After a somewhat frustrating wait, this week’s episode finally delivered some of the drama and tension that previous instalments have only hinted at, and yet three dimensional characterisation and a sense of consequence were still vexingly absent.
The episode opened with Freeman contemplating his new life in the pay of the Governor. His fellow convicts wonder how it is that he has been spared. Freeman tries flippancy: ‘I’m too pretty to hang’ but the others suspect that he has turned informant.
Freeman strenuously denies this but refuses to instead admit that he has agreed to act as hangman. Is informant better than hangman?
Freeman visits Tommy who is digging his grave. Tommy tells him that even though he is alive he is effectively a ‘dead man’ and tells him to continue digging his own grave as he is likely to still need it. These scenes were full of menace, but Tommy’s transformation from friend to foe feels a little contrived.
We then see a group of soldiers hunting for food in the bush. One soldier, Michael, ignores the instructions of Major Ross and is bitten by a snake. The snake and kangaroo are the first real sittings of Australian wildlife.
Here again was the first sense of how indiscriminately deadly the new country can be but the true danger seems to be that the officers are short on rations. Major Ross requests that Letters write a letter to the dead soldiers parents explaining how he died a glorious death battling the natives. Major Ross it seems does have a sense of empathy.
Freeman was then interrogated in a makeshift convict court. This was perhaps the best scene of the series so far. Both Tovey and Rhind-Tutt were superb as they tussled over the fate of Freeman.
Would he admit that he was an informant? He did but only after some searing moments of emotional intensity that included Tommy torturing his friend. It wasn’t quite clear why he took the lead. Some exploration of his character’s transformation would have been welcome.
The convicts voted to execute, but Elizabeth along with Letters conducted some persuasive lobbying and eventually Freeman is allowed to live on the condition that he become a double agent and once again they are all friends again as quickly as they became enemies.
This vacillating failed to convince and quite what information Freeman can provide is open to question. I suspect this story line may fizzle out as many others have.
More interesting was Governor Phillips’ address at Michael’s funeral. No glowing eulogy instead he chose to present some hard facts: the soldier died because he did not ‘maintain discipline’. We are told that the convicts must fear the bush as much of the ocean if they are to prevent mutiny.
The prospect of mutiny was also raised by Anne in her interesting conversation with Mrs Johnson. After providing her with more consolation over the death of her children – she must rejoice as her unborn children were fast tracked to the promised land – she warns that her husband must acquire a gun if he is to survive a potential mutiny that seems to be brewing due to lack of food.
She tells Mrs Johnson that the convicts respect the Reverend but they will ‘respect a man of God with a gun even more’. This is an interesting development and is backed up by a short but pivotal scene between the Governor and his housemaid.
With no ship coming the Governor ponders whether it is better for the convicts to ‘die sooner or die later’. And yet there is no sense of mutiny or impending danger within the convict community.
Major Ross proved that he was still in essence a heartless manipulator when trying to wedge himself between Catherine and Corporal McDonald. At least he was scheming with his mind and not his groin on this occasion. Will his strategy pay off? It seems unlikely that this situation will end happily.
The episode ended with perhaps the weakest scene. Having made up Tommy and Freeman concoct a sting to relieve the soldiers of their precious rum (Freeman is quite keen to get ‘rat-arsed’, which is fair enough in the circumstances) but the whole scene seems improbable and out of step with the rest of the episode.
Wasn’t Tommy on the verge of killing Freeman only hours beforehand? The scene is redeemed by the revelation that Elizabeth may have slept with Private Buckley but he is so repugnant that if is the case it could only have happened without consent. Is this really enough to tear her relationship with Tommy asunder?
I guess we will find out. Let’s hope that next week’s episode continues the upward trend, but it would be nice to get some sense that McGovern has a unified theory for this show. It is still frustratingly hard to determine where this show is going and what it is really about.
Aired at 9pm on Thursday 2 April 2015 on BBC Two.
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