His daughter’s barely had time to blow out the candles on her birthday cake before Northern Ireland DCI Tom Brannick (James Nesbitt) gets the call to load his gun and drive off to the scene of a crime. There’s a van been found in a lake and it’s registered to a one-time IRA chief who’s now gone missing. There’s no corpse in the van, but there is a clue – a photograph of the Belfast docks, which was the trademark of a serial killer who murdered anyone who threatened the Northern Ireland peace process back in the 90s.
He also murdered Brannick’s wife.
What follows is a twisty web of clues, corruption, organised crime, betrayal, bomb disposal, and a deep dive into Ireland’s recent past. Who could be behind it all? The evidence points to one man – award-winning television producer Jed Mercurio.
When it comes to producing crime thrillers, Mercurio is the closest thing UK TV has to a gold standard. As the man behind the long-running series Line of Duty, he’s been responsible for the most consistently compelling British police series of recent years. Then he did it all again with Bodyguard, which was a world-wide sensation (even if we never did get a second series).
If he has a trademark, it’s likeable characters trapped in plots driven by twists that keep audiences glued to their seats. Sometimes those twists can be shocking (as anyone who saw Bodyguard without spoilers can attest), but it’s his skill at conjuring up slow-burn mysteries that really keeps viewers coming back. And with the most recent season of Line of Duty pulling in 13.1 million viewers for the final episode – that’s over 50% of the entire UK television audience, making it the most watched episode of any UK drama (not counting soap operas) this century – there’s no doubt he knows how to get people watching.
With Bloodlands, written by actor-turned-writer and Northern Ireland native Chris Brandon, there’s the added twist of The Troubles, which looms over this series right from the start. Serial killer Goliath was an equal opportunity murderer back in the day, killing both Catholics and Protestants if they showed any reluctance about the peace process (Brannick’s wife, who was a member of the security services, seems to have been caught in the crossfire). Presumably this had something to do with why his crimes were covered up; why the police are so desperate for them to stay buried now is a little harder to figure out.
Mercurio’s always been interested in police corruption – it’s the driving force behind Line of Duty – but here Brannick’s personal trauma gives it a harsher edge. DCS Jackie Twomey (Lorcan Cranitch) doesn’t want Brannick opening up old wounds, seemingly unaware that his have clearly never healed. She goes so far as to have the Goliath files buried and Brannick’s supportive boss transferred just to make sure he doesn’t stir up anything. Considering someone just firebombed a police car, she’s probably too late.
This isn’t as straightforward as the usual “good cop driven to crack an old case” tale. Brannick knows enough about the bad old days to be vulnerable to Twomey’s call to let bygones be bygones, especially with a young daughter who’s grown up in a Northern Ireland at peace. And with his partner detective sergeant Niamh McGovern (Charlene McKenna) unaware of his past, he could easily sweep it under the carpet… but a dead wife isn’t something he’s ever going to let go.
This isn’t quite as grim as it sounds, or, thanks to the foreboding grey skies, sometimes looks. There’s a streak of dark humour running throughout the series, largely centred on Brannick. Nesbitt plays the wounded officer to perfection, balancing his stoic (and occasionally grimly funny) on-duty behaviour with a more vulnerable side around his daughter. He’s the reliable heart of a series otherwise committed to keeping the audience off balance, where nobody can be trusted and shock twists seem to lie around every corner of an always scenic Belfast.
In the midst of this increasingly murky case, one thing remains clear: when he crossed the Irish Sea, Mercurio didn’t leave anything behind. If you’re after dodgy cops, organised crime and a mystery where the twists don’t stop coming, Bloodlands is the work of a master.
Bloodlands airs on SBS Wednesdays at 8:30pm with episodes available the same day as broadcast at SBS On Demand. Watch episode 1 now:
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