TV: Marcella (Seasons 1-3)

November 20, 2021

It’s not often I waste energy lamenting my obsessive completism, but during the sloggier stretches of Marcella — a watchable, engaging procedural mystery — I did experience moments of regret. Marcella Backland (Anna Friel) is a London detective who returns to the force after long absence. She’s a resourceful investigator, but her career was derailed by a mysterious tragedy years earlier, which claimed her infant daughter’s life. The loss drove a wedge between Marcella and her stern, scheming husband Jason (Nicholas Pinnock), a corporate lawyer for a powerful real estate firm. Marcella is lured back to work when an old case resurfaces, and outwardly it appears she’s making an attempt to move on with her life. But Marcella harbors a massive secret: she’s not well, her grief so psychologically debilitating that it leads to occasional fugues of dissociative amnesia. As it happens, returning to work on an emotionally fraught case may not have been the best move for someone in her condition, especially when the serial killer she’s tracking targets a woman who happens to be Jason’s mistress, entangling the mystery with her personal life.

While Marcella is set entirely in the United Kingdom, it comes from successful Scandi-noir writer Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge), and dark, Nordic mystery rhythms are everywhere in evidence. The superior first season, which features a stellar cast that includes Sinéad Cusack, Harry Lloyd, and Florence Pugh, is a compelling enough tangle of intrigue. There’s a slick, disorienting strategy on display, in that just when you think there are enough narrative plates spinning, another one goes up: a new character or story element appears out of nowhere. Initially this new factor seems disconnected, but it eventually weaves its way into the tapestry. It’s a well executed strategy that consistently refreshes the mystery.

Unfortunately, subsequent seasons fail to replicate the first one’s trick, or at least not with the same panache. The first season managed to balance the detective work with the mystery of Marcella herself, pacing the two tracks to unfold in parallel. Season two struggles to do the same, adding another layer, but the procedural beats feel more conventional, and the story ends with a spectacular meltdown from the protagonist that really tests the patience. Indeed, the season two finale intensifies the problematic spotlight that was already shining on the show: the fact that its hero is truly unwell, her mental instability packaged for our entertainment. Friel is an appealing actress and does exceptional work, but her personality contortions — stoic, hard-nosed detective one minute and quivering wreck the next — occasionally feel contrived to drive story rather than feeling natural to it. Friel remains sympathetic despite her destructive actions, partially because she’s surrounded by such creepy, unlikeable men. Pinnock is profoundly unsympathetic as her husband; an initially white-knighty Jamie Bamber eventually sours; even one of Marcella’s more initially likable co-workers, Mark (Jack Doolan), turns skeevy. Still, even if the misogyny makes her behavior understandable, the problem remains: Marcella isn’t fit for duty. She needs help, and no matter how good her detective work is, she is ultimately a danger to herself and others. This made me feel increasingly guilty about watching her exploits, even when season three “reboots” her character to Belfast on a paradigm-shifting deep cover assignment. Normally I would be down for such a story, but in the end, it just feels like writers further torturing a woman, while also accidentally implying she’s too emotional to handle her duties. In the end, a promising psychological mystery featuring a woman confronting profound grief ultimately spirals into something increasingly purgatorial and cruel, leaving a sour taste in the mouth.

Anna Friel in Marcella