It’s not often I’ll watch a great season of television only to hope it doesn’t get renewed. But that’s precisely my reaction to River, a grim but endearing British crime series that ends so perfectly that to extend it further would do it a disservice. It’s the story of Detective Inspector John River (Stellan Skarsgård), a peculiar but effective London police officer who has a high clearance rate…and who speaks regularly to the voices in his head. River’s mental illness makes life a challenge in the best of times, but these times are worse than usual: his partner Jacqueline “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker), who for many years helped him cope with his condition, was murdered right in front of him. River’s obsessed with solving the mystery of her death, but with his judgement impaired by grief and his condition more exposed than usual, he may not last long enough in his job to realize that goal. However with the patient help of his new partner Ira (Adeel Akhtar), his superior Chrissie (Lesley Manville), and his therapist Rosa (Georgina Rich), he transcends his issues to delve into Stevie’s past to unearth the circumstances that led to her grizzly end — all while visions of her, and of other dead people, haunt his every waking moment.
River is based largely around the visual spectacle of its protagonist having conversations with dead people — an idea that goes back at least as far as other shows that deal with grief, like Six Feet Under and Rescue Me. But writer/creator Abi Morgan seems more mindful of the mental health issues involved than most, and handles River’s plight sensitively. River’s not a great detective because he’s ill, but despite it, and his journey is very much one of coping with a condition, a struggle greatly intensified by grief. It’s a unique look at the plight of an outsider, and there’s another layer to that; River’s an immigrant. Even though he’s lived in London for most of his life, his Swedish upbringing informs his view of the world — and adds another layer of uncomfortable pretense to his existence. He doesn’t belong, and knows he doesn’t belong, and sees the world — and ultimately the case — in a different light because of it. All these circumstances combine in a penetrating character study.
But it’s also an absorbing mystery. Stevie’s brutal death, replaying mercilessly on CCTV footage throughout, is worthy of a trigger warning, but the script brilliantly builds intrigue around that horrible moment. Even as we’re getting to know River, we’re getting to know Stevie…but only through River’s visions and recollections. Her mysterious death has filled him with doubts, and he’s not sure he’s imagining the real Stevie, or creating uncomfortable new versions of her.
It makes for gripping viewing, the intelligently detailed script enhanced by terrific performances from the two leads. Skarsgård’s subdued, touching persona is ingratiating, and Walker provides lively, winning support; together they share an entrancing chemistry that only grows as the mystery progresses. Their relationship in particular is worth the price of admission, sad and bleak, but also charming and beautiful. And River’s search for closure ends on just the right note: hopeful, but realistic, and very, very satisfying.