Waking the Dead: Series 4, Episodes 9 and 10: The Hardest Word
Written by Doug Milburn; Directed by Philippa Langdale
The naked body of a man is discovered tied face down to a bed with the word “sorry” carved into his back, following a sex act. This looks like a case for the Murder Investigation Team, but Boyd, who has been investigating a murder with the exact same characteristics, succeeds in getting himself and his team involved in the inquiry, and they soon find themselves forced to work with the crude and abrasive Detective Superintendent Andy Bulmer (Phil Daniels) and his heavy-handed mob. Boyd, however, can’t seem to keep his eyes off psychological profiler Dr. Greta Simpson (Emma Fielding), drafted in to help with the inquiry. At Grace and Greta’s urging, the team begins to consider that the killer is more than likely someone who was abused him/herself at some point in the past and is now gaining sexual gratification by acting out his/her murderous fantasies.
As I rewatch these episodes, I’m coming to the conclusion that something I’d previously forgotten about Series 4 is how witty it is. Waking the Dead has always had a streak of dark humour about it, but it really comes to the fore in this series. In retrospect, I have a feeling that this may have been intended to make the tragedy that occurs in the final episode all the more horrifying. Anyway, much of the humour here comes from Boyd’s obvious infatuation with Greta, and Grace’s simmering jealousy. Many long-running series seem to end up featuring undercurrents of Platonic affection between certain characters, and Boyd and Grace are the obvious candidates in Waking the Dead. It’s considerably more pronounced here than in the later series, but the two characters often resemble an old married couple with their continual spats and reconciliation, and the combination of mutual respect for and irritation with each other.
When I wrote my original review of Series 4 for DVD Times, I described this two-parter as “the only case in the entire collection that comes even close to striking a bum note”, criticising its ending for being abrupt and not particularly satisfying. I was originally similarly critical of Series 2’s Thin Air but now consider it one of the best episodes of the entire series, and something similar appears to have happened with The Hardest Word. The conclusion is still far from satisfying, and the actual specifics of the killer’s relationship with his/her victims is a little hard to swallow once revealed, but in a sense I don’t think the ending was ever intended to be the sort that wraps everything up neatly. Throughout the episode, after all, the old “nature versus nurture” argument is continually brought up, coming down firmly on the “nurture” side. We are continually shown that abuse is a vicious cycle, with victims often becoming abusers themselves. As such, there’s no real end to it, and I get the impression that the somewhat ambiguous ending, which still leaves us unclear as to just how complicit one character was in the murders, is meant to reflect that.
Highlight below to reveal spoiler text:
Basically, the killer is Greta’s father (Julian Glover), who abused her as a child. As a result of the ordeal she suffered, Greta is compelled to recreate the specifics of this abuse in her sexual behaviour, and as a result plays out sadomasochistic scenarios with older men. Her father, however, in some warped way attempting to atone for his abusive behaviour, has been following her around and has actually been carrying out the actual murders. It’s not made clear whether or not Greta was aware who was doing this, but the fact that she never said a word about the fact that both of the victims under investigation were former sexual partners of hers is a little hard to swallow… as is the fact that Boyd basically sends her home with a pat on the back after all of this has been revealed.
Interestingly, barring the pilot, the second episode of this two-parter is the only episode not to conclude with the familiar Waking the Dead theme tune over the credits. Odd, that.