Dan Martin offers his thoughts on why the BBC’s gritty drama has been such a smash. Warning: this article contains minor spoilers.
There is emerging within BBC drama what might be termed a ‘Keeley Hawes effect’. Two years ago, the UK actress took the lead in an acclaimed, popular, but not quite phenomenal anthology series, Line Of Duty. Her portrayal of Detective Inspector Lindsay Denton, all trauma and sunken eyebags took the show to social media’s greatest heights for its second series. The character’s shock return and death proved a highlight of the show’s third run this year.
Autumn 2016 has seen Hawes repeat the trick, with her portrayal of traumatised mother Gemma Webster. To recap, The Missing debuted in 2014, with James Nesbitt as the father of a young boy, lost and apparently abducted in France, teamed up with Tchéky Karyo as the French investigating detective, Julien Baptiste. Written by brothers Harry and Jack Williams, The Missing was certainly no slouch on its first outing. The finale delivered 9 million viewers for the BBC and generated an estimated 1000 tweets per minute. But in terms of perception, it remained in the shadow of ITV’s similar show, Broadchurch.
But where Chris Chibnall’s seaside noir floundered in its second series, The Missing’s recently-concluded second run has caught the popular imagination. The second series retains just the premise of a missing child, and the presence of Baptiste, portrayed here, in retirement and battling a brain tumour – apparently going through a dying man’s search for purpose in re-opening an unsolved cold case.
The case in question is sprawling, told all across Europe among multiple timelines. In 2003, a young girl, Alice Webster, vanished from the German town of Eckhausen, where her family were based at a military garrison. Flash-forward to 2014, and Alice returns to her parents – Hawes and David Morrissey as her soldier husband Sam. In one of the most harrowing storylines of recent television drama, Alice has been detained in a bunker, in a scenario based not even loosely on the case of Dutch abuser Josef Fritzl.
The parents are shellshocked in the relief that their daughter is home, but Gemma is perturbed by the seeming difference in her daughter, which is only heightened by the emergence from Paris of Baptiste, his interest piqued by the similarities of Alice’s story to the disappearance he failed to solve of Sophie Giroux. Perhaps hallucinating from the onset of his cancer, Baptiste becomes convinced that the girl claiming to be Alice is in fact Sophie – a theory left unproven when the girl commits suicide, setting fire to herself in the Webster family’s garden shed.
What follows spans numerous timelines and families, the genesis of the awful chain of events dating back to the 1991 Gulf war in Iraq. And anchoring the story, Hawes is a towering presence, portraying a woman struggling to maintain dignity amid the most unimaginable trauma; struggling to reconnect with a lost child and the revelation of a cheating husband. Laura Fraser, Roger Allam and Lia Williams also deserve mention, although going too far into their roles here would be considered a spoiler.
The Missing is as contentious as it is ambitious, but it remains remarkable as a UK commission. Most obviously, both series are in debt to the ‘Scandi-Noir’ genre, popularised in the UK on BBC Four by The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen. The pan-European setting is an obvious touchstone. The co-funding operation with US network Starz allows the show its handsome budget, but the mournful, elegant wide shots of the continental scenery provide evidence of the BBC’s drama department proving reactive to the impact of their most successful Scandi imports.
Yet perhaps more than that, The Missing’s second series has seen the corporation responding further to trends, namely the ‘binge-watch’ format made a phenomenon by the online streaming services. The most notorious quality of those platforms’ biggest successes arise from the power of the cliffhanger. Central to the business model is making the viewer yearn for ‘just-one-more-episode’, however late at night. With its intricate puzzle-box storytelling, and genuinely brutal twists and cliffhangers, The Missing has mastered that format on terrestrial.
The tragedy for viewers of course, is they can’t click ‘next episode’ before the credits are done – they’ve had to wait a week, And in the shapeshifting climate of television drama, that might be a challenge even Keeley Hawes cannot overcome. The actor can at least now take comfort in her inevitable BAFTA nomination.
Daniel Martin is a pop culture journalist, screenwriter and self-confessed geek.