It’s a question as old as justice itself: how do we know when a criminal is rehabilitated? For a justice system based on the idea that people can change – that criminals can move beyond their crimes – it’s a vital one. Go too far one way, and you’re keeping people who’ve paid the price behind bars needlessly; go too far the other, and you’re putting killers back on the streets. And what happens when the system says a killer has paid his debt, but the community he’s released into thinks otherwise?
Season one of Public Enemy begins with a stranger arriving in a small town just as it’s being rocked by a series of brutal crimes. It’s the opening note in any number of westerns and vigilante films. But not here: in this award-winning crime drama from Belgium, there’s no mystery behind the stranger at all. He’s a convicted child killer finally released after two decades in prison, and when the crimes begin – crimes that have an awful similarity to the ones that saw him locked away - he’s the first one everyone wants to blame.
While the locals are up in arms, Béranger (Angelo Bison), the ex-convict and everyone’s prime suspect, stays sheltered in his refuge in the local monastery. There’s he’s protected by the local monks and watched over by Chloe (Stephanie Blanchoud), a police officer who specialises in missing children cases – and who had her own sister vanish when she was a child. Has the killer resumed his old ways, or is it possible that someone new is taking advantage of Beranger’s release to go on a killing spree, safe in the knowledge that no-one will look beyond the obvious?
With a story like this there’s no avoiding the shadow of Belgium’s infamous Marc Dutroux case. Convicted in 1989 for the rape of five girls, he was released after only three years in prison and then proceeded to kidnap, torture, and rape another six girls before his arrest in 1996. Reportedly he was so notorious that more than a third of Belgians with the surname Dutroux applied to have their name changed between 1996 and 1998; any story suggesting a child killer might have changed his ways after a prison stint is going to have its work cut out in that environment.
And yet that’s the central hook of this show: is it possible that Beranger really has changed, and the crimes being committed are being done by a copycat – carving the same Satanic symbols he used into their victims, not less - looking to cast blame on him? It’s the kind of dilemma that makes for compelling viewing above and beyond the many twists and turns of the plot. For some characters here there’s no question of his guilt and the only thing to be decided is how to stop him; for others, redemption is still a possibility and without concrete proof even a convicted child-killer has to be given the benefit of the doubt.
Setting the drama in a small village in the Belgian Ardennes forest only heightens the stakes. In a big city, even a high profile convicted killer can vanish somewhat; while the monastery offers Beranger a refuge, for the locals he becomes a problem they can’t ignore. The forest – which this beautifully shot series takes full advantage of – might seem like a perfect place to hide. But for those that live there it soon becomes clear that his hiding place has become their prison with the forest hemming them in as firmly as any set of walls. And like any prison, it doesn’t take long before some of those trapped inside start to get violent.
The twists and turns that follow provide all the satisfaction of a quality crime drama, but the question of forgiveness is one that constantly hangs over the series. Every time Beranger says or does something that suggests he’s trying to move on, we’re forced to ask ourselves if we believe him. If we do, then the persecution he’s going through is a nightmare; if we don’t, then letting him walk free – and as it seems, kill once again - is the real crime.
New to Public Enemy? Start with the Box Set of Season 1, now streaming on SBS On Demand:
Pick up where you left off with the PREMIERE Box Set of Season 2: Only at SBS On Demand from Thursday 3 October: