Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams episode 3 review: The Commuter
Timothy Spall gives a moving performance in Electric Dreams’ strongest and most emotionally satisfying story yet…
This review contains spoilers.
At the centre of The Commuter is one of those truths that, like the inevitability of death, or how much salt they put in Kellogg’s Corn flakes, most of us prefer not to acknowledge. In a different life without our kids, we might be happier. We’d have fewer wrinkles, a tidier house and a better sex-life. The people we love aren’t always good for us.
The more uplifting side of that truth is that most of us choose them anyway. Whatever the hardship, our family is ours and no other option—even if it’s easier—can replace them.
That’s the conclusion reached by Ed Jacobson (Timothy Spall) in The Commuter, the third and so far the strongest story in Channel 4’s Electric Dreams anthology. After being granted a spell in an alternative reality where he and his wife never had their troubled and violent son, Ed demands a return to the real world. Yes, parenting has been tough and worrisome, but there have also been moments of great joy. Son Sam is on a downward journey, but it’s a journey Ed’s meant to share. They made him, he’s theirs, and it’s love.
Ed’s wish is granted and in the final moments of the hour he returns home to find his son re-established. Ed smiles. He’s smiled throughout the episode, but this is the first one that really signifies happiness. The others all showed a brave face covering up pain. “Never better” Ed had earlier answered a colleague concerned about how he was coping – the considerate lie of somebody doing their best to keep their chin up.
Timothy Spall is a master at putting that kind of detail into his work. You need only watch Mr Turner to know that he’s capable of telling whole stories with barely a word. Between them, director Tom Harper and Spall have come up with a performance that shows the weight pressing down on Ed in his posture, his eyes and that artificial smile.
Luckily for Spall, the words he does say are by Jack Thorne (National Treasure, The Fades), a writer whose dialogue consistently swerves the common pitfalls. There’s no flinching at contrived exposition here, or embarrassment at over-the-top speeches. It all feels real and grounded – remarkable for a story containing such metaphysical mysteries.
The Commuter is both an effective mystery and an affecting emotional story. The question mark over Macon Heights—the non-existent town to which a mysterious woman (Tuppence Middleton, Sense8, Dickensian) tries to buy a ticket at Woking train station—pulls us through the first half hour, while Ed’s decision stamps a satisfying ending on the last. There’s ambiguity, yes, but we’re not left floating in space with countless airy possibilities. This is a story about a man who chooses the hard reality of love over ersatz comfort. There may be several possible interpretations, but that’s the clear and recognisable message.
Like the other stories so far, this one’s been expanded far beyond PKD’s original few pages. Thorne has layered possibilities and meanings for the impossible town of Macon Heights on top of the existing framework. Thorne’s version of the town isn’t just an alternative reality bleeding into the world as we know it, it’s a place of comfort. Macon Heights is somewhere to retreat to when reality becomes too difficult. It helps people—some of them victims, some of them perpetrators—to tamp down their pain. As such, it could be a drug, a dream, a psychosis, a computer-simulation or a religious faith, if you’re into metaphorical readings.
As with all the above, the encroachment of reality is what destroys the fantasy. Ed’s determination to reject Macon Heights’ comforts and regain his lost son is a bucket of cold water thrown into the system. By his third visit, the pain that the town’s visitors are trying to escape follows them there, which starts to tear the utopia apart.
Macon Heights is a strange kind of utopia, perhaps one that appears differently to each visitor. (The café Ed visits plays his favourite kind of jazz, after all). Real detail has gone into Julie Berghoff and Lisa Hall’s production design, which is familiar but uncanny. Residents wear alternating blocks of solid colour, there are sets of identical twins and repetition everywhere you look, and it’s all held together by blue and yellow, a visual signal for the altered reality. When Ed walks home after his first visit, the messily parked van and overspilling rubbish on his street has been replaced by manicured lawns and two neatly parked cars, one blue, one yellow.
The performances are all strong this week. Middleton has a perhaps unforgiving role as the mysterious Linda, an angel/demon who extends invitations to those, like her, in pain, but she pulls it off by being just alien enough. Linda could be God or the devil, or someone less “divine”. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that she presents Ed with a choice, and he turns it down. Hayley Squires (I, Daniel Blake) is memorable as a waitress serving up retro cakes and gnomic statements. Her sad story adds yet more pathos to this mournful tale. As the pale-suited man who visits the town to quell his sadistic, presumably paedophilic urges, Tom Brooke (Sherlock) is as creepy as Harry Gregson-Williams’ music.
For all its sadness, The Commuter ultimately has a message more sweet than bitter: the only way to protect yourself from pain is by avoiding reality and choosing not to love. Do that and you may save yourself a world of worry, but you miss out on the potential for joy.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Impossible Planet, here.