“You want me to stay – when I’m like this?”
All that repressed emotion, Northern stoicism and air of impending tragedy paid off in this week’s final episode of BBC3’s almost too brief In the Flesh, as all the resentment and prejudice the town of Roarton bore towards the ‘Partially Deceased’ boiled to the surface. The result, inevitably, was tragedy and heartache – and yet also some genuinely warm moments that were, curiously in a show about zombies, quite life-affirming.
The tragedy, inevitably, centred on unrepentant anti-Rotter bigot and HVF supremo Bill Macy (Steve Evets, superb). Even with his own son returned from the dead as a Partially Deceased sufferer, Bill couldn’t come to terms with his feelings towards the ‘Rotters’ he’d fought in the Rising; a fact not helped by Rick being every bit as in denial as his father. In a show full of allegories, Bill stood out as a war veteran unable to deal with the changed reality of peacetime. It was a status that put him on an unavoidable collision with the new world, and led to tragedy for all the characters we’d met so far.
Those characters were, without an exception, well-drawn. In many ways, they were familiar from many dramas set in small Northern towns, and there was fun to be had from seeing that juxtaposed with the unusual fantasy backdrop. Hence the amusingly awkward moment when Philip’s mum Shirley found him sneaking out from the house where he’d just slept with Rotter Amy, and each avoided telling the other the truth – despite the fact that it was painfully obvious to both of them.
The Walker family, meanwhile, were still eking out revelations about what had happened during and since the Rising, secrets that had festered for all of them, even Kieren. Luke Newberry showed how good he was this week, as the increasingly confident Kieren developed from timid recluse to a young man with his own sense of self-respect – even as he faced up to his own personal guilt. The flashbacks to his ‘rabid’ self killing young Lisa Lancaster were expanded as he remembered that his sister had been there, and been unable to kill him.
This gave Jem too a chance to resolve what was eating away at her. Not just her hatred of the Rotters, but her inability to put down one that had been her brother, and her own feeling of guilt at having failed to save Lisa. Thus reconciled, the Walker siblings went to tell Lisa’s parents the truth, in a scene that was both affecting and full of surprise. Not only did Mr and Mrs Lancaster unexpectedly forgive Kieren straight away, they refused to give up hope for their daughter, preferring to believe that she would return from the grave as a result of Kieren’s bite.
This allowed writer Dominic Mitchell to shed a bit more light on his mythology. We’d already heard last week that bites don’t cause you to turn; this week, Kieren sadly explained that it was only those who’d died in a particular period that came back.
It was telling that Jem sensitively downplayed this, to leave the couple with the hope that they might still see their daughter again. “You’ve got to have faith, haven’t you?” commented Mr Lancaster. Faith, it turned out, was a major theme of the story this week, and it was left very much ambiguous as to whether it was a good or a bad thing. You could argue that Jem’s sensitivity to the Lancasters left them incapable of moving on and accepting that their daughter wasn’t coming back.
Similarly, it was Rev Oddie’s faith (based on the sort of interpretation of the Bible that you’d expect) that there would be a second Rising, as predicted in Revelations, which would bring back the pure and the good. With no explanation forthcoming for the original Rising, you can see why that might seem plausible, particularly in a society that had seen a resurgence in religious belief.
All of these factors came into play in tying together the various plot threads we’d established for some hard-to-watch resolutions. Rick, pushed too far by his father into trying to kill Kieren, finally embraced what he was and confronted Bill in his true, unmade-up state.
This felt like another layer to the allegorical depiction of the zombies here – the scene was played very much like a young gay man coming out to his violently homophobic father. And indeed, the implication that Kieren and Rick were more than just friends hung heavy throughout. Kieren’s guilt and suicide over his best friend’s death, Bill’s hatred of him even before the Rising, the graffiti on the cave wall saying ‘Ren and Rick 4 Ever’ – if the pair of them weren’t supposed to have been lovers, I’d be very surprised. Kieren might have had a proposal of marriage from the flighty Amy, but he didn’t seem that jubilant about the idea…
As the defiant face of ‘zombie rights’ Amy had a hard time this episode. Having slept with ‘pillar of the community’ Philip, only to be told by him that nobody should find out, she had to contend with being assaulted in her own home by the HVF’s Gary, trying to slap her makeup on, after having painted ‘PDS’ on her door.
This latest development, apparently passed by the Parish Council, was another uncomfortable parallel with the ostracisation of certain social groups. Most notably, it reminded me of the way certain newspapers often call for all convicted offenders to be identified to their local communities, even if they’ve served their sentences in full and been rehabilitated. Here again, the script didn’t overtly condemn this sort of thing, though the use of the phrase “only obeying orders” made Mitchell’s feelings on the issue fairly clear.
No wonder Amy was fed up enough to leave Roarton and head off to the ‘commune’ of the Undead Prophet, as advertised on the ‘Undead Liberation Army’ website. This was an intriguing idea – could that really work? Amy was convinced there was plenty of Neurotryptiline there to keep the residents from turning rabid – but wasn’t that the defiant aim of the ULA? If the concept does stretch to a second series, that would be an interesting avenue to explore.
Though I’m not sure it will, as from a character perspective it felt like this story was pretty complete. Bill went into full-on denial, ‘killing’ what he assumed to be an ‘imposter’ rather than his son and dumping the body on Kieren’s driveway. Kieren went ballistic (kudos to Luke Newberry for that scene, which made me want to give him a great big hug) and stormed over to the Macy household for a cathartic shouting match with Bill, now so far removed from reality he was calmly watching football and claiming not to have seen his son for five years.
It was an intense scene that called out fine performances from all concerned, and again reminded us that this is a writer from a theatrical background – he knows how to make such emotional moments truly powerful in a small setting. Confronted by his wife’s sobbing hatred, Bill seemed to realise what he’d done – just in time to be blasted with a shotgun by the vengeful Ken Burton. The ever-excellent Ricky Tomlinson may have been used sparingly for this series, but always to great effect.
And as if that wasn’t intense (and grim) enough, it was followed by another ‘act’ in which we finally learned the circumstances of Kieren’s suicide, and his family began to come to terms with it.
Perhaps it’s because a few people I’ve known have committed suicide, and I’ve seen the wreckage left behind, but I found these scenes almost unbearably moving. They were, basically, what those left behind would always want to say to the one who’d died – but this time, he could answer them. It was the kind of resolution that, in real life, is effectively impossible. Seeing it played out like this was a kind of wish fulfilment that was simultaneously emotionally affecting and hard to watch.
It’s been a very good series, In the Flesh, despite its too-obvious similarity to the recently departed Being Human. Unlike that show, it was rather more grim and certainly slower-paced, but the characters and backstories built up were very convincing and well-played. There was always the sense that under the genre trappings was an original story that was more of a straight drama; but the fantasy backdrop gave it a resonance that, paradoxically, it might not have had without it.
As I say, it seems to me that this story is very definitely finished. I’ve no idea whether writer Dominic Mitchell is planning to write more of this world; perhaps, like George Romero’s zombie films, with different characters in the same situation. If he does, I’ll definitely be coming back for more. For all my misgivings about ‘humanising’ zombies, the premise here not only worked, but served to shed plenty of allegorical light on the real world. Only the best fantasy does that.