In the Flesh Season One

BAFTA winning zombie drama. It’s not every day you hear that phrase but then In the Flesh is not an everyday sort of series. It flew under the radar when its first season was broadcast in 2013 and yet now after a triumphant second season nabbed one of TV’s top awards it is even being suggested it could save BBC3 from online obscurity. Whether that turns out to be true or not it certainly demonstrates the channel’s risk taking agenda does sometimes deliver. The popular misconception is that the channel simply develops puerile teen drama or comedy but In the Flesh is a serious, mature and often startling drama. In a more enlightened television world it would have debuted on BBC1. What makes the show even more remarkable is that it is writer Dominic Mitchells’s first ever series.
Keiran was shocked by the wallpaper

The zombie genre has had a lot of attention in recent years. From big screen outings whether serious (World War Z) or comedic (Cockneys Vs Zombies) to television shows like The Walking Dead and even books. The focus though has been on trying to turn what appears to be a one gimmick thing into something deeper. All of the examples mentioned and others have found surprisingly subtle or amusing social commentary in the idea of a zombie plague of some description. Yet most are set in a decaying or destroyed civilisation; zombies and decaying buildings seem to go together. What In The Flesh does is try and place the idea in a recognisable contemporary setting where civilisation has not fallen or been over-run by monsters (at least not of the undead sort) and people have to find a way to live with the changed situation. In that respect it has more in common with dramas set in the hinterland of a war, massacre or pandemic. Has the world changed that much and does what has happened bring out a darker side to those still alive? How do you cope in the aftermath of a life changing illness and what you would do if someone you had loved did come back from the dead. 
Episode One opens in an alternative contemporary England some three years on from an unexplained, for now at least, event called the Rising in which the recently deceased rose from their graves and wreaked havoc until they were contained. Mitchell’s first strong move is to make the scenario as much a comment on government responses as anything. The glimpses we get of the aftermath show how even something as potentially apocalyptic has been dealt with by a combination of medical treatment and neat names.  There’s even a smiley poster of the type you often see in hospitals. So while people might refer to these undead as “rotters” or worse, their official designation is as sufferers of Partially Deceased Syndrome or PDS. Quarantined and given powerful suppressant drugs those that are deemed suitable will eventually be released back into the community. It is a scenario rife with possibility and despite what appears to be slow pace Mitchell is almost rushing to pack much into the opener of what is a brief three part first series.
The first episode focuses on Kieran Walker, a teenage suicide who suffers enormous guilt twice over- one for the fact that he took his own life and again for the girl he killed when he was awakened. Much of the episode deals with his return to Roarton, the small village where his family live and which is rife with paranoia and fear. It is here that the first Human Volunteer Service (HVS) started because of the feeling that the government did not do enough for Northern areas affected. Sounds familiar. Worse still Kieran’s sister is a member of this vigilante force. So he has to be sneaked back home, literally having to hide under coats in the back seat as his parents’ car returns.
Director Jonny Campbell emphasises the discomfort Kieran feels in somewhere as familiar as his own home. Trinkets and traditions that might otherwise be seen as warm and happy are suddenly cold and uncomfortable personified by a dinner in which Kieran is encouraged to pretend to eat even though in this condition he no longer needs to. PDS sufferers are given skin tone cream and contact lenses to make them blend in more; for these actor Luke Newberry simply uses his own rather remarkable eyes that gaze mournfully at each situation. The tension is up front continuously as every knock or ring on the door signals potential danger.
The series underscores in frightening terms how quickly people’s attitude towards each other can change. This is something we see in the news whether here in response to some public outcry or in countries where sectarian divisions turn former neighbours into enemies almost overnight.  In a stunning moment that occurs about five minutes before the end of the first episode this is vividly depicted when news spreads to the HVS that a PDS sufferer is in the village. The Walkers think it is their son who is being sought and arm themselves- Mrs Walker rather surreally with a chainsaw- but it turns out to be the already seen Burtons, curtain -twitchers living opposite that find themselves at the sharp end of summary justice, Kieran has to watch from opposite as Mrs Burton is shot in the street. What we don’t quite realise at this juncture is the added personal connection for him in that the man who does the shooting is Bill Macy whose own son was Kieran’s best friend and maybe more. What Mitchell then unveils- that Rick Macy assumed dead in combat and the reason for Kieran’s suicide- has been found and is himself now a PDS sufferer – means that the opener ends on a must-see high. Fear and prejudice in this rural community is the tone of the first episode but one of the strengths of the series is that each of the trio has its own theme.

The second episode takes advantage of the relatively short season running time to develop various parts of the plot far faster than might otherwise have been done. It also starts to pull the viewer’s expectations from under our feet as what both we- and the characters- might expect to happen does not quite play out. Instead we see the seeds of a more interesting drama in which the simmering hostility and regret is forced into the open with surprisingly subtle results. Take Kieran’s eventual reunion with Rick which some series would overdramatize or support with swelling music. Here it’s a casual if heartfelt chat in a van in the midst of a hunt for a hostile “rotter”. Its’ written and played with perfect understatement. You can feel the history and the hurt but it’s never overplayed.
Likewise, we see that some of the things characters said in the first episode was flannel some of it born out of fear. Watching the speeches and gun touting might have us believe that the first sign of Kieran emerging from the house would be greeted by a spray of bullets but by the middle of this episode he, Amy the PDS girl he met and Rick are all sitting in the pub. There are still stony stares and mutterings but having shown us the worst of humanity last time, here Dominic Mitchell suggests that most people are reasonable. They have their prejudices but few when faced with something as innocent as this trio would actually take action. It is a different kind of tension then than the claustrophobic nature of the first episode.
The biggest conflicts are in the heads of the protagonists themselves. Having taken such a proactive role in defending the village previously Bill now has to come to terms with his son’s return which he does by pretending he is normal. Rick plays along drinking beer even though the result is horrible looking black vomit later. In a way you suspect he is only acting as he did when alive; trying to project what he sees as a conventional, acceptable, expected appearance. When we see his bedroom it is decorated with pin ups and martial arts awards, nothing to hint at his past relationship. Kieran seems to find it harder to mask this as the large portrait he drew of Rick is a fairly noticeable feature of his room. This focus on appearance plays though in the reaction of the locals to Rick’s return; while they seem non plussed by Kieran and disturbed by Amy’s outspoken appearance (she turns up at the pub “au naturelle” without her make up paste or contacts) – they are happier and more secure to talk to Rick about his frontline experiences in the army.
Wonderfully framed by Jonny Campbell using filtered sunlight and the windy wilds of the surrounding countryside, Kieran’s trip to see his own grave broadens the narrative by introducing Amy. She died of leukaemia and yet is so vivacious and full of life, ironically seeming more alive than any of the living people in the place. Emily Bevan brings a necessary lighter side to what has been a (necessarily) very serious drama so far and has an immediate chemistry with Kieran bringing him back to what you feel is more like his former self. Yet even this interlude is spoiled when someone spots him - “I went to your funeral”- and he is forced to flee. It emphasises the restlessness that PDS sufferers will always have, the sense that they cannot really settle for fear of exposure, abuse or worse.
One of the best things about Dominic Mitchell’s writing is the way he has brought Keiran to life. When we first meet him he seems cowed and confused but over the course of part 2 his emphasis changes – partly thanks to Amy bringing him out of himself- so that by the end he is taking a defiant stance. In the first episode we saw him look at a website advocating more rights for PDS sufferers and it seems clear he is not going to play the victim for too long. Perhaps this can be seen as making up for the guilt he feels now over taking his own life. As he accompanies a hunt in the might time woods it is he who finally takes a stand, stopping the party from killing the two rogue PDS sufferers they find and instead getting the financial reward for handing them over. Kieran can be said to have fully returned
The ramifications of this act are played out in what turns out to be a remarkable third episode. It is here that Dominic Mitchell’s script lifts even higher as all the appearances and tensions burst into the open particularly in a stunning last thirty minutes which is up with anything the fantasy genre has produced in recent times. A series like this can end up tilting in favour of the supernatural and strange but here much of that is dispensed with in favour of the characters and their reactions to a series of tragic events. Bill, still in denial about what his son is, wants Rick to kill Kieran something the latter can’t do. Rick looks at himself in the mirror, covering one side of his face and laughing because he looks almost normal but knows he cannot be. Facing his father without the prosthetics proves to be a defining moment.
The familial aspects of the series have been well played but it’s in this third episode that they really come to life. Whatever happens they draw their roots from the twin burdens of family expectations and disappointments. Both are explored.  There’s a heartfelt support group meeting wherein both Mrs Walker and Mrs Macy express their true feelings about their returned sons.  You barely have time to take this in than Kieran returns (he’s been made to walk back from the woods and has had to say goodbye to Amy who’s left Roarton in search of a more pro-active PDS group) and finds Rick’s body lying in front of his house. We know what’s happened and this leads to a stunning scene in which Bill claiming at first he hasn’t seen Rick in five years- finally admits to Kieran that he killed his son because he’s heard there will be a second Rising where only good people will return.  There is so much going on in this scene, each character has so much at stake and Mitchell’s dialogue gives the actors the ammunition to deliver something that looks and feels like it could come from a Ken Loach film. It is such a raw scene played brilliantly by each of the actors; Karen Henthorn in particular pulls off uncontrolled shock and grief in such a shocking manner. It is Luke Newberry’s finest moment though he is excellent throughout. It’s also such a sad scene in so many ways. There’s a sting too as moments later Bill himself is also killed by none other than Mr Burton. Justice, of sorts.
We’ve barely time to draw breath because Mitchell has not finished with our emotions yet as he demonstrates with two scenes involving the Walkers. One, in the same cave where Kieran’s body was originally found, is a lovely mother / son talk that has the bittersweet quality that suggests things will never be the same but life (or second life) goes on. When Kieran finally comes home there is a final unmasking of his father’s feelings. It is hard to think of a half hour of drama that gives so much than this one. I’d say that the only things I’ve seen in the past year that can match this episode are Breaking Bad, Sherlock and certain episodes of Game of Thrones. That’s how good it is.
And now I’ve got season two to watch….

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