With mystery and suspense aplenty, Bloodlands gets off to a rollicking start thanks to a compelling mystery and a deeply wounded performance from James Nesbitt.
This recap of Bloodlands season 1, episode 1 contains spoilers.
There are many words that might describe Bloodlands, the new Jed Mercurio BBC thriller fronted by a wounded James Nesbitt. Stark is one. Ambitious is another — it attempts to weave political and religious history into a cold case that stretches from the present day all the way back to the Troubles. But I think the best one is “gripping”, not at all unusual for a Mercurio outing, but true nonetheless. There’s something about Nesbitt’s clearly haunted DCI Tom Brannick, and about his dead wife and spunky young daughter Izzy (Lola Petticrew), that it’s difficult to look away from. It feels lived-in, this world, the people in it believably damaged and driven. It’s full of gorgeous scenery but a rotten, fractious core, always on the brink of some new (or old) conflict.
It’s both new and old conflicts of concern in Bloodlands episode 1, which is kicked into gear when a car belonging to former IRA man Pat Keenan (Peter Ballance) is dredged out of Strangford Lough with a postcard in the wing mirror that connects it to a two-decade-old cold case involving a hitman known as Goliath. Goliath, as Brannick later explains to his right-hand woman, DS Niamh McGovern (Charlene McKenna), was a suspected dirty copper who used inside police information to bump off four high-value targets and make their deaths look like disappearances — one of them was Tom’s Military Intelligence wife. That absence is deeply felt from the opening scene, when Tom gifts Izzy, a medical student, a matching locket that he and his wife both wore. It’s a symbol, for him, a final acceptance that he and her will never be reunited. By episode’s end they are, but not in the way he’d like.
It takes a while to get there. Bloodlands season 1, episode 1 traces a patient line through a contemporary Northern Island still embittered by the Troubles, lingering religious division, and simmering tension between the locals and the police force. Keenan, the owner of a haulage company with ties to organized crime, is the kind of target Goliath would choose, but also the kind of upstanding public figure whose embittered wife can easily stir up damaging anti-authority sentiment in the community. Keenan’s kidnapping is proved by a long-disused paramilitary authentication code, providing another link to a period of Irish history best left buried.
Bloodlands isn’t about the Troubles, but the conflict forms a backdrop. The national mood surrounding the Good Friday Agreement is referenced several times in this opening episode, mostly as an excuse for why the police would leave certain key details in the backs of folders rather than risk stoking public fervor by exposing their own incompetence. DCS Jackie Toomey (Lorcan Cranitch) ran the Goliath case back in the day and is quick to take control of the Keenan one, mostly in an effort to convince Tom they’re unrelated, but his insistence despite increasingly overwhelming evidence only makes him look guilty. By the time the clues lead back to an island on which the bodies of Goliath’s victims turn out to be buried, it doesn’t come as any surprise that he knew about the place back in the day but neglected to mention it. Tom, in tears, frantically digging into the ground, is Nesbitt portraying two decades of national frustration with institutions (the fact that crucial clues are turned up by the records of a victim’s brother, who never bought the official story and put his own case together by lingering around the same pubs that the plod frequented, doesn’t go unnoticed either.)
There’s no wonder people are annoyed — though annoyed enough to firebomb a police car because Keenan’s wife caught Tom snooping around the haulage yard is a bit much. But it speaks to a lingering tension that is surely going to persist throughout the series, and when Tom is eventually baited to Keenan’s location in a booby-trapped hotel room containing another postcard, it seems inarguable the two cases are connected. Is Goliath going to turn out to be Toomey? What is the significance of Izzy’s med school lecturer, who shows up twice, once to inform Tom and Niamh that too much v****a can damage one’s eyesight, and again to show she recognizes Izzy as Brannick’s daughter? Why were the police directed to Keenan when the rest of Goliath’s victims disappeared without a trace? Bloodlands season 1, episode 1 leaves us with plenty of compelling questions. The BBC’s onto another winner here.