For fans of detective dramas, there’s typically no day of the week more sacred than a Sunday. Whether it’s BBC One, ITV, Channel 4 or any of the Sky channels, that 9pm slot has become the regular TV fixture we’ve all clung to throughout lockdown and a chance to distract from the week of work ahead by getting lost in the murky world of fictional murder.
The only issue is it is possible to get so lost in a drama that you’re not entirely sure what’s going on, who the protagonist cops are supposedly looking for or why they suspect the people they do. This was the case for most with Bloodlands – BBC One’s latest series starring James Nesbitt as a detective on the hunt for the assassin who killed his wife 20 years prior.
The BBC One drama came to a dramatic conclusion last night, with viewers finally getting an answer to the question they’ve been asking since Pat Keenan’s car was hauled from Strangford Lough in episode one – who is serial killer Goliath?
Spoiler alert: it turned out to be Nesbitt’s character Tom Brannick – the cop who, despite leading his colleagues on the search for Goliath, had been blackmailed into killing two of the victims by the third in 1998 and recently murdered the fourth (the third’s brother) when he’d realised that Tom was behind the deaths.
This shocking twist should have been a hard-hitting a-ha moment for fans, who’d been perched on the edge of their sofas since mid-February and yet it felt like a bit of a let down. This disappointment didn’t just stem from the police’s release of Tom, who walked away scot free despite the unresolved issues surrounding his missing wife and his account of Pat Keenan’s death, but from the exposition-induced headache I’d developed after spending four hours processing the unrelenting barrage of information hurled in our direction by a constantly-frowning Nesbitt.
And it doesn’t look like I’m the only one left with a permanently furrowed brow by Bloodlands. “Looking at the Bloodlands timeline I’m not sure many people understood what was going on,” one viewer tweeted, while another wrote: “Very confused by Bloodlands finale. In fact, I’m confused about the whole thing.”
So why didn’t the Goliath reveal pay-off? Despite boasting Jed Mercurio, the king of complex yet concise dramas, as an executive producer, Bloodlands’ over-complicated plot compromised the show’s much-needed character development – particularly when it came to its brooding lead played by a permanently pained Nesbitt.
Throughout the four-parter, we didn’t learn much about Tom’s personality apart from the fact that he had a daughter at university and was desperate to find the serial killer seemingly responsible for his wife’s disappearance. We watched as he disobeyed his commanding officers by directing all police energy into finding this murderer instead of just looking for the missing person at hand, criminal businessman Pat Keenan, and while we knew something was off when Tom recklessly shot Adam Cory, the innocent brother of Goliath victim David Cory, Tom’s reveal as the serial killer felt more like a last-minute cop-out than a clever twist.
The drama’s over-saturation of plot details, from Tori Matthews being Father Simon Quinlan’s daughter and the affair between Emma Brannick and David Cory, to the relevance of the owl pendant and Jackie Twomey’s unexplained dealing with victim Joe Harkin, drowned out the few attempts made to dig into Tom’s thought process and while this may have been an intentional device to throw viewers off the scent, it only resulted in more confusion around the Goliath reveal.
You only need to look at Bloodlands’ rival dramas if you want a masterclass in how to flesh out multi-dimensional lead characters without diluting an intriguing, complex plot. Currently the highlight of Monday night TV is Unforgotten, ITV’s cold case drama starring Nicola Walker, who can expertly convey DCI Cassie Stuart’s various lines of thinking with just the tilt of her head or the restless darting of her eyes. Each series has treated viewers to an intricate plot featuring multiple suspects, all of whom are either working together in the crime or are just hiding elements of it, while layers of the detectives gradually begin to unfold through various subplots, whether it’s Cassie’s emotional exhaustion and struggles with her Alzheimers-suffering dad, or DI Sunny Khan’s (Sanjeev Bhaskar) divorce whilst raising two daughters.
Similarly, Line of Duty, which shares a lot of themes with Bloodlands, is a success with viewers despite being difficult to follow sometimes as it perfectly balances character development with surprise plot twists. Series five saw AC-12 continue with their hunt for mysterious bent copper ‘H’, and while fans had spent over 20 episodes getting to know Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), there were a few moments in which the Anti-Corruption gang (and some viewers) suspected the gaffer had been behind the organised crime group all along. Hastings was ultimately exonerated, but the suspicion around Dunbar’s character made sense even though we thought we knew him inside out.
There’s a lot that Bloodlands can learn from these two series going forward, and with the detective drama officially returning for a second series, hopefully writer Chris Brandon will take the opportunity to dig into Tom Brannick without distracting viewers with the smoke and mirrors of a convoluted plot.