TV: Collateral

Points are certainly warranted for thematic ambition and thoroughly professional execution, but the four-episode miniseries Collateral ultimately can’t quite convert its compelling build-up into satisfying payoff. It’s a shame, because as an intricate blend of conspiracy thriller, police procedural, political intrigue, and spy fiction, this show is a genre-bending home run for me. But it doesn’t quite stick the landing.

The plot starts simply, with an inexplicable murder: a pizza delivery driver is gunned down in what appears to be a targeted, professional hit. But why? The case falls to shrewd, low-key Detective Inspector Kip Glaspie (Carey Mulligan) and her partner Nathan Bilk (Nathaniel Martello-White). Six months pregnant, Glaspie is a former athlete known for a notorious pole vault accident, a highly public failure that seems to have informed her personality. But she is confident, shrewd, and persistent, and her investigation peels away layers of a perplexing mystery, revealing all sorts of unexpected complexities. For example, the manager of the pizza place, Laurie Stone (Hayley Squires), may have been complicit in a pot-dealing scheme. The customer who ordered the pizza, Karen Mars (Billie Piper), has a fraught relationship with her ex-husband, Labour minister David (John Simm). The only eyewitness to the crime, Linh Xuan Huy (Kae Alexander), is an undocumented immigrant engaged in a controversial romantic relationship with a female priest, Jane Oliver (Nicola Walker). These various complications fail to get in the way of Glaspie’s relentless pursuit of the truth, which ultimately ties the case into a shifty MI-5 officer (John Heffernan) and a proud soldier of the British military (Jeany Spark).

Collateral is polished, intelligent, and attractively produced, and escalates nicely from a fairly simple opening to a rather involved and engaging mystery. It also possesses a strong core theme: in the unspoken war between institutions and people, it’s the people who usually lose. Indeed, it strikes me Collateral attempts to do in four packed episodes what The Wire did in five robust seasons: examine, through carefully selected characters, the intersection of society’s institutions. Law enforcement, the government, the church, the military, the intelligence services: Collateral situates key players in all these worlds, and weaves its story around the contentious way those worlds collide. It’s an impressive tapestry.

Alas, the scripts goes to some lengths to contrive this skein, and frequently speak to these themes in an on-the-nose manner, occasionally undercutting the effect. Similarly, the political messaging can be a bit shrill; in its focus on immigration issues, closed-minded nationalism, and the arbitrariness of borders, it confronts some of the most pressing concerns of our era, but occasionally mars its points with unsubtle stridency. But again, points for effort: in light of its limited running time, it’s a worthy undertaking with an ambitious mission.

Contributing greatly to its watchability are uniformly convincing performances from the entire cast, especially its refreshingly large roster of important female characters, particularly Spark and the ever-reliable Walker. But driving it all forward is Mulligan, who manages to make an understated role riveting and utterly credible. She holds the stage so powerfully that her absence is felt whenever the focus shifts; I came away from the series wanting to see her carry the part further.

That sense of wanting more, perhaps, is why Collateral doesn’t wind up being all that satisfying, for all its strengths. In a robust television landscape where so many shows—even good ones—feel padded and overlong, this one feels surprisingly rushed, especially in light of its broad thematic and political reach. Even just one more episode might have provided the necessary time to unravel a few more threads, and wind down the numerous interwoven storylines. The mystery is solved, and writer David Hare (who also wrote the solid spy film Page Eight) delivers his story to the dark, unfortunate conclusion it requires. But it lacks an essential denouement, and fails to provide enough time to muse and reflect on all that’s occurred. Perhaps the abrupt halt is part of the point, but artistically I was craving something more. Even an ambiguous ending requires a certain element of closure, and I’m not sure Collateral delivers one. I’m certainly not at all upset that I watched it, for all that. Fans of complex mysteries will find it perfectly bingeable and entertaining. But in the end, it lacks just a few crucial elements in its final moments that might have elevated it into something special.

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