In the Flesh: Series 2, Episode 3

“You’re being used by them. What I’m doing is giving you a chance to choose the right side.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

As I said last week, the established dramatic style of In the Flesh is driven by the characters’ secrets; and with the relevant secrets revealed and resolved in the first series, the challenge for this second run is to come up with new secrets. In part, this has been achieved by a stronger focus on the Rising itself, which was rarely questioned in the first series. But the other approach has been to introduce new characters, and delve into the secrets driving them.

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This week’s script, the first not written by creator Dominic Mitchell, took that approach to a new level, giving us almost a separate B plot in the tragic story of Freddie Preston and his ‘widow’ Haley. While the continuing main plot and characters were very much present, and intersected with Freddie and Haley’s story at the end, their plotline could almost have been a separate tale taking place in this post-Rising world.

That could easily have looked like padding in this new, longer series, a device to extend the episode count from three to six. But the little tragedy played out in Fintan Ryan and John Jackson’s script was a genuinely tear-jerking tale, and by the end certainly had an effect on Kieren, informing how he too will develop.

I remarked last week on the incipient love triangle between Kieren, Simon and the unsuspecting Amy, which (apart from all concerned being undead) struck me as the unoriginal stuff of soap operas. The love triangle presented this week, though, was far more original, and indeed could only take place in the world of this show. Freddie having been killed in a car crash prior to the Rising, his wife Haley had moved on with her life, marrying estate agent Amir. Then she had to deal with her first husband coming back to life and returning after the Rising, leading to a very awkward situation of the three of them living in the same house.

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In keeping with this show’s love of letting the viewer work out the details rather than presenting us with clumsy expository dialogue, the pre-credits scene establishing this situation was very cleverly presented. So, we saw the fixated Freddie repeatedly rewatching their wedding video, prompting Haley to come down and reminisce with him, leading us to wonder why they both seemed to be treating the marriage as over when they plainly still cared for each other. Then Amir popped downstairs, and the situation became clear. All without any direct reference to it – that’s a strength of this show.

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If I wanted to be critical, I could point out that the later breakfast scene depicting the friction between the three was rather less subtly done. The obviously resentful Amir’s dialogue spelled out the details more clearly than usual – the arrangement was meant to be temporary, Freddie was supposed to be selling his classic Ford Capri to obtain funds to move out, and he hadn’t even got as far as advertising it yet. Still, this allowed us to come to the obvious, if unstated conclusion that Freddie wasn’t ready to move on with his life yet. If ‘life’ it could be called, given the circumstances; Haley later got a penetrating line about Freddie’s resurrection giving him a second chance to not make the same mistakes.

Still, if the circumstances surrounding their situation could only happen in a show like this, some of the themes being dealt with were universal and resonant with reality. Freddie and Haley had married young, and in the time since his death, Haley had grown up enough to find responsibility and maturity. She didn’t want to go back to the life he wanted, of responsibility-free fun, of clubbing every weekend rather than having dinner parties. In essence, she’d grown up, and he hadn’t – a situation all too common in the real, non-zombie-filled world.

You could definitely see the attraction of a carefree life with a cute young guy who’s still immature enough to have his own and his girlfriend’s name emblazoned across the top of his windscreen (I haven’t seen anyone doing anything that cheesy with their car in years).

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Freddie’s spontaneous appearance at the deathly dull IT training session, and his whisking Haley away in the Capri, was the sort of rom-com scenario that, in movies, frequently makes the girl swoon and declare lifelong devotion to the guy. But, even though it’s a show set after a zombie apocalypse, In the Flesh’s characters are more grounded in reality than that. It was notable that, even before Freddie turned rabid, Haley had made up her mind to move on, and to tell him it had to be over between them.

Theirs was an affecting story, well written and well-played by the actors. Bryan Parry as Freddie has been knocking about the village in minor scenes since the start of series 2, but Linzey Cocker as Haley was a newbie, and their effective chemistry made the whole thing rather moving. And it’s always nice to see Sacha Dhawan, who made Amir’s frustration sympathetic rather than grating (in the same week he popped up as the standard ‘Muslim terrorist’ in 24). It may also be significant that, the visiting Maxine Martin aside, he may be the only non-Caucasian resident of the overwhelmingly white village of Roarton.

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The tragic end to their story, as Freddie turned rabid after having missed a dose of Neurotriptyline, was where it intersected with, and had profound effects on, the plotlines of the main characters. As usual, Kieren was trying to keep his head down while those around him took sides over the repressive anti-PDS government policies. Kieren’s dad Steve, still desperately trying to be understanding of his son’s ‘condition’ (more shades of equating PDS with homosexuality there) read out some revealing government press releases that were obviously carefully calculated propaganda: “Does she look oppressed to you? Says here she’s got management potential!”

All this propaganda again rang uncomfortably true with the way cleverly planted press releases from the government have been used recently to frame the narrative of scapegoating the poor and disabled for all society’s ills. Outside of Guardian comment pieces and standup comedy, this disturbing trend seems to have been little referenced in the mainstream media, so it’s good to see a drama making a deliberate parallel. As ever, fantasy can be a very effective vehicle for criticising social and political ills; even with the slightly heavy-handed approach being taken here, I think that’s still a truism.

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The other obvious allegory, the Undead Liberation Army, got more screen time to reveal their agenda this week, as Simon exhorted the local undead to be who they “truly are”. Given his and Amy’s confrontational stance on ‘blending in’, this seemed primarily to be an appeal to the undead to defiantly remove their makeup and stand proud with their genuine appearances. But the implication is that the ULA want to go further, as we’ve seen from the Blue Oblivion-fuelled terror attacks. With Simon’s talk of the Second Rising, could it be that the ULA’s ultimate agenda is for all the PDS sufferers to return to their rabid state? That would gel with the show’s stance of presenting both sides of the PDS argument as extremists.

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It would also fit with the nihilistic, angry outlook we’ve seen that Simon has. His disgust with the treatment of the sedated ‘Rabids’ at the local GP’s office was mixed with sympathy for them – he may well see this as the undead’s ‘natural state’. As he pointed out, just because Dr Russo (named in tribute to Night of the Living Dead’s co-writer John Russo, presumably) had a sympathetic manner, it didn’t make him any less ‘the enemy’. Simon is a man who is not interested in compromise.

But is he interested in Kieren? Last week, I speculated that his apparent attraction to our reluctant hero could well be just a means to bond with Kieren, making him more sympathetic to the Undead cause. If so, it’s working; after all their talk of choosing sides, the near-tragedy with Freddie has made Kieren choose Simon. And how, as he marched into the house and locked lips in a passionate embrace with the ghostly Irishman.

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As I’ve mentioned before, the issue of Kieren’s sexuality has – until now – remained subtly unstated, frequently informing the plot and the themes of the show. Given how much it’s always been underplayed, it was actually shockingly direct to see him fearlessly kissing another man onscreen. It was also uplifting, given that Kieren’s sexual preference (and everyone’s lack of acceptance of it, including his own) has obviously been responsible for so much of his unhappiness. However, you couldn’t help feeling that, if he was to make a breakthrough in dealing with it, Simon may not have been the wisest choice. Still, it was sensitively played by Luke Newberry, Kieren visibly screwing up his courage before taking the plunge.

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As the first script not written by the show’s creator, this had a lot to live up to. But actually it was beautifully written and played, the desperately sad plight of Freddie and Haley both making an excellent side plot and informing the direction of the main plot. More of those secrets are stacking up for a presumably traumatic final reveal – Jem’s ‘murder’ of Henry Lonsdale, Maxine’s fixation with a probably dead child, Philip’s fixation with the oblivious Amy, and Amy’s worryingly shaky hands. I’d guess there’s a definite plan to this second series, and that regardless of who writes individual episodes, it’s Dominic Mitchell who’s mapped it out. Nonetheless, if other writers can provide scripts up to this standard, I’m happy to see him take the occasional backseat.