Black Earth Rising Episode 2 opened with a shocking twist and only complicated matters from there, showing Hugo Blick’s sprawling drama to be one of the finest shows currently airing.
Black Earth Rising Episode 2 opens with a betrayal – of its characters, sure, but also of the audience’s expectations and some established rules of storytelling. Have British TV dramas just decided not to play by the rules all at once? Between this and BBC One’s Bodyguard, nobody is safe, least of all the top-billed cast.
But this, like almost everything associated with Black Earth Rising, was expertly done, so you can’t really complain. We began at The Hague. Court was in session. Harriet Walter’s Eve Ashby explained to a judge that she would be presenting evidence that would establish a “predisposition of character” on the part of General Nyamoya (Danny Sapani), who is on trial for war crimes. And in the meantime, anyone with a nose for such things will have detected that something untoward is about to go down. Two shady men have smuggled weapons though security and taken seats in the public gallery. And yet a party of school children leads to the mission being aborted. Crisis averted, or so we think.
When Eve and her assistant, Godwin Hall (Nyasha Hatendi), speak to Nyamoya while he awaits transfer, all three are gunned down by a backup assassin disguised as a highway patrolman.
Well… that was unexpected. And ballsy, both in how it subverted the usual “will-they-won’t-they” set-piece structuring, and in how in one scene it handed the reins of the show over to Kate Ashby (Michaela Coel), a suicidal orphan of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and Michael Ennis (John Goodman), who in Black Earth Rising Episode 2 is pissing blood.
Not that I’m complaining about any of this. Coel is astonishing here, playing a character that is evidently tough and socially uncouth, but literally and figuratively scarred, resentful, and vulnerable. Her athletic shoulders can sustain even the weight of a show like this, I’m sure, and Goodman is as battle-tested as anyone, even if I doubt he’ll survive the duration. Then again, will anyone?
It’s a question worth asking, especially since Black Earth Rising Episode 2 refocused the show’s attention not on General Nyamoya, whose trial looked set to form the backbone of the series, but instead on Alice Munezero (Noma Dumezweni), another former Tutsi General who arrives in the UK for Eve’s funeral and leaves in handcuffs, arrested on suspicion of war crimes. Kate is perplexed when she agrees to be extradited to France for trial, even though Michael insists she just wants to get it all over and done with. Nobody’s buying that, least of all me; Alice, Michael and Eve clearly had secrets they’ll have to answer for. The question is whether Kate will have to answer for them too.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.