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Why Crossfire was right to focus on the victims

BBC One’s gripping three-parter proved you don’t have to glorify criminals to make great drama.

Dan Ryan and Josette Simon in Crossfire
BBC / Dancing Ledge Productions
Published: Wednesday, 21st September 2022 at 11:05 am
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**Warning: This article contains full spoilers for all three episodes of Crossfire, which are available to watch now on BBC iPlayer**

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There’s a growing argument among newsrooms that limiting information about the perpetrators in mass shootings should be the default approach, partly to avoid giving anyone else similar ideas and partly to avoid the risk of glorification. BBC One’s latest must-see Crossfire might be a pure work of fiction but writer Louise Doughty still appears to have adhered to this unwritten rule.

So do the newspapers seen in the harrowing three-parter, which stars Keeley Hawes as an ex-cop who launches into hero mode when her family and friends' holiday comes under a terrorist attack. Her gun-toting character Jo – whose fearlessness and steely determination saves numerous lives, including her eldest daughter’s – dominates the tabloid headlines back home. The two men who turned the Tenerife resort into a war zone, on the other hand, are nowhere to be seen.

It’s a similar story in the drama we see on screen. When Hawes isn’t pacing the corridors on her rescue mission, we see her husband Jason (Lee Ingleby) frantically searching for the son that got lost in the commotion. We see her best friend Miriam (Josette Simon) giving first aid to a badly-injured staff member. We see her sexting partner Chinar (Vikash Bhai) sacrificing himself to protect the three kids in his care.

Doughty always ensures the focus remains on those caught in the crossfire, and summoning up a tremendous amount of courage in their response, rather than those responsible for it.

In fact, we don’t even see the assailants’ faces, or know how many are involved, until the start of the second episode. During a brief flashback, it's shown the siege isn’t the politically-motivated work of a militia as perhaps first expected. It’s simply the work of two psychopathic siblings with a grudge to bear.

Crossfire doesn’t spend much time trying to humanise the pair. It’s clear big brother Gerardo (Pol Toro) is a master manipulator: “If it wasn’t for me, he’d have beaten you to death a long time ago,” he tells Flavio (Pol Sanuy) while gazing out into the sea, hinting at the shared dark past that will later come to light.

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And the latter does at least appear to have some form of moral conscience, deciding against pulling the trigger on Amara (Shalisha James-Davis) after a frantic bathroom plea. The younger of the two also allows a mother and her screaming baby to walk free. Apparently, some crazed gunmen do have limits.

Holidaymakers running away in fear in Crossfire
Vikash Bhai as Chinar in Crossfire. BBC / Dancing Ledge Productions

Having already fired indiscriminately into a family area, though, slaughtering countless innocent people along the way, it's impossible to muster any form of sympathy. Jo beats herself up for taking a life, insisting she’s not worthy of the commendation handed out by the police force she later rejoins. But Flavia, who also had ample opportunity to surrender before the trigger was pulled, was only ever going to leave in a body bag.

There's no semblance of a redemptive arc for Gerardo. In fact, he’s only shown to be more sadistic. See the mind games he plays with the group taken hostage in the hotel kitchen, ordering his former employer to choose who gets shot next. And when challenged on his supposed cowardice by another staff member (“We’re not frightened of you, little s**t. Killing women and children”), Gerardo’s only answer is to blow his head off.

Gerardo’s reign of terror also ends violently when he’s fatally shot by the long overdue armed response unit. And the duo doesn’t get mentioned again, other than in a background TV news report in which you can just about hear more of their backstory: their father is serving an eight-year term for murdering their mother, while Gerardo had previously threatened to kill his former colleagues after being sacked on suspicion of theft. The fact so many people suffered over a relatively petty job dispute only makes the tragedy seem even more senseless.

Of course, Flavia and Gerardo weren’t exactly the only guilty culprits. Responsible for giving the pair the code to access the complex, snivelling waiter Iker (Guillermo Campra) – who nearly incurs the wrath of Gerardo himself – initially claims he had no idea they were going to cause a massacre. However, having then alerted the killers to the kitchen staff’s whereabouts and later stabbed Ben (Daniel Ryan) to death, albeit in a collision which the holidaymaker stupidly appeared to invite, he's far from the innocent party. Once again, we know as little about him on his arrest as we did on first seeing him serve drinks.

Some viewers may well feel short-changed that the killings weren’t linked to some big conspiracy or movement but was simply a deranged revenge plot from a disgruntled employee. Then again, Crossfire was never billed as a twisty crime drama.

As with The Impossible, the 2012 survival tale based on the Indian Ocean tsunami, it’s an exploration of how the everyday can suddenly be torn apart by circumstances that couldn’t possibly be foreseen and how the tiniest of choices we make can have monumental consequences. “Why didn’t I appreciate ordinary life?,” Jo reflects in the wake of the tragedy. “Why didn’t I realise how fragile it all can be?”

So often, the screentime in such dramas is balanced in favour of the aggressor, relegating the victims to mere statistics and denying them any sense of agency on their own. Think how 22 July, Paul Greengrass’ depiction of the Utøya shootings of 2011, afforded its real-life killer the attention he so obviously desired. And so many of Netflix’s true crime stories end up glamorising the evil incarnates in question while paying barely a cursory glance to those they have made suffer.

With its third and final episode dedicated to the aftermath back home – from Jo’s reluctance to be hailed a hero to the revelation she was sexting Chinar to Kate (Anneika Rose) and Miriam adjusting to widowhood – that's a bullet Crossfire has wisely dodged.

All three episodes of Crossfire are now available on BBC iPlayer – check out our Drama hub for all the latest news.

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