The second episode of BBC One’s River, having established the main plots in last week’s debut, focuses this week on redemption and relationships, as we see John River (Stellan Skarsgard) say sorry, say goodbye and speak some necessary truths.
Thor star Skarsgard continues to be brilliant as the emotionally fragile policeman, haunted by ghosts and visions and slipping further down the path of the mental illness that consumes him. It’s a beautifully raw performance that, rather uniquely shows the openness of masculine emotion.
The remaining cast deserve special mention here too though, as the supporting players all add something to the episode. The chemistry between Skarsgard and Nicola Walker, as the ghost of Stevie, is brilliant as she teaches him about himself from the grave. Walker and Skarsgard share a wonderful chemistry here, particularly in the scenes where her ghost confesses she wants him at her funeral or when he tries to describe her memory, reducing him to tears.
If Stevie is the angel on his shoulder, guiding him to the positive, Eddie Marsan’s Thomas Neill Cream is that evil voice that dominates with self-punishment and survivor’s guilt.
“I’ve always thought a country should be judged on its insane, rather than it’s sane. The stranger on our shores rather than those already home” he tells River.
In one genuinely tense scene at a train station, the apparition of Cream tells him to ‘do it’ as the train approaches, beckoning him into a suicidal act. River considers it, it would appear, but pulls back. Perhaps on some level knowing it would be a mistake. After all, this episode sees River trying to make amends with everyone.
“I may be a skunk dealer, but I ain’t no murderer. I’ll leave that to you, River. Got to find yourself another man.”
After being told by the ghost of Riley (a brilliantly atmospheric Josef Altin) that he was innocent of Stevie’s murder, evidence comes to light that shows his innocence. River, already a potential hate figure after Riley’s girlfriend Tia (Pippa Bennett-Warner) goes to the papers, is now forced to publically admit he made the wrong call. His scenes with Bennett-Warner, as the fractured and mentally unstable Tia are beautifully played as well, finding some comfort in helping someone as broken as himself.
Of course, its Stevie that he needs to say goodbye to. Attending her wake, Stevie berates her mother, Bridie (an always wonderful Sorcha Cusack) for drinking too heavily and not knowing her favourite song.
That Stevie isn’t truly missed by anyone but River is incredibly sad, especially with speculation that she may have been in cahoots with local drug dealers prior to her death and this is most likely the reason for her execution. A fact that seems to be validated when Stevie’s CCTV recorded death shows her smiling at her attacker, as if she knew him.
River continues to be genuinely compelling television, addressing mental decline without clichés, through top notch performances and openly displayed emotion. With the Stevie storyline picking up steam and hints of a romantic connection between River and his counsellor Rosa (Georgina Rich), River is one new drama you don’t want to miss.
Aired at 9pm on Tuesday 20 October 2015 on BBC One.
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