This review contains spoilers.
The Living And The Dead delivered the perfect Halloween special this week. Episode five was a typically handsome hour (is there a better-looking show on at the moment?) dripping with classic horror moments.
It was the week that saw Shepzoy’s sceptics get what for. Spirits rampaged around the village dripping ghost-blood on the carpets and sending the locals scattering. Even the most rational-minded villager couldn’t convince themselves that a murderous troupe of dead Civil War soldiers was just a trick of the light.
Reverend Denning, for one, was shaken out of his existential certainty by a levitating daughter and a ghostly forest fire (you’d think a man of the cloth would be at home with burning bushes). The same goes for Charlotte Appleby, who was almost trampled underfoot by Roundheads on horseback.
The sight of young, dead Gabriel in the background of her All Hallows Eve farm portrait was Charlotte’s first realisation that Nathan has been right all this time. The dead are back in Shepzoy and, for whatever reason, they’re coming for her husband. A husband deeply changed man from the gentle, adoring man she photographed in episode one.
Back then, I expressed some concern that the Applebys were too perfect to really work as characters. Paragons of such kindness and cleverness, they seemed altogether far too nice and far too happily in love not to grate on the viewer. Watching the young and the beautiful frolic in golden fields can get old when you’re a cynical husk like me. In the early days, it was only thanks to the charisma of Colin Morgan and Charlotte Spencer that you didn’t find yourself rooting for the vengeful ghosts.
Well, now the honeymoon period is over. Nathan is no longer a kindly country squire who has a lovely way with kids, he’s the village creeper who lures sixteen-year-olds back to his house for a spot of pig-blood finger-painting and hypnotism. He’s also, accident or no, the sort of man who gives his pregnant wife a bloody mouth.
I don’t know who was more shocked at that moment, Charlotte, Nathan or us. Had The Living And The Dead not built the Applebys up as such a faultless couple at the beginning, the fight wouldn’t have had half the impact, so kudos to writer Ashley Pharoah for sagely paving that way. Over the last few months, Nathan’s encounters with the dead have pulled at the threads of his sanity until finally, it all came tumbling apart. We left him a madman, a stone’s throw from storing his urine in jars and building a sculpture of little Gabriel out of mashed potatoes.
Colin Morgan handled all of the above with ease. If a showcase of his talent was ever needed—and with an already-long screen career behind him, it almost certainly isn’t—then this would be it.
Is there a way back for Nathan Appleby? That seems to rest on where he settles in the titular choice between the living and the dead. Now the show reveals its true identity: a portrait of unresolved grief disguised as a ghost story. Nathan obviously has to let little Gabriel go in order to move on with his life. But will he?
In the ominous ‘no’ camp, you have to consider the unquiet nature of the spectres Shepzoy has been beset by since his arrival. If ghosts are the unsettled dead, and Nathan is a ghost to Little Red Riding Hood with the iPad, what happened to make him join their ranks? Let’s hope answers will be forthcoming in next week’s finale.