Warning: contains spoilers for all four episodes of The City & The City.
The City & The City is a rare butterfly of a TV drama – vividly imaginative and satisfyingly complex, it demanded much from its audience. Over four excellently directed and designed episodes, it expected us to grasp mind-bending concepts, unusual languages and strange names, all wrapped around a noir mystery that’s usually the limit of what TV expects an audience to cope with.
What do we do with rare butterflies? Why, catch them, gas them and pin them down! What follows is our attempt to do that by answering a few of the questions viewers may have had if they looked away at the wrong moment.
A caveat – we’re only human, so please treat any misinterpretation with kindness and patience, you lovely lot.
So, Orciny wasn’t real?
No. It was all a conspiracy conjured up by David Bowden, exploited by Bowden’s old college friend Mike Gorse and his co-conspirator Major Syedr (see below).
However, descriptions of Orciny as a timeless city of light with no boundaries could be interpreted as a description of an afterlife. That’s certainly the vision Borlú has of Katrynia inviting him to join her there after Bowden stabbed him in the neck. Perhaps Katrynia’s suicide was her attempt to leave one plane of existence and live in another that’s interchangeable with her idealised version of Orciny.
But no. It’s a sham.
Who killed Mahalia Geary?
In an argument, David Bowden pushed Mahalia (he says accidentally, though Major Syedr calls Bowden a degenerate whose ‘trash’ his boys are always having to clear up, so who knows) onto the glass shard ornament on his coffee table. Bowden then had Major Syedr’s True Citizens take Mahalia’s body from Ul Qoma to Beszel in a yellow van, and dump her on wasteland, where she was discovered by Borlú and the Extreme Crime Squad.
Why were Mahalia and David Bowden arguing?
Mahalia had discovered that Orciny was a sham. In collaboration with Major Syedr, Bowden had deliberately manipulated his former lover and student into believing that was being recruited by Orciny. Bowden and Syedr tricked Mahalia into stealing ancient artefacts unearthed by the Bol Ye’an archaeological dig and into thinking she was returning them to their rightful owners in Orciny. In fact, Syedr intercepted the arranged drop so he could trade the artefacts with US mining magnate Mike Gorse in exchange for investment in his neo-fascistic political party Natbloc.
What artefacts did Mahalia smuggle out of the Bol Ye’an dig?
A preserved lobster claw, a proto-clockwork mechanism and an unknown metallic alloy.
Why did Sear & Core want the artefacts from the dig?
Mike Gorse’s US mining company Sear & Core had been refused official access to the artefacts, which they wanted in order to analyse the metallic alloy. Sear & Core discovered that the alloy was tougher and lighter than titanium, and therefore “the next big thing” and that it lay beneath the cities of Ul Qoma and Beszel. Gorse plans to strip both cities and, within the next five years, turn them into a US mining colony.
What happened to Katrynia Borlú?
She disappeared five years ago. The repeated visions Borlú had of her taking a drag from his cigarette, telling him to “Be safe yourself” and leaving the house were of the last time he spoke to her. We know she met with Bowden at a café, then walked down Gunter Strasz and disappeared without trace.
There’s some ambiguity about what happened to her, depending on your interpretation. David Bowden tells Borlú that she took her own life by finishing what she started when she and Borlú first met, and deliberately drowning. “No-one could play Kat,” said Bowden, which indicates that she had realised that the city of Orciny was a fiction, and didn’t want to go on living without the dream of it. Kat was obviously bright and troubled, Bowden and his vision of Orciny got her through some dark nights, she told Borlú.
As mentioned above, when Borlú is bleeding out after being stabbed by Bowden, he has a vision of Kat surrounded by light and asking him to join her, telling him he is invited. That all sounds very like Orciny, which may stand in for an afterlife. Perhaps, in a sense, Kat did find Orciny after all.
What was Major Syedr’s motivation in all this?
Syedr wanted funding to gain political control of Beszel and to ‘purify’ it with only ‘True Citizens’. Having lost his son in a border skirmish years before, he wanted an end to the current situation and so agreed to have the artefacts stolen for Mike Gorse in exchange for financial backing for Natbloc. “It was a business arrangement, I got a nation, Gorse got his special metals.”
What happened to Major Syedr?
Once Corwi revealed herself to him as Breach, and Borlú heard his confession of involvement with Gorse and Bowden, Syedr was given twenty-four hours to resign from the mayoralty and get his house in order. He resigned, then slashed his wrists and died.
Who killed Yolanda Stark?
A True Citizen working for Major Syedr, whose deal with the US mining company Yolanda threatened because of her close links to Mahalia.
Who sent the bomb to David Bowden’s workplace?
Major Syedr. Bowden was in hiding from the TCs who were trying to kill him. “If I had my way,” said Syedr of Bowden, “that IED would have taken him out for good.” As Bowden and Syedr had been in cahoots, Syedr must have wanted Bowden dead to clean house before assuming the mayoralty.
So, Corwi was Breach all along?
Yes. She had previously been entrapped by Breach and then recruited by them. She appeared to have the ability to make people realise her Breach Manifest nature simply by looking at them and exerting “the obedience reflex” to which Mike Gorse boasts about not being subject.
Why did Breach plant Corwi as Borlú’s undercover partner?
Because they were threatened by the notion of Orciny, a place that would undermine their absolute surveillance over the borders. They wanted to find out more about Mahalia’s links to Orciny, and needed Borlú as an investigator because of his doggedness in discovering what had happened to Katrynia. “We want Orciny. You want justice for a dead girl, and for your wife.” They have extensive surveillance but they needed Borlú for his instincts, Corwi explained. “Your eyes make a difference.”
What was the link between David Bowden and Mike Gorse?
They were old college friends from Berkeley who travelled together to India in the 1980s.
Who was Mahalia’s father going to meet when he left the hotel in episode one?
Aikham, the security guard at the archaeological dig who was secretly part of a Unif (or unificationist) cell and in a relationship with Mahalia’s best friend Yolanda Stark. Aikham helped Stark to hide after Mahalia’s death to protect her, but she was killed by a TC working for Major Syedr after Borlú, Dhatt and Corwi tried to smuggle her across the border into Beszel disguised as an Ul Qoman police officer.
Why were the cities originally split that way?
As far as we can work out, that is never explained. “Before Breach, there was only blood,” says Borlú, who says it has always been this way.
What/who is/are Breach?
That’s tricky. They look just like you and I, as we know, and they are able to transition between the cities, existing in both at once. They started life, like Corwi and Borlú, as ordinary citizens who transgressed and were thus recruited. “We don’t kill” they say. But they do ‘disappear’ people.
Who painted the symbols on Bowden’s wrecked apartment?
Either he did it himself, or the TCs who did Syedr’s dirty work were responsible to keep up the pretence that people associated with Orciny were being hunted. It was either Bowden or the TCs or both who painted the symbols that Mahalia followed, thinking they were her invitation to Orciny, presumably copied from those discovered at the archaeological dig?
What next for Borlú?
He’s now no longer a cop, but Breach Manifest. When he shot the bullet that killed Yolanda’s assassin by passing through the membrane between Ul Qoma and Beszel, he was taken by Breach, tortured and put back in Beszel to do Breach’s bidding. Like Corwi, he can see and exist in both cities at the same time, and pass between them, adjusting his consciousness with each move. The Komissar has shredded his file. “I am Borlu, Breach Manifest. My job is to maintain the skin that keeps law in place.”
All episodes of The City & The City are now available on BBC iPlayer.