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Marchlands, “Episode 4” (1.04)

A bag burning in a small fire. Unseen: the bag is being burned by Olive Runcie's mother.

A review of the episode, written by Stephen Greenhorn and directed by James Kent, after the jump…

“How do you know if you’re really sick, or if it’s just something that you’ve done?” – Scott Maynard, 1987.

What happened: In 1968, Paul gets into a fight over a man spreading rumours about Ruth. In 1987, Helen and Eddie have a loud confrontation about their science vs. faith solutions for Amy’s problems, while completely oblivious to their son Scott’s seizures; meanwhile, a teenage Mark has a brief romance with Olive Runcie. In 2010, the tension between Nisha and Mark boils over, as Nisha discovers first a secret of Mark’s, then a secret of Olive’s.

I have to say, despite the fact that Marchlands is ruled by a very central plot, it’s done a fantastic job building some really engaging characters. Every story has me hooked, with a great cast dynamic in every time frame. Jodie Whittaker and Jamie Thomas King have great chemistry as Alice’s grieving parents, struggling in an age that doesn’t understand nor prioritise grief; King specifically gets to shine here as he realises he has a lot of unexpressed anger that he’s been displaying in all sorts of directions. Tessa Peake-Jones is marvelous as Paul’s mother Evelyn, who is at once loathsome (in her constant judgement and belittling of those around her) and sympathetic (in that, ultimately, she’s trying to fix her family), and Denis Lawson does a good job with the un-flashy role of Paul’s quiet, but deeply thoughtful, father Robert. I could sing the praises of every castmember in the same detail, though I’d like to give a special mention to Sophie Stone, who steals every scene she’s in as 1987’s Olive Runcie, as well as young Sydney Wade as the haunted Amy Maynard.

That means that in an episode where there are only a few hints about the Alice Problem and the series’ mythology, I’m not frustrated, even when we’re 80% through the series’ 5-episode run. That’s because the stories I’ve become engaged in are those the characters face, and the growing dynamic between them. Even if the show continued on, without a key supernatural mythology at its centre, I’d still watch to see what happens to Paul (and Ruth, before she reappears in 2010), where Helen and Eddie’s marriage ends up, what happens to Nisha and Alice and Mark in the wake of his pulling away. Seeing relationships in three different eras juxtaposed against one another is fascinating enough; mixing in the ‘different eras of the same person’ element that I also love, and tying the stories together with the ghost story of Alice, is merely icing on the cake.

The direction continues to be striking. I was particularly impressed by the moment Eddie sees Alice, as well as the scenes with Paul and Brian in the bar. The series is a mix of horror and interpersonal drama, and the music is a key tool for both: it builds dread beautifully, and renders well the scenes where characters are experiencing something unnatural.

I do have some problems, occasionally. Why we have Ruth lying to Nisha about her knowledge of Marshlands so late in the game, I’m unsure, and running the tense ‘Amy’s flight into the forest with Alice’ sequence alongside the ‘Paul goes to a bar and might confront the man Ruth almost slept with’ sequence made the latter feel less weighty than perhaps it should have.

But then again, there’s fantastic moments all over the place, even if they’re quiet, like Olive and Ruth passing each other in 2010, with secrets still hanging between them dating back to 1967, or the intercutting between Olive and Mark in 1987 and 2010. I love how this show is uniquely able to show the same people at different stages of their lives, how they’ve grown or not grown, how they’ve changed and yet not changed, really, at all.

Really, I want more than five episodes of this. Let’s hope there’s more coming.

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