamie Bamber, and gives him the brush off. His response is to blackmail her with the unedited CCTV footage showing her at the scene of Grace’s murder.)
Speaking of blackmail, we follow the story of a cam-girl who supplements her income by arranging dates on an adultery-based dating app and then robbing her marks (they’re unlikely to report the crimes seeing as it would expose their cheating). She sells a bunch of stolen items to a pawnshop, which happen to include trophies—a watch, a pair of earrings, a bracelet—from the recent murders. It turns out she unwittingly slept with the serial killer, who knows she stole the incriminating trophies from him and starts threatening her through the webcam site.
When it’s discovered that the cam-girl also stole Grace’s silver cocaine-vial pendant from the killer’s trophy horde, Marcella realises that it must have been him and not her who killed Grace Gibson. Phew!
Except, not quite phew, because Marcella still buried Grace’s body and has been lying her ponytail off for weeks.
Marcella tracks down the cam-girl to a local club, whence she flees from the police and is then deliberately run down by a car. Whoever was driving that car is our killer.
Meanwhile, Peter Cullen has been having cosy chats with Maddy (Laura Carmichael), a criminology PhD student interviewing the wife-killer as research for her thesis on domestic violence. Peter has quite fallen for Maddy, evidently thinking this is all a strong basis for a relationship and will one day be a funny story to tell the grandchildren.
Maddy though, has an ulterior motive: she wants to kickstart her career by proving that Cullen really is the Grove Park killer. This ambition almost kills her, as it turns out that Peter Cullen is—what’s the preferred term nowadays?—a total whacko who not only killed his wife, but also murdered those three victims in 2005. Marcella was right all along!
Cullen, having slit the throat of Maddy’s boyfriend Adrian and pulled up a chair to watch Maddy suffocate to death with a bag over her head, is discovered by Marcella, who charges in alone, radioing for urgent backup before an ad break. Cullen gets a bag over Marcella’s head too, but the backup arrives in the nick of time, and both women survive. Marcella gets a confession out of Cullen for the 2005 murders, and is briefly hailed a hero.
But wait, Cullen doesn’t confess to the new murders, and anyway, the insulating tape was wound around the victims’ necks the opposite way to when he does it. That means the new killer is a copycat. But who is it?
For a while, Marcella tries to present moustachioed Polish immigrant Bendeck, a cartoonish figure who nails an enemy’s cocker spaniel to a door, as our culprit. A hotel key card dropped at the scene of one thwarted attack belongs to Bendeck. It isn’t him though.
Nor is it Bendeck’s dodgy landlord, a PI with MS and money troubles whom Jason pays to “take care of” a pesky planning officer threatening a DTG development. (Again: Jason = legal advisor.) Jason, of course, didn’t mean for the dodgy landlord PI with MS to kill the planning officer, which he did by faking his suicide. Still, Jason pays him to keep him quiet, and is photographed doing so by Bendeck, who’d actually make a pretty good detective because he’s worked out that his dodgy landlord murdered the planning officer, and is blackmailing him about it.
Bendeck and his dodgy landlord, it’s then revealed, are working in cahoots to extort yet more cash from Jason, and split the money. Immediately, Bendeck has an auto-erotic-asphyxiation wank to celebrate his windfall and ends up accidentally strangling himself to death, avenging the death of that poor cocker spaniel. Is it fitting that both Bendeck and the dog died attached to doors? Yes, it probably is.
Before he dies, Marcella’s team know that Bendeck wasn’t the killer, because two more victims were killed while he was in police custody and they would almost certainly have noticed that sort of thing. The victims were Beth, a young woman who often babysat for her neighbour’s daughter, six-year-old May. May’s death triggers Marcella’s trauma over losing little Juliette, and once again, her bosses ask if she’s really alright to be going on with all this and she assures them that she is so that’s all fine then.
Strands of hair are discovered in the hand of victim Beth, and are traced to a Scandinavian chap named Yann (Tobias Santelmann). When insulating tape, cable ties, and a hoodie the killer was seen wearing on CCTV, are also discovered at Yann’s house, he’s arrested. Marcella though, doesn’t think he did it. Her colleagues roll their eyes and look annoyed, but guess what? She’s only right again. Yann didn’t do it, but it looks very much as though his boyfriend Matthew did. Matthew has a host of links to the victims and was away ‘for work’ at the time of all the murders.
Cooee, though! Matthew has a severe spinal injury that means it would have been impossible for him to carry anything as large as Grace’s corpse, so the police rule him out. Marcella though, still thinks he did it (cue annoyed, eye-rolling colleagues), chiefly because she knows that she was the one who moved the corpse. They try to track down Matthew, who’s gone missing and left his car near the port in Dover.
It’s at this point that we need to remember a character introduced in episode one played by a name actor, otherwise known as the actual killer: Henry Gibson, stepbrother to Grace, stepson of Sylvie and best friend of Matthew.
Using his intimate knowledge of Matthew’s movements, and stealing hair from a hairbrush Henry didn’t know Matthew shared with Yann, Henry meticulously framed Matthew as the serial killer. Why? To disguise the one murder he really wanted to commit: that of stepsister Grace. Instead of hiring a hitman or doing away with Grace in a more low-key manner, Henry committed seven murders using the MO of an unsolved serial killer to whose crimes he knew Matthew could be linked. It was, as he said, the perfect plan. Until Marcella-with-a-ch came along, that is.
Following Jason (with whom she’d been intermittently sleeping during this whole mess) to Henry’s house, Marcella found her husband stabbed by Henry and bleeding out. She knocked Henry out and you can guess what came next: fugue state. When she came round, Henry had a bag over his head and was suffocating in front of her. She saved him, then down at the station it very much looked as though Henry was getting away with his ‘I stabbed Jason in self-defence then this crazy woman attacked me’ line, when Marcella noticed he kept scratching his shoulder.
On that shoulder? A bite-mark from the distinctive imprint of six-year-old victim May. Yes, Henry was the killer and confessed to the lot. He’d only wanted to be part of his family, he said, but his stepmother Sylvie only had eyes for her daughter Grace. With Grace out of the way, he could live a happy life. Well, that all went tits up, because Sylvie was last seen promising to have Henry slowly killed.
Marcella caught the killer then, both of them. But at what cost? That’s what we left her pondering.
The viewers, meanwhile, were left pondering what actually happened on the night Grace died. We saw her let Marcella into the house (alive, obvs) and we know Henry later killed her, before fugue-Marcella presumably returned to the house and, having thought she’d killed Grace, hid her body.
We also don’t know what happened to Mohammed El-Said, a taxi driver working illegally in the UK who witnessed Marcella moving Grace’s body, and who then tied Marcella up and threatened to kill her if she didn’t confess to the shooting of his brother Youssef (who did shoot Youssef?) A magic fugue state got Marcella out of that one, somehow.
That’s series one then, an implausible, winding tale of murder and memory-loss. At the end of it you’re left thinking surely, surely attempting to suffocate a suspect will be the final straw that breaks this particular camel’s back. They can’t possibly let Marcella continue to work as a police officer, can they? Can they?
Series two will tell.
Marcella seasons one and two are available to stream on Netflix