it isn’t easy viewing, but Deadwater Fell got off to an undeniably compelling start with a twisty, tragic opening episode.
This recap of Deadwater Fell Episode 1 contains spoilers.
The BBC came out swinging in 2020 with their creative adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and now it’s Channel 4’s turn to fire a few shots across the British TV bow with their heavily-advertised new drama Deadwater Fell. It debuted tonight with a deeply traumatic and twisty hour that was dark enough to be off-putting for many but well-acted and complex enough to ensure an eager audience return to decipher the true circumstances behind the tragedy which rends the quiet Scottish village of Kirkdarroch.
That tragedy is the burning down of Tom (David Tennant) and Kate (Anna Madeley) Kendrick’s family home, which results in the death of Kate and their three young daughters. Arriving just in time to save Tom but not his wife or children is local copper Steve (Matthew McNulty) and his partner Jess (Cush Jumbo), good friends of the well-liked couple, though with secrets that put their specific relationships in a different light. Steve makes several brave attempts to rescue everyone but fails and spends the rest of Deadwater Fell traumatized by his experiences and wracked with guilt.
In the aftermath of the fire, evidence emerges that something sinister was afoot and that it might not have been an accident. A time-hopping nonlinear narrative structure begins to explore the relationship between these two couples and suggest reasons why, while also fleshing out the well-realized characters who’re brought to vivid, naturalistic life here by a very fine cast.
Deadwater Fell Episode 1 is full of quaint little details which helps this story to feel grounded; in an early scene a kid takes a tumble, and Tom, the local GP, gives him a once over. The kids and parents both seem to know each other on a personal level, as though very little acting is occurring. In the same scene, Steve briefly argues with his ex-wife Sandra (Lisa McGrillis) about co-parenting their children, but it’s over as quickly as it begins, just a nothing bout of adult bickering. Later, the show is so blasé about IVF treatment that I almost mistook one of the characters for being diabetic.
Of course, this kind of uncomplicated small-town life only exacerbates the tragedy that follows, which I suppose is the point. A long take of firemen carrying a child’s corpse in a body-bag out of the charred house and laying it gently on the ground next to two others is excruciating viewing and the kind of thing that some may find gratuitous, despite obvious efforts made to keep it reserved. Having such detailed insights into these characters, their anxieties and their desires only ensures their losses are felt more acutely, and the potential of foul-play seems a significantly more shocking proposition.
David Tennant spends much of Deadwater Fell Episode 1 in a hospital bed, but it’s clear the central dramatic question of the show is going to be exactly what role he had in the devastating fire; the late reveal of infidelity complicates matters, but does that really suggest he might have murdered his wife and kids? It’s a stretch thus far, but who knows what else will be revealed? Either way, the show remains enticingly enigmatic for now, having got off to a fine, if uncomfortable start.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.