Trauma review: Mike Bartlett tells an unsettling tale of feuding fathers and class war
The writer’s new medical thriller is packed with enough vengefulness and resentment to rival Doctor Foster
Mike Bartlett has a real knack for writing vindictive, obsessive, furious male leads.
First, there was slimy Simon in his drama Doctor Foster, arguably the most hated character on television. Now, in his new series Trauma, Bartlett introduces Dan Bowker, the embodiment of bitterness and rage.
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Dan, played by John Simm, is a factory worker struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table for his wife Susie and their three children. On the very same day that his boss calls him in to tell him he’s being let go, his 15-year-old son Alex is stabbed in the stomach.
In hospital, respected surgeon Jon Allerton (Adrian Lester) tries to save his life, but Alex dies in the operating theatre. Dan, having somehow made his way into the room, is present the moment Alex slips away and sees panic in Jon’s eyes. He immediately blames the surgeon for his son’s death.
From this moment on, Dan’s sole purpose in life is to make Jon admit responsibility for the tragedy. Strangely, he seems to have absolutely no interest in finding who actually pushed the knife into his son, and instead wants to exact revenge on the man who failed to save him.
Once Dan discovers that Jon had been drinking before the procedure, he cannot let this go. At the funeral, which he forces Jon to come to, Dan loses control and begins to attack him, screaming: “Admit it!”
Neither of the male leads are especially likeable: Jon is too uptight, too earnest, while Dan (although we’ll excuse him because he’s grieving) is a piece of work with erratic tendencies. Despite this difficulty to muster empathy for the characters and the occasional ridiculousness of it – Dan wouldn’t have been able to saunter into the operating theatre like that – it’s a very entertaining watch and well worth seeing through to the end, with the next two episodes airing tomorrow and Wednesday.
What adds a rich extra dimension to Trauma is the theme of class war. Dan has got a real chip on his shoulder about his working class roots, compared with Jon’s relative wealth. To him, the injustice of losing Alex has fallen on his family because of their place in society.
“Do you ever think, if I was born in a different place, if my mum and dad had more money, I’d be a completely different person?" Dan challenges his boss.
“If my dad had money he’d have sent me to a better school, I’d have done my A levels, maybe university, things would have been better.
“I’d have made things better for myself, I’d have put my son through private school and now, maybe, he wouldn’t be dead.
“Because that’s what’s going through my mind pretty much all the time right now. That really, he died because of me, because I’m a failure.
“I just wasn’t born to the right people. Neither was my son.”
Money, or lack thereof, returns again and again in the episode, with Dan bitterly telling Jon he’s got the nicest suit at the funeral, and worrying about scraping the cash together to pay for the service. Dan's financial situation is not helped by the fact that he has lost his job, and this is part of the reason why he spirals so extremely after Alex’s death. He’s lost his purpose: to be a provider.
However, Dan gets a new job – in the café right at the hospital Jon works in. As Jon arrives into work, optimistic about the day ahead, he is shocked to see Dan standing in front of him, staring.
“Hi, I’m Dan,” he says. “My son died a few weeks ago. You probably don’t remember.”
Having seen the next two episodes, I can tell you that it becomes pretty impossible for Jon to forget.