The North Water episode 1 recap – “Behold the Man” setting sail

July 16, 2021
Jonathon Wilson 0
Weekly TV
4

Summary

“Behold the Man” follows haunted men on the frozen waters of a grim period drama with an exceptional cast.

Previous EpisodeView all
4

Summary

“Behold the Man” follows haunted men on the frozen waters of a grim period drama with an exceptional cast.

This recap of The North Water episode 1, “Behold the Man”, contains spoilers.


There’s something in The North Water. Something striking. Something a bit toxic, probably. It’s a grim period drama adapted from Ian McGuire’s 2016 novel about a British whaling expedition in 1859, but it’s less about the expedition than the wounded men who skitter across the ice floes bashing in the brains of seals. That clubbing sequence seems to go on forever in “Behold the Man”, a fittingly ominous title for a premiere that introduces one haunted sailor after another and heavily implies that there is far more blood to be shed between them than all the pints that stain the ice after their hunt.

It’s the cast of that gets you first. Colin Farrell plays a drunken, whoremongering harpooner named Drax whom we meet skulking back alleys, antagonizing barmen, and setting about anyone who annoys him like a shaggy specter in the night. Less threatening but perhaps more interesting is Jack O’Connell as an ex-army surgeon, Dr. Sumner, with some disgrace and darkness in his past. Sumner, despite speaking in O’Connell’s thick Derby accent, is a well-read and smart man who doesn’t exactly have his sea legs about him; at several points, before the whaling ship sets sail, he and Drax almost cross paths in sequences that are clearly intimating that one or the other would be in danger if they did. But is Sumner in danger physically or morally from this dark mirror of himself?

Within the tight quarters of The Volunteer, these men, and the experienced Captain Brownlee (Stephen Graham, arguably the most underrated actor in the world), are left to stew with their secrets and their regrets and their agendas. Brownlee has secretly been tasked with scuttling the ship for a hefty insurance payout; Sumner is fighting an addiction to opiates; Drax’s bloodlust is seemingly insatiable, and will eventually require bigger prey than seals. The harsh climate and the tumultuous waters only compound the feeling of impending misery to come.

This is a grim story, make no mistake about it – perhaps too grim for some. Drax, in particular, is so thoroughly horrible that he has an almost black hole quality to his being like he’s hoovering up all the good that dares to enter his orbit. Sumner is hardly a hero, and O’Connell adds plenty of contours to him, but he’s a nice enough guy by comparison that a collision would seem inevitable even if it weren’t for those earlier scenes that make them narrowly crossing paths a motif. The North Water doesn’t vocalize a lot of this, but it’s easy enough to pick up on. Even with little idea of where the story is ultimately going, it’s engaging and mysterious, almost without trying.

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