“There’s what I believe – and then there’s you.”
In a week when tribal differences were thrown into sharp relief by the triumph of xenophobic political parties all over Europe, it was another script from writer Fintan Ryan for this week’s In the Flesh. And following on from his poignant vignette of Freddie and Haley last week, this week’s ep foregrounded another of the more minor players in the drama – parish councillor and would be suitor to Amy, Philip Wilson. Not quite as separate a narrative as the Ballad of Freddie and Haley, this still stood apart enough to be a good character piece running alongside the ‘main’ plot.
Having been portrayed as a milquetoast mother’s boy since the first series, it was actually rather heartwarming to see the previously unassuming Philip on a path to moral redemption. His unrequited crush on Amy after their single liaison last year has been slightly pathetic, but true to his character. This is a man who doesn’t usually think outside social convention, and who can’t even be that assertive as a pillar of the local council. Yet he’s been shown to be unable to control his attraction to the undead, or at least to one of them in particular. He can’t even properly comprehend his feelings – shades of Brokeback Mountain…
As soon as we saw curtain-twitching Nosy Neighbour Mrs Lamb filming the denizens of the local PDS brothel, it was fairly clear that we were heading into Simpsons-style unthinking lynch mob territory. With the predictable help of Maxine, that was indeed the case. But if you were concerned that this seemed a little too familiar, Philip’s actions as a result lent it all a genuine air of suspense. It helped that Ryan’s script cannily cut to the next scene at moments of maximum tension; when Philip’s visit to Mrs Lamb showed him glancing trepidatiously at the lady’s coal shovel, it was clear that murder was on his mind… And then, we cut to the next scene, of Philip leaving, videotapes in hand, and no indication of Mrs Lamb’s fate.
The script kept you guessing for a while as to whether he’d actually killed her, before breaking the tension with a belly laugh when Mrs Lamb popped up to express her admiration to his mother Shirley for Philip’s noble attempt to rescue Fallen Undead Women, like a sort of ghoulish William Gladstone. It was a nice bait-and-switch, so Ryan duly used it again after Philip’s visit to Mrs Lonsdale, still frantic with worry about the missing Henry. Having pulled the trick twice though, he left it alone for the rest of the script. Nicely judged.
The locals’ ‘protest’ at the brothel (actually more like a vigilante raid) was another reminder that, zombie Rising or not, many of the themes in the show are pretty universal. Small communities like Roarton are rarely broad-minded, and you can see sex workers (and their clients) stigmatised like this all the time in the media. Despite the potential threat the undead presumably pose, Philip’s final proud and defiant stance with the shamed clients made it clear that, where this sort of thing is concerned, the show’s politics are far more sympathetic with the liberals than the moralists.
Where you stand on that probably depends on your own politics; but judging by the rather sweet scene between him and Amy at the bus shelter, it may actually have won her round to Philip’s affections. In a show increasingly full of angry defiance at ’othering’, that was a sweet little moment of tender emotion, sympathetically played by Stephen Thompson and Emily Bevan, and nicely built on when we later discovered them in bed together.
Amy, of course, must have been feeling a little lost herself, after seeing her supposed fiance locking lips with her best mate. It was a blackly amusing callback to earlier in the episode, when Kieren told Simon he didn’t want Amy to find out by accidentally seeing them together, that in the end exactly that happened. But we also got a bit more light shed on how true Simon’s affections for Kieren are, as despite his Undead Liberation calling, he was prepared to play Uncle Tom by putting on makeup for dinner at his beloved’s folks’ place.
In the first series, Dominic Mitchell made the awkward family meal almost a staple of this show. His, however, were usually characterised by awkward silences and meaningful glances. Here, we got some full-on confrontation, with the unfortunate arrival of ‘new HVF’ Gary and Jem. It was easy to imagine the scene played out between veterans of any war meeting socially so soon after the end of hostilities, with Gary’s drunken prejudice countered by Kieren’s angry defiance.
It also added, without contrived exposition, some new layers to our knowledge of the undead and the Rising. We now know that the undead can remember what they did in their rabid state, in some detail, and we (and Simon) now know that Kieren was indeed the ‘First Risen’.
Howe this will play into the show’s ongoing mythology remains to be seen, but it’s clearly a big deal to Simon and his unseen boss, presumably the messianic ‘Undead Prophet’ mentioned a few times already. But it was also revealing that this seemed the first time Simon was sure about Kieren being the First; implying, perhaps, that his attraction was genuine rather than part of a hidden agenda.
Even so, Kieren’s angry outburst at the dinner table implies he’s very much heading towards Simon’s extremism in his worldview. Yes, it’s a staple of many allegorical fantasy tales that the prejudiced majority can oppress the ‘different’ so badly they turn to violence in response – look at Scanners, or X Men, or Heroes. But in the real world, unthinking prejudice genuinely does radicalise idealistic youth all the time, especially young men. Luke Newberry’s passionate performance in the dinner scene was clearly a turning point for the previously moderate Kieren; who knows how far he’ll follow his lover in the remaining two episodes. And maybe I’m twisted, but I found it strangely erotic when Kieren tenderly wiped off Simon’s makeup.
Together with last week’s episode, by the same author, this marks a widening of the show’s scope, to give more flesh to the background characters. Given the (effective) claustrophobic nature of the first series, that’s probably a good thing, bringing the chance to tell more stories from this intriguing world. Like last week, it adds colour to the narrative while also lengthening it; and if the story of Kieren and his friends is moving a little slower as a result, I can’t say I mind if it’s supplemented with side material this effective.