“The things that scare you about me… Imagine I’m Stevenage. Some things have changed about me, but fundamentally I’m just ordinary. I’m Stevenage.”
Things continue to rattle along at an extraordinary pace in this week’s episode of The Fades, both in the supernatural thriller and ordinary suburban life aspects of the plot. It’s a testament to the quality of Jack Thorne’s writing that he’s able to pack so much incident into one hour of television and still retain so much character depth without that pace ever dragging (yet).
The style continues to be a combination of Skins-like teen drama crossed with classic children’s fantasy, in the most enjoyable of ways. After having decided to try and live a double life in his capacities of normal teenage nerd and Chosen Being of Destiny, teenage hero Paul falls at almost the first hurdle in a classic secret identity fail. What with last week’s references to Clark Kent, Peter Parker and Alan Moore, and this week’s to Neil Gaiman, it’s becoming clear that another of Jack Thorne’s influences is comic books, and every superhero, in comics and films, must at some point face the plotline of people finding out who they really are.
For Paul, this happens at comically inconvenient times, as he begins to discover new aspects of his powers. We first encounter him this week indulging in the normal practice of most teenage boys – having a wank, while fantasising about his sister’s best friend Jay. For most teenagers, this would end by reaching to the nightstand for the Kleenex, but for Paul, his climax results in him suddenly growing a huge pair of angel wings, which might have been even harder to explain if his mum had caught him at it.
This led to one of the best lines in the episode, as Jay asked whether she should know anything about him: “When I ejaculate I grow wings.” It’s a sign of Paul’s nascent confidence with girls that he can mention ejaculation, but Jay obviously takes the “growing wings” part as a surreal gag. She soon learns better when Paul’s reliably bitchy sister Anna and her truculent Scouse boyfriend find Paul and Jay snogging. Finally driven to uncontrollable anger at Anna’s fairly horrible sniping, Paul unintentionally wields his glowing-palm power to literally seal her mouth shut.
So the cat’s out of the bag, and pretty early on too. Paul manages to reverse the trick – though we aren’t shown how – but three more people now know that he’s not quite the normal teenage nerd he seems. This scene is classic wish-fulfilment stuff, familiar to every downtrodden teenage geek who reads fantastic stories; the moment when the wimpy hero finally stands up to the bullies by displaying his superpowers. But Thorne wrongfoots the comic fan here by actually going on to humanise his bully, as we start to learn that Anna is so nasty to Paul simply because she feels excluded by him in their family. Finally given some depth to play with in her character, Lily Loveless excels this week, showing more of the undoubted talent we saw in Skins.
What with his powers out of control and beginning to have his first sexual experiences, Paul is pretty neglectful of his best friend Mac, continuing the thread we saw last week. This week, it’s Mac’s birthday, but nobody’s remembered. His mum hasn’t sent a card, his policeman dad is totally preoccupied with the mysterious disappearances and murders clogging his casebook, and now even his best friend is too busy to be there for him.
Daniel Kaluuya continues to be the best thing in the show in his funny, sensitive and heartfelt performance as Mac, with his constant stream of pop culture references. The relationship between him and Paul is a beautifully portrayed teenage friendship, of the kind that is never as intense again after one of the friends discovers girls. A later scene with Paul spells out the sort of feelings we all had at that age, which we never really recaptured: “You know, whatever happens with Jay, you know you’ll always be more important to me.” Of course Mac mocks him by asking if they’re in love, “cause I’m flattered, but…”, but their relationship is convincingly real and intense, and beautifully played by both actors.
With Paul having finally remembered Mac’s birthday (a day late) and made apologetic amends, Mac repays the favour by helping him win back the (understandably) freaked out Jay, in a scene which is an unashamed but enjoyable ripoff of Cyrano de Bergerac (though Mac probably thinks of it as 1987 movie Roxanne). Perched up a tree, Paul follows the hidden Mac’s prompts to charm Jay by comparing himself to a space probe; perfectly in keeping with what we know about both boys.
It probably helps that the tree magically blossoms purely as a result of Paul sitting in it; what girl could fail to be charmed by that? Obviously Jay is, as within a few scenes she’s in Paul’s bed and taking his virginity, in a depiction of first time sex that’s both sweet and funny. And luckily for Paul, this time wings don’t shoot out at the all-important moment. Mind you, it’s an echo of Skins once again that they’ve gone from Paul’s first kiss a couple of nights beforehand to full on sex so quickly – but as Jay comments, “it’s not 1955… people don’t have to wait any more.”
What with Paul having a fairly eventful teenager’s life, he doesn’t find much time to pick the phone up to Neil. Which is unfortunate, because over in the supernatural part of the plot, things aren’t going too well for the Angelics. Neil wasn’t actually killed by the hungry gang of Fades last week (and there’s still a question as to why), but his stomach’s been pretty nastily mauled. Being the tough hardcase he is, he eschews hospital in favour of sewing up his own guts in the back of his pickup, an inadvisable medical technique for anyone.
Fortunately, when he inevitably collapses, Paul has turned up, and it’s time for him to exercise the healing power we discovered he had last week. Not only does he manage to heal Neil’s wounds, he also sorts out the eye that was damaged in episode 1’s Fade attack. Fade-Helen is impressed – “He’s done more than I ever could” – and advises him to just let it come when the inevitable live moth crawls out of his mouth: “Tickles, doesn’t it?” Daniela Nardini as Helen has been a highlight of the show for me, as I used to love her as Anna in This Life, so when she finally ‘ascended’ it felt like rather a shame. Whatever the show’s take on the afterlife is, it’s pretty definitive that there’s no coming back from that. Johnny Harris too played that scene beautifully, tearing up as Neil revealed that he didn’t feel strong enough to deal with things without her.
Indeed, Neil’s been humanised quite a bit from the initial armed supernatural warrior we first met. This week, he also tries to sort things out for Fade-Sarah and her distraught husband Mark, by first convincing Mark that his dead wife is hanging around him then acting as translator so they can have a chat. Whatever Neil’s conscience might be telling him, it’s hard to disagree with Fade-Helen that this might not be the best course of action. Mark now knows that his wife’s ghost is hanging around him unseen at all times, which is hardly going to help him move on!
Neil’s also decided that he can’t handle everything by himself, and summoned “the rest of the Angelics”, which is just as well as it’s hard to be a secret society all by yourself. As it turns out, “the rest of the Angelics” is only another four people, but hey, every bit of reinforcement helps. They’ve hatched a plan to try and interrogate one of the weaker Fades by capturing it, and inevitably it’s Neil’s ex Natalie that they grab. Interrogation is possible because the Fades’ consumption of human flesh has not only given them corporeal bodies, they can now talk too – or, in Natalie’s case, scream. One wonders whether next week’s interrogation will show the Angelics as not being the all-out good guys we thought they were…
That may not be foremost on Paul’s mind, though. In a moment that was genuinely shocking, while horseplaying with Mac, Paul absently wandered onto a road and was hit by a truck for his inattention. Coming so abruptly after a heart to heart two-handed scene with his best friend, this was a real jolt that made you realise how likeable Paul is, and how much I at least had emotionally invested in the character. It’s also a mark of how well this series mixes the supernatural and the mundane that the Chosen Hero, marked for death as an Angelic, is seriously injured by something as normal as not paying attention to the traffic.
The throw-forward to next week is deliberately cagey about Paul’s chances, as it should be. There are a couple of shots of him unconscious in a hospital bed, but no more. Of course, as the hero of the show, and a superpowered one to boot, I think we can safely say that he’ll be back in action before long. But it’s a measure of how well the show does suspense that I had to think a moment to remember that.
If and when he’s back on his feet, though, he’s going to have more problems than he expects. His dreams of the ash-covered apocalypse have come back, with the added detail of a mysterious young man who tells him that, “it’s all inevitable, you know.” Meanwhile, the bald, emaciated Fade who’s been so terrifying in leading the attacks has been spending this episode actually pupating, hanging in a slimy cocoon from the roof of a tunnel.
The episode climaxed as the cocoon hatched, and out slid a rather sexy nude man, seen only from behind. With Paul on the verge of death, my first thought was to wonder if he’d somehow switched places with the Fade leader. But no, as I perhaps should have guessed (and might have if I’d recognised him in Paul’s vision), it’s yet another member of the Skins cast! Yes, through some process as yet unclear, the Fade leader has remoulded himself as a rather buff looking Joe Dempsie. Joe has never looked so good – and as he turns and snarls at the camera, his eyes turning yellow, he’s never looked so scary either.
Three episodes in, and The Fades has become must-watch TV, for me at least. Its irresistible combination of teenage soap, Being Human-like supernatural drama and classical children’s quest story make it one of the most enjoyable shows around at the moment. And the concepts continue to get screwier and more imaginative each week. I’m really looking forward to finding out what happens next; and whatever it is, I’m sure it won’t be easily predictable!