Unforgotten's Sinéad Keenan shouldn't be compared to Nicola Walker
Can we appreciate DCI Jessie James without comparing Keenan to her predecessor?
Much of the chatter around the new fifth season of Unforgotten has revolved around the debut DCI Jessica James, played by Sinéad Keenan. It was expected of course, but a lot of the discussion pre-empting these new episodes has been mere comparison between two female leads, rather than any kind of positive framing for Keenan or the series.
Sure, it's natural for viewers to wonder just how Unforgotten would continue without former mainstay DCI Cassie Stewart (Nicola Walker). Devoted fans were not only left mourning Cassie like a real person, but were also surprised when news of season 5 was first announced.
While the tragic death of Cassie was unexpected, it left the series feeling final and tied up, if it needed to end there. Killing off a main character that has appeared since its first episode will do that to a series.
But then the fifth season was announced and soon, anticipation replaced initial trepidation for the series, which turned into excitement once RTS award-winning actress Keenan was announced to be joining the cast.
So, rather than ask the question of how exactly does Keenan compare to Walker, why not celebrate them each for the individual ways they lead the series? Is it really such a revolutionary concept to not pit two actresses against one another?
The series is a long-running one and has amassed a loyal legion of fans since it first aired back in 2015, but it is just that – a beloved television series. Walker is not dead, Keenan is not re-writing the history of this series and life continues.
Many will recognise Keenan for her roles in Showtrial, Derry Girls and Little Boy Blue but here, she's fierce and matter-of-fact Jessica "Jessie" James. Like her character, Keenan is arriving into a well-established set-up and has admitted she was "reticent" to even read the scripts for Unforgotten at first, worried about filling a "Cassie-shaped hole".
It's a big role to take on but as fans will soon find out after watching the six episodes of the new season, Keenan seamlessly slots into Unforgotten, breathing new life into the drama.
She enters the series somewhat chaotically, having just uncovered a shocking family issue. Less than an hour away from starting her first shift, she's rattled in the way any of us would be. In those moments, within the confines of her home or with her family, we start to see a different side Jessica. She's worrisome, scared, upset, anxious about her future and like many women in high-flying and male-dominated careers, becomes used to putting on a mask for the sake of it.
So when she starts her first day commanding the team, telling them to call her "Gov" instead of "Ma'am", asking for eyes on the case "at all times" and wanting to ignore this supposed cold case in favour of tackling less time and money-consuming recent cases, it's a wonder any of the team returns for a second day of the same.
But as a viewer, we come into the series having a natural soft spot for Jessica, even if nobody else in the team initially does. We see her behind-the-scenes, if you will. A testament to Chris Lang's writing, Jessica is not the indomitable figure her colleagues initially think of her as. Instead, she's just a relatable person dealing with a hell of a lot.
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She's stressed about starting a new job, dotes on her mother for help and advice, and she wants to keep her family together in spite of what's happened. Speaking to her sister later in the series, she says: "I'm anxious, I'm depressed, I don't go round behaving like that."
In the final few episodes, it's as though the façade is lifted from Jessica, allowing for Sunny to see her for the person she actually is, and not the boss she has tried to be.
She's in a world of her own at the start, unable to be truthful with Sunny because she's basically just met him, and their relationship starts off incredibly tense. But then, Sunny finally speaks up after Jessica fails to do some investigative calls with him, telling her: "I can't work like this – next to you and not with you ... There's a barrier between us and I would love it if we could find a way of getting rid of it. Even if it's just for this case and we go our separate ways."
"I can't be her," Jessica says referring to Cassie but then apologises for her actions, saying they should "reset". And now that the pair have bonded over their own tumultuous personal lives, it seems to be pretty plain-sailing. They're on the same page, swapping theories and ideas, cracking the case at last.
The whole emotional, grief-stricken journey of this season aptly demonstrates the awkwardness of navigating new boundaries – personal and professional. Both Jessica and Sunny are relieved to learn they can easily confide in each other, especially seeing as Cassie was a lot more than just a colleague to Sunny. Soon, with their own relationship improving, the case is solved and as a viewer, we continue to get a better sense of Jessie, what makes her tick, what makes her angry.
As much as there really doesn't need to be any comparison between Walker and Keenan, both of our leads have been quietly complicated in their own way, but that's the appeal of watching a series like Unforgotten. You're tuning in for the crime-solving and staying for the well-crafted characters – and Keenan's Jessica is most definitely one.
But not only that, Keenan is an ace new lead in her own right. We can only hope that this is just the beginning of a brand new Unforgotten journey with DCI James, without the need to pine for previous seasons.
Unforgotten season 5 continues to air every Monday evening on ITV1, with seasons 1-5 available to stream now on ITVX.