“It’s inevitable… The world is coming to an end. There’s nothing you can do.”
After a storming first part, new BBC3 teen/supernatural/horror drama The Fades continues to impress – albeit with some rather puzzling leaps in logic. In what looks like a regular thing, the plot so far is summed up pre-credits by the hero’s best friend, the affable nerd Mac. And immediately I was a little bit confused, as he referred to mystery mentor Neil and his dead friends as ‘The Angelics’ – a phrase I don’t recall being mentioned at all in the first episode.
Still, ‘Angelics’ is what they call themselves, and contrary to the impression created in part one of there being just about three of them, it seems that they’re an established secret society who’ve been around since the 40s. Plunging the viewer into a world this complicated is not easy, which is why Neil spends most of this episode as Mr Exposition. In essence, he has to explain the rules of what’s happening to reluctant young hero Paul, and by extension to the audience. Fortunately, Jack Thorne is a skilful enough writer to intersperse this deluge of information with some more of the spooky, unsettling set pieces that made episode one work so well.
So Neil whisks Paul away from school to visit a particularly scary looking haunted house, explaining all the while. This is still germane to the plot; said haunted house is actually the abandoned Monica Bryant County Care Home, and we discover that this where Neil grew up. We discover this by means of an old photo uncovered under the guidance of the spooky young dead girl that Paul saw so much of last week, along with the disturbing (to Neil at least) revelation that the Fades are now capable of touching things. In this case, it’s a fuse box, and Paul nearly gets the shock of his life as she turns it on and allows bare wires to swing around the pool of water he’s standing in.
But that’s not the point of their visit; no, Neil wants to introduce Paul to his dead friend Eric, a Fade who was one of the first of the Angelics. At this point, the show’s internal logic does seem to waver a bit. Eric’s been dead a long time; since 1946, and he was 70 then. Neil says that, even dead, he’s continued to age since then. So if the Fade that tried to electrocute Paul was Neil’s teen girlfriend Natalie, why does she still look about 17 when he’s plainly pushing 40? Also, why is Eric not “getting a bit shitty” like Fades who’ve been dead for a far shorter time? And how can he still talk (even if it appears to be telepathically, so that only Neil can hear)?
Still, all of this may make sense given further doses of lengthy exposition, so it may be unfair to quibble at this point. What matters is that, after Eric’s touch of Paul creates a bit of a psychedelic light show, both he and Neil are convinced that Paul is someone special, someone very important to the oncoming war. “You’ve got a destiny,” states Neil sagely. “I’m sorry kid, but that matters.”
As with last week, this again gives the feel of so many classic kids’ stories of the supernatural, in which an unassuming young person (usually, but not always, a boy) discovers that he’s far from ordinary and has a special destiny as ‘The One’. It’s a staple of stories like this, from Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising novels to the likes of Russell T Davies’ Century Falls, and seeing it here only reinforces that feeling that The Fades is, basically, a classic Children’s BBC drama with added adult bits to appeal to the more aware teens of today. How much you enjoy it may depend on how much you think that’s a good thing; personally, I rather like it.
So Paul is ‘The One’. Or ‘a’ One, at any rate. We see a bit more of what that means for him this week. He’s still seeing the dead, and plagued by dreams; nor world-ending apocalypse this week, but a genuinely scary bit of business whereby he sees the dead bodies of his prospective girlfriend, his mum, and his bitch of a sister strewn around his house. While Mac chortles at the idea that Paul has a subconscious desire to see his own sister dead, nude, and in his bed, the implication is clear – his involvement in all of this is, like Clark Kent, or Peter Parker, going to put his nearest and dearest at risk.
But he can help them too; as he discovers when he inadvertently heals Mac’s cut arm, he also possesses the same healing powers as Daniela Nardini’s pistol-packing vicar from part one. This has the decidedly surreal side effect of causing the wielder to cough up a live moth whenever the power is used – a very weird bit of business that will, presumably, be explained later. Along with the fact that Paul can now raise birds from the dead and shoot lightning out of his palms when threatened.
Iain de Caestecker continues to be a likeable presence as Paul, perhaps because he is such a convincingly ordinary teenage nerd. As the more voluble Mac explains, they’re the lowest in the school’s social pecking order. So low in fact, that Paul can be mocked by a couple of twelve year olds, with the (admittedly rather bizarre) taunt “Am I a rabbit then?” when they overhear that he’s been seeing things. Paul’s the kind of boy I recognise, probably from myself; a troubled introvert from a broken home, with an obsession for pop culture and an almost pathological inability to speak to the object of his desire. It’s a laugh out loud moment when he finally plucks up the courage to tell his sister’s best friend Jay how he feels about her. He can only express this by listing a discussion he’s had with Mac about the ideal woman, which for them is apparently a combination of comic and movie heroines with George Lucas – “we thought about including Alan Moore as well, but the big beard would get in the way.”
And that’s indicative of the other thing that makes this series so enjoyable. Apart from an elaborately constructed world of supernatural menace, it’s also set in a very believable suburban secondary school, at which Paul and Mac are half-heartedly doing their A Levels. Jack Thorne’s background as a writer for Skins clearly comes in handy here, though this group of teenagers are pretty far from the drug-fuelled, hedonistic Bristol gang. Paul and Mac are believably beaten down and insignificant, while Anna, Paul’s utter bitch of a sister (the brilliantly nasty Lily Loveless) is the most popular girl in school.
And a debt is perhaps also owed to Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Thorne’s adept use of pop culture references, mostly via Mac. This week, it was a slew of Star Wars quotes; even as a Star Wars fan, I’m actually getting rather sick of its’ neverending stream of references in everything from different TV shows to my everyday life. Nevertheless, Mac’s persuasion of Anna and Jay to keep on fighting for the cancelled school ball “because there’s always an exhaust port” was a stroke of genius, as was his straight faced comment on Neil, “your friend’s quite a mercenary. I wonder if he really cares about anything. Or anybody.”, which of course Neil doesn’t get.
Daniel Kaluuya continues to be probably the best character in the show as Mac, which if anything is a little bit of a problem. He’s clearly the wisecracking sidekick, but unfortunately his volubility next to Paul’s introversion means that he’s actually more charismatic than the hero. Kaluuya’s gift for deadpan humour makes this more pronounced, notably in the scene where Paul convinces him that Fade Natalie is sitting behind him in a cafe making eyes at him. His attempt to woo her with his teeth (“because dead people love good teeth”) is another brilliantly laugh out loud moment.
But it is also a very touching portrayal of the sort of friendship most people outgrow when they get much older than this. Baffled by Paul’s healing power, Mac asks him, “What are you?”, to which Paul instantly responds, “Your best friend”. And of course Mac’s response is, “don’t leave me behind”, which articulates perfectly how these relationships tend to go, particularly with the addition of a girl into the equation. You don’t need to live in a world of supernatural menace to have your heart broken by the friend you love abandoning you, a point made starkly clear when Mac sees Paul kissing Jay, then is brutally told by Anna that he needs Paul more than Paul needs him, a fact he clearly already knows.
The extension of Mac’s character beyond mere comic relief into actual pathos also intersects with the developing subplots of the show. His parents, it seems, have split up – “I bet they’re fighting over who doesn’t get custody” – which causes his dad to get quite violent with him in front of Paul. But his dad’s also stressed out by work. By a somewhat contrived coincidence, he’s the police Inspector who’s not only investigating the disappearance of dead Angelic Sarah, but also the murders of the two prepubescent bullies having a go at Paul earlier. The bullies were in fact murdered by the more militant Fades, led by that creepy bald one who sucked out Neil’s eye last week, and they’re murdering people to eat them and gain corporeality – a gruesome scene shows Natalie chowing down on their bodies. So The Fades are more than ghosts now. They’re getting to be like Romero zombies, but I’m betting you can’t take them down by shooting them in the head. And if they’re corporeal, you can’t make them disintegrate into ashes by passing through them any more, either.
Also inextricably linked into all this is Paul and Mac’s history teacher, Mark (the dishy Tom Ellis, who seems to spend a lot of time with his shirt off). Mark was Sarah’s estranged husband, and after a sympathy shag with a friend (watched by a presumably awkward feeling Sarah-Fade), he’s found some photos which reveal troubling facts about his wife. Mostly they seem to be of her in a mental ward, either strapped up or with her wrists bound. Clearly this is something Mark knew nothing of, so he takes them to the police, who don’t want to know. As a dramatic device, it’s fine, akin to a similar revelation to a husband about his dead wife in The Constant Gardener. But I have to say, I did find it rather odd that someone confined to a mental ward in, presumably, the aftermath of a suicide attempt would decide to have pictures taken of herself; even more odd that she would then keep and treasure them. Again, though, perhaps explanation will be forthcoming later…
This week’s episode concluded with Paul deciding that he couldn’t just abandon his life to ensure the safety of his family and friends. In keeping with his – and the show’s – endearing nerdiness, he’s taken inspiration from Peter Parker and Clark Kent, and is going to try to live two separate lives, one as ordinary schoolboy, the other as superpowered supernatural warrior. Actually, put like that, it sounds more like Buffy than Spiderman! Neil would probably be troubled by this, but a gang of Fades are busy trying to eat him, so he’s got other things on his mind. For some reason they haven’t finished the job, but it looks suspiciously like they may have had his intestines out. He’s in luck though – as I predicted last week, death has been no boundary for faith healing vicar Helen. This is a good thing, as Daniela Nardini is too much fun to waste in a one episode role. Now let’s see if she can put Neil back together again. But first she too has Paul on her mind: “Tell me about the boy.”
All developing nicely then, with a second part just as thrilling and intriguing as the first. Next week, it looks like we’re up for even more weirdness, as the throwforward depicts Paul waking up with angel wings (though his total nudity meant I was looking elsewhere than his wings). I’m looking forward to it, though I’m starting to wonder if such a labyrinthine story can be concluded successfully in just six episodes. I do hope Jack Thorne has written a proper conclusion that nonetheless would allow for another series, like Being Human, and not left everything on a cliffhanger that might never be resolved like so many recent US shows.