“To hell with the living, mate. Undead and proud.”
As this second series of In the Flesh continues, it’s clear that this is a very different show to its shorter first series incarnation. Then, its genesis as a personal, intimate character drama was very clear even under the supernatural fantasy trappings; but rather than clashing, each element neatly complemented the other. One of the benefits of this approach was that the fantasy element was very subtly played, conveyed in hints of dialogue and direction rather than heavy handed exposition. It also meant that, while the drama had a supernatural setting, it was still all about the characters and their journeys, their plots cleverly juxtaposed with the fantasy concepts of a zombie apocalypse.
As I mentioned last week, those characters’ stories (or rather, the backstories that informed them) are now told, with the result that, this time around, it’s the fantasy element of the show that gets prominence. I hasten to add, this is not necessarily a bad thing; Dominic Mitchell’s imaginative subversion of so many zombie clichés makes this, in essence, the anti-Walking Dead. While I do like AMC’s uneven but entertaining show, it’s not doing anything particularly original with the genre. In the Flesh definitely is.
This second episode featured much more talk along the lines of the now-deceased vicar, of a “Second Rising” – “Second Rising’s coming, read your Bible”. And given that we still haven’t established a reason for the Rising, who’s to say they’re wrong? However, with the religious generally portrayed as fire-and-brimstone zealots, it seems unlikely that Mitchell’s plot for the show will faithfully follow the usual Revelations-inspired depiction of “the Rapture”. It’s likely to be something far darker.
Just as the village of Roarton seems to have been retconned into something far more significant than it was last time, so too is main character Kieren Walker. Last week, we learned of the widespread undead belief that Roarton was the first place that the dead rose. This week, both anti-PDS politician Maxine Martin (Wunmi Mosaku) and Undead Prophet disciple Simon (Emmett Scanlan, unrecognisable as Hollyoaks’ Brendan now he’s clean shaven) were attaching similar importance to Kieren himself.
While Maxine was carefully circling his picture on her wall of the local PDS sufferers and making a big deal of the fact that Kieren doesn’t know the precise time of his Rising, Simon was questioning the local undead as to what they saw when they Rose. And it’s being very heavily implied that what they all saw was Kieren. If Roarton was Ground Zero for the Rising, Kieren looks likely to be Patient Zero, the very first corpse to rise from the grave. All this propels the character from misunderstood sensitive everyman to unwitting Object of Destiny, in a Harry Potter style.
Thankfully, Mitchell’s script still portrays Kieren as a believable, even likeable human being, in spite of his implied mythic status, which is helped very much by Luke Newberry’s affecting performance. He’s still very much concerned with the problems everyone faces, even if they aren’t ex-zombies. He wants to escape his stifling small town existence, much like so many young people in such an environment, and is still facing up to the depression that caused his suicide.
The reason for that – his still not explicitly stated love affair with his best friend Rick – came into play again this week, and as before was nicely subtly handled. At no point has Kieren’s sexual preference been outright stated or discussed, but people know about it, which conveys the fact far less clumsily than exposition. Amy commented that she loves Kieren, but only as her “BDFF” (Best Dead Friend Forever, amusingly), anything else being out of the question because he’s “not that way inclined”.
And a ‘love triangle’ seems to be in the offing as Simon’s bonding with Kieren, running throughout the episode, culminated in a brief but highly charged moment when he took the other man’s hand. Given that Amy thinks Simon is going to marry her, that could lead to some dramatic places plotwise – though I’d hope Dominic Mitchell can come up with an original spin on this plotline that both Eastenders and Hollyoaks have already done at least twice each, the latter frequently involving Emmett Scanlan who plays Simon. The fact that all parties involved here are undead ought to help!
Actually, that does raise the interesting question of the… ahem, ‘mechanics’ by which the Partially Deceased might have sexual congress, given that their bodies don’t function like those of the living. Last series showed us Philip’s bedroom liaisons with Amy; while none of the details were shown or discussed, it seems fair to assume that the still-lovesick Philip found the experience enjoyable. But then, we also saw, prior to that, Amy laughing off impalement on a metal spike. Was the wound still there? Do the undead ‘heal’ somehow as well as never aging or even decomposing? And, more importantly to Kieren and Simon, do the, er, ‘male members’ of the Partially Deceased still function as before?
A little prurient, I admit, but it’s the sort of question that may well be addressed as the show goes on. This week brought more fascinating snippets about the undead’s nature, including the secret ‘undead brothel’ which Philip has been sneaking off to. Given’s humanity’s predilection for sexual fetishes of all kinds, it seems perfectly plausible that some would be sexually excited by the undead (as the legions of teenage Twilight fans can presumably attest to).
We also got the answer to a question that had intrigued me last week, when Amy and Simon popped into the pub for “a night out”. As a habitual drinker, I found it hard to imagine how they could enjoy themselves without a drink (which probably says a fair bit about my own personality defects), as we already know that trying to eat or drink like the living will cause a PDS sufferer to violently vomit black goo.
This week, at Simon’s impromptu undead-only party, we learned that they do have an intoxicant – brains. That does make sense in context, as the first series established that, like the zombies in 1985’s Return of the Living Dead, it was primarily brains they liked to eat in their ‘rabid’ state. Obviously whatever makes brains so delicious still does even now they’re ‘cured’ – though I did wonder about Amy’s assertion that these were only sheep’s brains. It was notable that the ever-cautious Kieren declined to even try them.
Aside from Kieren himself, this week’s ep also focused heavily on his sister Jem, still suffering from PTSD and struggling to fit in at a school where she’s older than everyone else there. Harriet Cains continues to give a compelling performance in the role; the trauma of dealing with the Rising gives her an added dimension beyond Mitchell’s original conception of the character, a loving sister dealing with her cherished brother’s depression and attempted suicide.
Her nightmare of taking exams only for everyone in the school hall to turn into a ravenous zombie was a blackly amusing juxtaposition of one of the most frequent ‘mundane’ nightmares with a more unusual fantasy-based one. But it also foreshadowed the point where rebellious undead schoolboy Rob snorted the Blue Oblivion drug, turning ‘rabid’ and menacing the school corridors. Not only was that sequence genuinely tense, it also served to underline how far from the ‘war hero’ vigilante Jem has come, unable to behead Billy in the knowledge that this would now, basically, be murder.
That’s a plot point rather overlooked by a lot of genre stories. Supernatural in particular is a repeat offender – people have been shown to survive demonic possession, but the Winchesters’ usual answer to it is to destroy both demon and host. And the zombie story which this most closely resembles, Warm Bodies, very much glosses over the fact that, with its zombies revealed as ‘curable’, that would mean all the ones the living previously put down could actually have been saved.
In the Flesh is actually putting this point of logic front and centre. Last week, we had the councillor objecting to Maxine’s ruthless destruction of a ‘rabid’ on the grounds that he/it was “somebody’s son”, as well as the revealing discussion over the judiciary’s downplaying the ‘murder’ of those already dead. This week, the point was made again, as one of Jem’s new friends, ostensibly “Rotter-haters” contemptuously dismissed her after revealing that Jem had ‘killed’ her Risen father. No wonder Jem was emotionally shattered enough to get pissed on cheap cider and return to her zombie-stalking HVF days, with tragic results for her hapless schoolboy admirer Henry.
The other Big Plot of the week was the increasing social and political oppression of the PDS sufferers, as personified by anti-PDS MP Maxine Martin. For the MP of a presumably large rural constituency, Maxine’s spending a suspicious amount of time in just one of its small communities; but we’re being heavily led to believe that she has a hidden agenda where the undead of Roarton are concerned, with particular regard to Kieren.
With her government hat on, however, she gleefully introduced the new “PDS Give-Back” scheme, by which the Partially Deceased are stripped of rights and citizenship. They can get them back, but that’s conditional on government mandated community service, for a period which, as Simon pointed out, was technically indefinite. In the mean time, they can’t even freely move around the country, and have to register at their local authorities, leaving the unhappy Kieren stuck in his narrow-minded home town just as he was about to escape.
As the current government continues to place restrictions on its own ‘undesirables’, requiring the unemployed to attend Job Centres daily and work for their benefits, while the disabled are subject to humiliating and inexpert ‘assessments’ designed to find them ‘fit for work’, the parallels were obvious. As allegories go, this was forceful but perhaps a bit unsubtle and heavy handed. The undead continue to be equated with oppressed minorities – the poor, the disabled, the gay. But as in True Blood, which also misses this point, the difference is that the undead genuinely do have the potential to be lethally dangerous. That somewhat undermines the parallel and might perhaps be seen as misrepresenting the groups the allegory is trying to raise awareness of.
To be fair, while that’s a bit of a sticking point, I don’t find that it fatally undermines the allegory, or the social and political points being made. After all, push any group of people hard enough, undead or not, and they have the potential to react violently; something the current UK government seems not to grasp. With four more episodes to go, it remains to be seen where exactly Dominic Mitchell is taking this parallel, but he seems a mature enough writer not to fudge the point.
While these first two episodes reveal a show that has significantly changed in emphasis and pacing since its first series, it continues to intrigue with its gradual unveiling of a post-Rising world. Even with the focus, this time, more squarely on the mysteries of the show’s supernatural premise, it helps that Mitchell is still writing believable characters brought to life by a talented cast. Even Maxine, the ostensible villain of the piece, is being given real depth and isn’t entirely unsympathetic.
Still, it’s more clearly a genre show than last time, and Mitchell seems to get what makes such stories interesting. I’m undecided about the decision to make Kieren such a key player in the Rising, as part of the character’s previous appeal was his humble everyman status. But if we’re to have that, the mysteries being unfolded are genuinely intriguing. Why is Maxine so interested in him? And given that Simon has a similarly fanatical interest, might his apparent attraction to Kieren be simply a ruse to further a hidden agenda? One thing the show is consistent about is that its plots are driven by secrets, and while last year’s revealed the characters, it seems that this year’s will reveal the premise behind the Rising.