Trauma review

With implausible developments and character moves, ITV’s Trauma worked better in the abstract than in reality…

This review contains spoilers for Trauma episodes 1-3.

A single word: unsuccessful. That’s the final bullet point in surgeon Jon Allerton’s presentation on his treatment of a 15-year-old male stab victim. For the treatment to be under discussion at a Morbidity & Mortality meeting, the outcome would necessarily have been such, but the detachment of that word feels inadequate, almost callous. An ‘unsuccessful outcome’ is medical euphemism, language anesthetised to cover up the painful truth.

Three-part ITV thriller Trauma was about uncovering painful truths. It was the story of working class dad Dan Bowker (John Simm), and his unbending belief that he’d been lied to about the death of his son. Fifteen-year-old Alex Bowker died on the operating table after being stabbed, and his dad was convinced that wealthy surgeon Jon Allerton (Adrian Lester) was at fault and lying to cover it up. 

Having met a brick wall in his attempts to lodge an official complaint against Jon, Dan took matters into his own hands. Seeking the confession he was desperate to hear, Dan inveigled his way into Jon’s home and held Jon’s wife and daughter at knifepoint. There, Dan received his confession: Jon had made a mistake that caused Alex’s death. Whether or not it was due to the wine he’d been drinking before he was bleeped to surgery, Jon had pulled too strenuously on a tube and widened Alex’s wound, causing him to bleed out when ordinarily he should have survived. 

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Dan had been right all along; Jon had lied. Dan received closure and got his life back together, Jon lost the respect of his beloved daughter and was left haunted by his mistake. The end. 

The moral of Trauma is tricky to parse. Ultimately, Dan was rewarded for the campaign of harassment he carried out against Jon. He was vindicated for doggedly following his instinct at the risk of losing his marriage and surviving children. His punishment for insinuating his way into Jon’s house and threatening the lives of two women was a kicking dished out by Jon, whose own punishment—his teenage daughter leaving home—was a paler version of the loss Dan had suffered with Alex.

It was difficult to feel satisfied with either Dan’s reward or Jon being brought low. Yes, Dan was unhinged by grief and frustrated by his victimhood, but he did inexcusable things. He threatened to kill teenager Alana and fetishized Jon’s wife Lisa in an unsettling sexual thread. The honeyed scene of his family—smiling ghost Alex included—crowding around his hospital bed immediately afterwards felt undeserved.

Worse, it was unimaginable that either Lisa or Alana, two clever women, one supposedly an expert in human psychology, would ever have allowed Dan into their home in the way that they did. Women, as a rule, are better primed to protect their safety when it comes to strangers (even if they are John Simm). They let Dan in because the plot required them to, not because it was an understandable character move. The tail was wagging the dog, and the plausibility of the drama suffered for it.

Dan’s obsession with Jon’s wealth and his relative poverty also came across confusingly. As a social theme, it’s well worth raging about the injustice of people in Dan’s position being patronised and ignored in a way that the wealthy or powerful would never experience. In Trauma, that translated to Dan coveting the Allerton’s fixtures and fittings, making him seem unlikeably materialistic. We weren’t watching an act of class warfare, but of self-pity and grievance. Dan reframing his son’s tragic death as a tale of the haves and have-nots undermined his grief and lost him sympathy. 

That Dan held onto any sympathy is largely down to performance. John Simm, Adrian Lester, and Lynsey Marshal as Susie Bowker are a strong cast and carried this story through its less believable moments, Marshal particularly, despite Susie’s story being largely unexplored. Casting 28-year-old Jade Anouka as 17-year-old Alana, on the other hand, was one of a few decisions making this story hard to credit. 

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The differing perspectives—the professional and the personal response—of a hospital trauma death are rich with dramatic potential. Investigating the human experience happening alongside the clinical experience is too. The lies, as Jon describes in his final speech, routinely told by doctors to save unnecessary suffering, are another complex and fascinating topic. Somewhere though, in the translation of all that to the thriller genre, Trauma came a little unstuck. It had great actors, important themes and escalating tension, but it added up to something less than the sum of those parts.