The Victim: Jumping the shark so high you start flying

Literarily speaking, there’s very little that’s worse than an otherwise gripping, clever, well-made piece of art dropping in something clunkingly stupid to try and trip you up.

I love a good twist. They are, after all, a big part of the attraction of crime fiction. The unexpected reveal of who the villain was all along, coupled with that cheeky sense of cleverness you get if you beat the story to it, add an extra dimension to the story – the reader pitting their wits against the writer, even as the heroes pit theirs against the villains. The identity of the villain isn’t always at stake – sometimes it’s learning what exactly they did, sometimes it’s whether or not they will be brought to justice. Prime Suspect made it obvious who the killer was in a number of its series, generating its twists through Jane Tennison’s efforts to gather the evidence against them. Line of Duty is a masterclass in showing the audience who’s guilty, but leaving us wondering what they’ve done. Death in Paradise is always about the How as much as the Who.

There are good twists; annoying twists; infuriating twists; bad twists (Taggart episodes occasionally concluded with the team realising that there was only one major character left); then there are daft twists. These often look like the writer tried to be too clever by half – double-bluffing themselves as well as the audience. A good rule of thumb in any mystery is to try and make it the one the audience least suspects, and when this is done right it’s as satisfying for the writer as it is for the reader. But sometimes, writers can decide to take this to the next level and make the villain the one person it can’t be because that actually wouldn’t make any sense. Either that, or they make the villain the one person it shouldn’t be because they did nothing whatsoever to set that up.

The Victim, the BBC’s March 2019 drama about a vengeful mother trying to unmask the new identity of the boy convicted of murdering her son years after his release, managed to do both of those things. It was really quite something.

The worst part is that it would have worked fine with a few minor tweaks to the script.

There are various techniques to distract the audience from what’s really going on in a crime thriller. Writers can bait-and-switch, hide in plain sight, hide off to one side (my personal favourite to write), reverse genders (my personal favourite to read). There are many, many options for a crime writer to choose from, of which the worst, in my opinion, is flatly lying to the audience – the twist in which the writer outright says that the villain cannot be one character, because they’ve got an unshakeable abili, or because the DNA doesn’t match, or any other one of a hundred reasons. It breaches the unspoken understanding between the writer and the reader that the puzzle can be solved; worse, it’s just lazy. ‘I can’t be bothered creating plausible alternative suspects and deciding which ones I want you to like and loathe so that you become invested in who the killer is, I’ll just say it’s definitely not Bob so that you feel safe with him and then make it Bob.’

Misdirecting your reader, or audience, is one thing. I actively encourage it. Lying to them is another.

So, to The Victim. It opens with an attack on Craig Myers, and then the revelation that he’s been accused on Facebook of being Eddie J Turner, a teenage boy convicted of murdering a nine year old boy fourteen years previously, and granted a new identity on his release. The post accusing him came from the mother of the dead boy, Anna Dean. She is arrested and accused of inciting his murder, but decides to plead not guilty in order to get Myers on the stand and hopefully expose him in front of the court as Turner. At various points throughout the first episode we are told that Myers is not Turner, as the investigating detectives have checked with the Public Protection Unit (who would be the police unit in charge of managing a potentially dangerous offender like Turner, with select officers being aware of his new identity) and been told that Myers and Turner are two different people.

To be clear. This isn’t some throw-away line that might just have not been noticed in the re-drafting process. This is said on screen in numerous scenes: to investigating DI Glover, to Craig and his wife Jessica, to Anna herself. Myers is not Turner. There isn’t even the ‘We can’t confirm or deny,’ waffle that the police usually come out with when they’re asked questions about sensitive areas like witness protection and aliases for offenders perceived to be at risk of vigilantism. No shady men in suits being shady about whether they’ve actually told the truth. We’re told, many, many times, that Craig is not Eddie J Turner.

You can imagine how hard I rolled my eyes when it was revealed that, yup, Craig was actually Eddie all along. Nearly dislocated them.

Lying to the audience. Not cool, Rob Williams.

The puzzle wasn’t solvable. The answer wasn’t findable. And it does sort of beg the question – if the writer is lying to the audience, how do we know exactly what he’s lying about? Maybe Craig is lying when he says he’s Eddie – after six months of being hounded, assaulted, deserted by his young family, he’s just decided to own what everyone’s saying about him anyway. If everyone believes he’s Eddie J Turner, he might as well say that he is.

Watch his final scene with Anna. At times he really doesn’t seem to know much about the murder. He needs her to prompt him with details. Criminologists will tell you that this a classic sign of a false, or even coerced confession – the confessor actually appears to nothing about the crime, naturally since they didn’t commit it. What if the lie was the truth and the truth was the lie and Craig was always just Craig?

That’d be pretty stupid, but we can’t trust this writer, so why not? It’s no stupider than Craig being Eddie in the first place.

A little background on lifelong anonymity orders – so-called ‘Mary Bell Orders,’ after the first person to be granted one – might be useful here. They’re actually extremely rare in the UK. As far as I know, there are only eight extant at the moment: Bell herself, her daughter and grandchild, Jon Venables, Robert Thompson, Maxine Carr, and two brothers who attacked two children near Darlington in 2009. Of the eight, two have actually been granted to people who’ve committed no known crimes – Mary Bell’s daughter and grandchild. The chief purpose of those seems to be to stop Bell being identified through her family. She was chased out of her home in 1998 by reporters after being traced through a payment she’d received for cooperating with a book on her life, so from a court’s perspective there are clearly grounds to take extraordinary steps to ensure she is not subject to vigilante violence. Maxine Carr, the only one in the group who committed her crime as an adult, and the Darlington brothers committed lesser crimes than murder, but gained a degree of notoriety owing to the reporting of their offences – Carr, who lied to provide a false alibi to her-then boyfriend Ian Huntley when he was accused of a double murder, is often accused of being aware of, and/or complicit in, his crimes, although no evidence was ever presented to a court to support this. Only Bell, Venables, and Thompson, actually killed anyone – and Bell was convicted of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility, not murder.

All three were children at the time of those offences. Bell was eleven, Venables and Thompson ten.

The crimes they committed continue to arouse strong emotions today. They murdered younger children, in attacks notable for a level of viciousness and brutality that adult offenders often don’t match. Bell’s, in particular, have been sensationalised – she’s often described, incorrectly, as a serial killer with the moniker ‘the Tyneside Strangler.’ Without wishing to diminish her crimes, or the effects on the families involved, the definition of a serial killer is someone who kills three or more people in three or more separate events. Bell committed two murders and therefore doesn’t meet the definition; and those kinds of lurid claims aren’t especially helpful to anyone seeking to understand her offences.

In terms of how the eight individuals are protected in practice, almost nothing is known. Bell was located in a seaside town in 1998, but good luck trying to find out which one – the injunction prevents that from being published, and the press didn’t manage to photograph either her or her daughter. Even the name she was using is unknown. From what little we know of how her identity was compromised, it was leaked to the Daily Mail and Sun by police sources after she accepted payment for cooperating in a book about her. In the thirty years since then, the identities of the now-eight people protected by lifelong anonymity orders have remained unknown. To me, that rather suggests that the lessons of the 1998 security breach were learnt, and that the people with knowledge of who the eight individuals are now have been carefully selected; police, probation officers and social workers known for being sticklers for protocol, unlikely to gossip, and with an expressed disapproval for vigilante violence.

No one likely to compromise their identities after they retire and can’t be fired, for instance.

The provision of such orders is controversial. The legal justification is that they’re necessary to prevent vigilante violence; the principle of equality under the law requires criminals to be protected under it even after their release. If their safety cannot be guaranteed under their own identities, then they must be given new ones. The counter-arguments usually focus on the cost to the public of providing the protection, the unfairness of the criminals being given new lives denied the families of their victims, and that the public could be at risk if their identities aren’t known. I’ve mostly presented those without comment, but I have to say about that last point, the risk to the public – these people are heavily monitored and supervised, beyond anything that most ‘high-risk,’ offenders receive. They’re already known to the authorities. Although it’s certainly possible for them to commit further crimes (Venables has been jailed twice more for possessing child pornography), their chances of being detected are much, much higher. And, as far as I know, Venables is the only one of the eight who has been jailed since his original offence.

And from that you start to see some of the problems with The Victim. In fact, it’s more like burning questions you’re suddenly trying to ignore after Craig’s admission that he is Eddie, which would never have existed if he hadn’t been. Why did the public protection unit lie and say he wasn’t? Why didn’t they try to protect him when his identity had clearly been compromised? Why did they do literally nothing to stop information from leaking to Anna? Actually, where are Eddie’s handlers? Did they all win a six month round-the-world cruise?

It’s fine if Craig isn’t Eddie, one of the red herrings is. We’d never need to see them interact with their handlers, that could happen off screen and even be revealed in flashbacks. But Craig is a main character, constantly on the screen. We see so much of his life, and yet we never see even the slightest hint that he’s actually under close supervision as a murderer out on license. He isn’t being visited or monitored by Probation officers under any guise – something which would have been fairly easy to add in and would have actually started to create some tension around Craig’s identity. The world of The Victim is one in which a released murderer apparently wanders around completely unsupervised.

All of which leads us merrily into the biggest problem with Craig being Eddie after all – we never see any real hints that he’s living any kind of double life. Most of the reasons we’re given to suspect him basically add up to, ‘He’s a socially awkward loner who can only really open up to one person.’ We never see any signs of violence, or even anger, from him directed at anyone. The only time he really loses his rag is when Anna shouts at her lawyer to ask him who he is when he takes the stand – and even then, it’s not an outburst of uncontrolled rage, he snaps ‘No, you ask me who I am!’ at the woman who, at the very least, incited a vicious assault on him. Even when he’s followed into the toilet of a bar and beaten up by some All Right-Thinking People, he seems to just passively accept it.

Side note – Anna could well have been found in contempt for that in a real court, and her lawyer would certainly have had a strip torn off him by the judge for not keeping his client under control. There’s a thread running through this series of ‘No consequences for Vigilante Mum,’ that I’m coming back to.

We didn’t need loads of violence from Eddie/Craig. But we did need to see that he had a capacity for it, even if it was just a willingness to defend himself that went beyond what was necessary in that situation. And we never did get that. He’s only ever presented as a loving father and husband trying to overcome a troubled past. No sign of any dark side.

As a sidenote, I thought they were setting up for something very clever – that although Craig wasn’t Eddie, as a socially awkward loner who could only really open up to one person, he sort of seemed like the kind of person who could be. That’s a very nuanced, almost unsettling, storyline, and it gets to the heart of most stories of real-life vigilantism – as often as not, the victims are people who seem like they could be criminals, rather than people who’ve committed any sort of crime. That would have been a challenge to the normal narrative of nobility that we get around vigilantism.

Not only is there never really anything to hint that Craig might be Eddie, some of the hints we get throughout the story actively point away from him. We’re told, at the end, that Craig’s best friend Tom has always known his true identity, which makes some of the jokes between them at the start seem… well, unlikely to say the least. ‘You don’t need mothering, you need monitoring,’ Craig says to Tom very early on, which seems like a rather improbable thing for a man being monitored to say. Tom reacts by finding this funny, and I can’t help but think that this is another narrative cheat. Again, when Craig is in hospital after being attacked and the rumours about his true identity start to swirl, his wife tells him that his boss has phoned to ask how he is, and Tom chips in with, ‘Or who he is,’ which as a tasteless joke from a loyal but slightly dim friend makes sense – but as a remark from someone who knows Craig is Eddie makes no sense at all. Tom isn’t just being crass, that’s a completely braindead thing to say. Yet another narrative cheat, yet another hint that actively steers the audience away from the answer that they’ve also been told, repeatedly, is not the answer.

Rob Williams either knew Craig was Eddie when he wrote those lines, in which case it’s some very lazy writing, or he didn’t, in which case it’s some very lazy editing. I have my suspicions about which, but unlike Anna, I don’t cast aspersions without any evidence.

Yes, I know she was right, but my point is, by all the rules of storytelling she shouldn’t have been.

I feel like that’s a very neat and subtle segue to bring us onto Anna, one part saintly nurse who cares for everyone and anyone, one part vengeful bloodthirsty vigilante. Quite how manipulative Anna is of people around her is something that is never really properly explained. It’s strongly hinted for most of the story that she encouraged William Napier, a junkie she was looking after, to attack Craig/Eddie, until right at the end a conversation between them reveals that he did it off his own bat. Only, the attack on Craig happened, if I remember rightly, three hours after Anna’s post on FB. From William’s home in Edinburgh to Port Glasgow by public transport is two hours, forty two minutes (according to Google Maps, which is usually pretty optimistic). William’s timeline for carrying the attack out is very tight indeed unless he was already planning it before Anna’s post. Either no one checked to see if the timeline worked, or the original storyline had William and Anna in cahoots all along and when this was changed, the back-editing wasn’t very thorough and details like the timeline being too tight got through.

What is shown on screen is that Anna is prepared to ask her ex-husband, Liam’s father Christian, to murder Craig, although she rarely outright says so, more heavily implies that it’s what she wants him to do. Christian is as fucked up in his own way as William, so Anna is certainly not above trying to persuade people to kill for her. And she is definitely able to persuade retired detective Gerry Tythe to reveal confidential information to her whilst she’s on trial for incitement to murder. It feels as though Anna can definitely get people to do things on her behalf, although the ending throws up an interesting question about her relationship with private investigator Mo Buckley – who is manipulating whom?

Mo was the court officer who leaked Eddie’s identity to the press in the first place, necessitating the anonymity order, and who is both angry with Anna for revealing his identity before she’s confirmed it, and for asking her to keep digging (although as Eddie’s handlers are apparently hibernating through the winter I don’t know why she’s so concerned. Literally nobody tries to stop her). One of Anna’s biggest complaints is that the closed hearings in juvenile courts mean that Eddie never had to explain himself and she never got to hear why he killed Liam. Except, at the end Craig/Eddie reveals that he did explain himself when he was arrested, confessed in full, showed remorse, and even asked to apologise to Anna. Whatever you think about whether this earns him anything, these are facts that Mo knows Anna wants to know, and as someone obviously familiar with the case has probably known all along herself – if she was trusted with Eddie’s name, she must know at least some details of his case. Which really does beg the question – why doesn’t she just tell Anna this?

It’s not plausible that Mo would know Eddie’s identity but not that he came from a deeply neglectful household, or that he had a history of self-harm, or his expressions of remorse and requests to apologise. Maybe this doesn’t matter to her, maybe she’s just an old-fashioned eye-for-an-eye type, and this would probably resonate with a large chunk of the audience. But one thing seems clear, she doesn’t care about Anna, or she’d just tell her the information she wanted to hear, about Eddie’s motives and background. Unless, of course, she understands that Anna is using that as a cloak to hide that she really wants to unmask Eddie’s new identity in order to have him killed. As the story won’t commit to that, Mo’s behaviour makes no sense.

Another burning question for the list. Why do none of the people who give Anna information about Eddie’s whereabouts ever tell her what she keeps saying she wants to know – why Eddie killed her son? If they can find out the one thing, they can find out the other. Especially as it wouldn’t be considered anything like as sensitive.

The fact that the story won’t commit to Anna actively wanting Eddie dead and actively trying to bring it about means they miss yet another potentially interesting story point. William, the junkie she either cares for or is manipulating into murder, is not so different from Eddie, and is probably how Eddie would have turned out if he hadn’t murdered Liam. That would be a fascinating challenge to Anna’s (and the media’s) preconceived idea of Eddie as a horned-and-tailed devil child, evil at heart and to the core, but it’s swerved straight around, and instead William’s plotline is resolved with another reminder of how saintly Anna is as she comforts him following a traumatic police interrogation.

It’s such a shame that The Victim dodged all these questions, because that would have made it an interesting exploration of the real issues thrown up by vigilantism – biggest of which is that vigilantes invariably target innocent people. By going all-out for the surprising twist, The Victim ends up raising all these questions, then answering none of them, and committing to nothing except that there should be no consequences for vigilante mums. It can’t even decide how much Eddie/Craig should be punished for Liam’s murder. On the one hand, he loses his job, wife, and child. On the other, we have Anna’s new husband telling her that Eddie served his sentence and asking her what more he could do. That’s a very good question, and it feels as though it’s directed at the audience as much as at Anna – but the show very much seems to be answering this for us by taking Craig’s new life away from him. And then answers it again when, in the finale, Anna relents and finally decides to prevent her ex-husband from murdering Craig in revenge.

It feels like we’re very much being told that only Anna has the right to decide what should be done with Eddie. Yay vigilantism! Vigilantes definitely know what’s fair, not those judges in their ivory towers.

Vigilantism is actually the blood enemy of our justice system, in fact of any real justice, but if you want to know why… you’ll have to subscribe watch the bonus video on Patreon. The link’s at the bottom. Every blog post gets one.

In an interview given to the Radio Times Rob Williams stated that he wanted to show that there’s more nuance to every crime than is generally accepted by the public, and even the worst crimes are not as black and white as we’d like. I entirely agree with that approach, nothing as serious as crimes which rip people’s lives apart should ever be simplified or diluted to make them more palatable to the public, and to be fair in its final scenes The Victim does succeed in doing this. Whether you feel any sympathy for Eddie or not, his crimes are explained and the answer is far more satisfying than ‘He was just evil.’ But it falls down with Anna because she’s made into too much of a saintly character. Just as much as we needed to see at least some sign that Craig was capable of serious violence, we needed it confirmed that Anna is capable of manipulation and anger. We needed to see her mentally draw a distinction between people like William that she helps, and Eddie whom she believes to be just evil. At the very least we needed to see her at war with herself over her desire for vengeance. And we never did – she seems to have no trouble reconciling her Saintly Nurse and Bloodthirsty Vigilante sides. It’s remarkable really, I have enough trouble reconciling my professional persona as a confident public sector worker with a people-oriented job, and my private persona as someone who really just wants to shut myself in my room all day and sleep as much as humanly possible.

I’ve fooled many of my co-workers into thinking I’m a people person. Nobody tell them.

Eddie gets all the consequences; Anna gets none of them. Her quest to uncover Eddie’s new identity has led her to seriously neglect her youngest child, with her new husband, but a quick heart-to-heart at the end of episode three and all seems well. For a few brief moments she’s rocked to her core by the thought that she ruined an innocent man’s life – but then, hey! No worries, he was guilty all along. The courts even seem to forget that she’s been convicted of incitement to endanger life, as Craig was Eddie all along which I guess must have made it ok.

I don’t feel like that’s very nuanced at all – some criminals are better than others, we’re being told. Some criminals deserve all the consequences. Some deserve none of them.

Much of which could have been avoided if Rob Williams had made Eddie anyone other than Craig. Then we could start to see nuance – the hounding of a perfectly innocent man who sort-of seems like he could be guilty, and the failure of the police to protect him for the same reason, is a complex and challenging storyline. Anna, and the audience, would be forced to ask if she’s such a saint after all, and the degree to which vengeance consumed her. Anna and Eddie’s final confrontation didn’t need Craig to make it work, and as satisfying as it was to see Eddie finally explain himself, equally satisfying would be to see Anna wrestling with the damage she’d done to herself and her family by chasing him.

The destruction of Eddie’s life would have been more palatable as well if he was someone other than the incredibly nice, mild-mannered Craig, and it would add more nuance if, in their own way, Eddie’s murder and Anna’s attempts to have him killed in turn cost them both everything in different ways.

But, no. We got the incredibly lame twist where the man we are told is not Eddie, turns out to be Eddie, with no explanations as to why we were told he wasn’t. It’s not satisfying, it surprises the audience but because they’ve been lied to, not because they’ve been wrong-footed, it creates a tonne of burning questions the show doesn’t even attempt to answer, and it throws the problems with Anna’s and Mo’s characters into a sharper relief. No piece of art is perfect, all have flaws, but the audience will usually allow them if, on the whole, the piece is well-constructed, the twists are set up in advance, the hints are findable afterwards, and the red herrings explained.

The Victim is well-constructed, but apart from that, the twists are not set up, the hints aren’t there, and the red herrings are just thrown at you in the expectation that you’ll tidy them up yourself afterwards.

It didn’t have to be this way, Rob Williams didn’t have to lie to the audience and it was a completely unforced error on his part to do so. But once The Victim had told us its villain was Craig, its villain couldn’t be Craig. When it made Craig its final Big Reveal, it didn’t just jump the shark, it sprouted wings and zoomed off into the distance.

 

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