In an Edinburgh courthouse, a trial is about to start. Surrounded by her family, a woman anxiously waits for events to begin; in a bathroom, a scar-faced man nervously waits to be called. It seems like a straightforward set-up for a legal thriller, but already The Victim is working to upend our expectations. Over the next four episodes, a group of people bound by one crime will find their lives torn apart by another. Which one of them will prove to be the real victim?
Series creator Rob Williams has a solid track record when it comes to gripping television. But while he’s best known for working on series built around high concepts – he’s written for both “what if the Nazis won World War 2” series The Man in the High Castle, and “it’s a cat and mouse game between two female spies” drama Killing Eve – his skill at teasing out the emotional underpinnings of those concepts is often overlooked. Here he’s brought that side of things to the fore. The Victim is a twisty thriller where nothing is what it seems, but underneath it’s a moving examination of grief, loss, and the way they can shape and deform a person’s life.
The man in the bathroom is bus driver Craig Myers (James Harkness), but he’s not the one on trial. Six months earlier on Halloween he took his six year-old daughter out trick-or-treating; when he came home there was a knock on the door. Expecting to find a straggling lolly-seeker, he opened the door and was attacked, knocked to the ground and battered unconscious.
The person on trial is Anna Dean (Kelly Macdonald), a local nurse, but she’s not being charged with the attack. She’s been accused of posting Craig’s photo and address online, claiming he’s really one Eddie J Turner. Fifteen years ago, the then-juvenile Turner was found guilty of murdering Liam Dean, Anna’s son. As he was under-age, when he was released he was given a new name and identity. Now for some reason Anna thinks Craig Myers and Eddie Turner are one and the same.
Right from the first flashback to Halloween we can see the stark differences between the two families. Myers is palling around with his best mate Tom (John Scougall) and having a fun night with his daughter, while Anna leaves her hospital job to help a young drug addict. At home, she has a grown daughter (with a boyfriend who seems a little too good to be true) while she forbids her younger son from going out for reasons that will become all too clear.
Kelly Macdonald’s been a powerhouse performer ever since her debut in Trainspotting. Here she gives a masterclass in keeping an audience on edge. It’s always perfectly clear what’s driving her: she wants revenge (or in her mind, justice) for what happened to her son, and the way to get that is to expose his killer to the light of day. What isn’t so clear is just how far she’s willing to go. With a glance or an expression, Macdonald hints at the anger and grief boiling beneath Anna’s steady surface; we’re never quite sure if her pain makes her a victim, or a threat.
Thanks to a similarly skilled performance from Harkness, we’re never quite sure where we stand with Craig, especially once he refuses to detail his mysterious past. He could be an innocent man; he could be a reformed killer trying to start a new life; he could be an unrepentant murderer relishing in getting away with his crime. While what we see seems straightforward enough, what lies underneath remains in doubt; there’s a lot of possible reasons for his secrecy and anxiety, and not all of them spring from innocence.
It’s up to DI Stephen Grover (John Hannah) to figure out what exactly is going on. As our guide through this psychological drama, Hannah’s perfect casting; he’s made a career out of charming, trustworthy (often funny) characters. But even Grover has his demons. He’s newly transferred to the area, his boss doesn’t want him investigating Anna, and he has a restraining order out against him – which doesn’t stop him confronting the woman who took out the order.
As the story unfolds both in and outside court, the spiral of violence pulls more innocents in. Craig might be innocent or guilty, but his family are the ones who suffer alongside him, while Anna’s drive for vengeance for her dead son tears at her living family. The story’s twists and turns might keep coming right to the end, but the emotions under it all remain clear. When people turn to vigilante justice, the victims keep piling up.
The Scottish 4-part drama The Victim premieres on SBS Thursday 16 September at 9:20pm with new episodes airing weekly. Episodes are streaming at SBS On Demand the same day as broadcast. Watch episode 1 now:
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