This review contains spoilers.
Since the classic Hammer-style opening minutes of episode one when a young Victorian girl in a white nightdress walked along a dark corridor lit only by candlelight, The Living And The Dead has been a tasteful thief of the horror genre. It’s chosen carefully from the established bag of tricks, making skilful use of scares and shocks to build a beautifully eerie, quite distinct atmosphere.
Ultimately though, its finale borrowed horror’s most frustrating, dissatisfying habits. To serve the scares, people behaved in maddening ways (parenting rule number one: don’t take your baby to a haunted suicide house). To serve the exposition, the dialogue felt clumsily explanatory (“I want to stop it from haunting me, the thing that haunted my mother, to stop it from haunting Lottie”; “You’re killing yourself. What about your wife?”; “Perhaps that’s what’s been troubling the land”). And a showy cliffhanger ending undermined the emotional resolution of characters we’ve grown to really care about.
It all felt needlessly complicated, as if clever twists were prioritised over satisfying storytelling. And if you’ve seen The Orphanage and The Others, those twists won’t even have been all that twisty.
Ultimately, this was a story about the psychology of grief. The scared villagers were right – all the spooky shenanigans were Nathan’s fault. His suppressed trauma had lit a fire under Shepzoy’s evil spirits, sending them on a rampage. To quell them and be able to accept his new child, Nathan had to confront the loss of his son (if not that of his first wife, whose name has barely been spoken these past six weeks) and his guilt over Gabriel’s death. Finally telling Gabriel’s ghost that he was sorry and he loved him seemed to break the spell.
All of which works. As a story or as an allegory, it hangs together.
Until the series two-teasing cliffhanger arrived to smash it all to bits. Nathan’s torment isn’t over, it told us. Thirty years in the future, he learns he’s “the notorious Nathan Appleby”, wife-killer. Now presumably, his job will be to do a Tom Cruise in Minority Report and investigate the crime he’s destined to commit. If it’s renewed, cue six episodes of Colin Morgan doing another excellent audition for Hamlet Act III. If it isn’t renewed, the poor Applebys are doomed to never find peace.
(Perhaps those twenties toffs weren’t even talking about Charlotte. Nathan’s had two wives. Did we ever learn how the first died?)
Credit where it’s due, we wouldn’t give a fig about Nathan and Charlotte’s happiness if they hadn’t been written and performed in such a way that made us invest emotionally in them. But that they were and we did makes the twist feel like a betrayal not only of the series’ bereavement theme, but of the characters themselves. After what they’ve been through, those poor kids deserve a break.
I’ll tell you who wasn’t a poor kid – malevolent little Gabriel. Too much of this ending rested on us having sympathy for that grim little wraith. How many parent figures does he need in the afterlife? He already has his own dead mum, at least one grandmother, a great-niece he urged to suicide, and now poor Lara too. That the latter would smile at his sinister “you’re my mummy now” and take his hand felt ludicrous. Those two have no other relationship than victim and tormenter.
It was by no means all disappointment. The chronology play kept things gripping, if a little confusing. Morgan and Spencer were as strong as ever in some tremendously emotional scenes. They’ve been terrific leads throughout this series and by rights, should be drowning in offers now if they weren’t already.
Layering the dilapidated modern-day house on top of the Victorian scenes also worked an absolute treat. The Living And The Dead has been exemplary at creating a sense of place, and that was no different here. Poetic shots of frost-rimed fields and rotten apples contrasted with the lush fecundity of early episodes, symbolising the disintegration of Nathan’s marriage and mind.
It’s often said by the bereaved that they’d do anything to have a loved one back. At its best, The Living And The Dead was a beautiful, atmospherically rich exploration of what that really means. Nathan almost gave up everything for Gabriel, but gratifyingly, stopped at the last moment before going too far. If only this captivating series had shown the same restraint.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, here.