Waking the Dead: Series 5, Episodes 7 and 8: Straw Dog
Written by Declan Croghan; Directed by Jim O’Hanlon
“Look, we’re not monsters, Sarah.” - Detective Constable Stella Goodman
“Speak for yourself.” - Detective Superintendent Peter Boyd
The following year, Declan Croghan would become Waking the Dead’s lead writer, presumably based on the strengths of this two-parter, which stands out as being by far the best of Series 5. Beyond any great flair in the writing however, this is Sue Johnston’s chance to shine as Grace, for once, steps into the spotlight to become the focus of an entire story. The backdrop is the first case she ever worked on with the police, back in 1980 - a particularly nasty affair involving a serial killer who chopped off his victims’ fingers and sent them to the senior investigating officer, DI Harry Taylor (Tom Ellis). In the present day, the man convicted for the murders, Tony Greene (David Norman), alleges that his confession was beaten out of him, with Grace softening him up psychologically before turning him over to Harry, a man with a suspiciously high rate of success in securing confessions. During the retrial, at which Grace is giving evidence, another victim is abducted and one of his fingers sent to CCHQ, along with a demand that Grace admit that Greene is innocent. As a result, Grace is forced to come face to face with her past and consider that what she remembers as a triumphant first success may in fact have involved her playing an unwitting role in a case of corruption.
Incidentally, at one point in the past I suggested that this episode contradicted an earlier mention by Grace of “kids she never sees” by implying that she never married or having children. Watching it again now, I don’t think it’s quite as clear-cut as this. Yes, it’s true that the scene in question, where Grace strongly urges Felix to have children if she gets the chance, does hint at a sense of longing on Grace’s part, but it’s far from conclusive. (And let’s not forget that she is shown to be wearing a wedding ring throughout. Actually, wait a minute - that in itself creates another inconsistency, as in the final episode of Series 2, Grace stated that her marriage didn’t last.) This scene, by the way, is a very good one, sensitively written and well acted by Sue Johnston and Esther Hall. Material like this would become increasingly less common by Series 6, so it’s very much appreciated here. Equally effective is the scene at the end of the first part, where Grace speaks directly to the abductor via the press. In fact, it’s possibly my all-time favourite moment in the history of the series: the writing has a simple but powerful quality, and the combination of the music and acting succeeds in taking it to another level entirely.
More than any other episode of Waking the Dead, this one relies very heavily on flashbacks, telling two concurrent stories - one in the past and one in the present. Once you get past the fact that the 1980 incarnation of Grace (Emma Lowndes, who otherwise does an impeccable job of mimicking Sue Johnston’s inflections and accent) looks a little too young (that, or the present-day incarnation looks a little too old), it’s possible to appreciate the rather effective recreation of a bygone period, with keen attention to the costume and production design. I’m also impressed by the fact that Croghan was able to create a convincing past for Grace which helps flesh out her character without detracting from or overly contradicting what we already knew about her. What lets the episode down, though, is the killer’s identity. I’d prefer not to spoil things too much for those who haven’t seen it, but let’s just say that it’s a predictable old cliché that reinforces a certain stereotype often perpetuated in films and television programmes about serial killers. It’s not enough to sour things completely, but it does mean that the denouement is less impressive than the setup. Even so, it’s the last of the truly great Waking the Deads, in my opinion. From this point on, possibly only Yahrzeit and Skin can hold a candle to what came before.
By the way, I apologise for having left this project hanging in the lurch for so long. I fully intend to complete it… provided I can work up the stamina to sit through the remainder of Series 6, that is.
Holby connections: director Jim O’Hanlon has helmed several episodes of Casualty and also wrote one episode in 2004.