What is it?
Hidden was an eight-part serial killer thriller that ran on the BBC in June and July 2018. It was set in Snowdonia in North Wales and started with the discovery by police of the body of Mali Pryce, a girl who had gone missing six years previously. As the police investigate, they link Mali’s death to several unsolved disappearances around Snowdonia. But the audience is also following the story of Mali’s abductor, Dylan, and his efforts to find a replacement for Mali.
Who’s in it?
Former Emmerdale actress Sian Reese-Williams plays Detective Inspector Cadi John (followers of Creepy Cymru might recognise her as Matthias’ girlfriend from season 3 of Hinterland). Also starring are Rhodri Meilir as serial killer Dylan Harris, Sion Alun Davies as DS Owen Vaughn, and Gwyneth Keyworth as troubled university student Meg.
And here I’ll say, it’s been nice to see some Welsh acting talent getting a run-out in a major show on a national channel. The performances are strong, especially Reese-Williams and Keyworth, and it’s a major strength of the show.
What I liked
Hidden is from producer Ed Talfan, who was also behind Hinterland, and boy can you ever tell even from the opening credits. The camera lingers over his trademark images of dirt and decay, as it shows us around Dylan’s cottage in the woods – a decrepit swing, a rusty horseshoe, a scummy sink, with one-key piano accompaniment. It’s a very similar style to the opening credits of Hinterland, and much like those, it lets the audience know straightaway what they’re in for.
Atmosphere was a big part of Hinterland, and it’s a big part of Hidden as well – a bigger part, in my view. Talfan’s thing is to ask us what those Welsh hills are hiding, so a lot of time is spent at Dylan’s crumbling cottage in the Snowdonian woods, and there are the shots of looming, menacing mountains that viewers of Hinterland will find familiar. This time, though, we get more variety – a lot of time is spent on a depressed council estate in Llanberis where Mali’s father and sister still live, and Talfan captures the despair and hopelessness that afflicts many of its residents as effectively as he captures the foreboding, secretive nature of Snowdonia’s mountains.
The atmosphere sucks you in from the get-go, it’s compelling, and it makes for a suitably dark, unsettling backdrop to a dark, unsettling story.
Undoubtedly the biggest strength of Hidden was its lead. Reese-Williams gives a warm and compelling performance as DI John, makes you empathise with her struggles and root for her to win. One of the biggest complaints levelled against Hinterland’s DCI Matthias was that he was constantly miserable (for my thoughts on why he was actually clinically depressed see my Hinterland review), and there’s no doubt that Talfan gives Cadi a broader range of character traits – we see her angry with an uncooperative witness, caring towards her sick father, argumentative with her doctor sister, and relaxed and joking around with Owen.
Cadi’s also well-written as a flawed character, again with human flaws that are easy to empathise with. Her caring nature towards her sick father notwithstanding, she’s very resistant to the advice of her sister the doctor, and doesn’t appear to grasp how serious her father’s illness really is. She irritates both sisters by going back into work late at night, and in one nice exchange reflects on her life with Owen. Owen is showing some reluctance about becoming a father, feeling like he hasn’t had a chance to travel and experience the world; Cadi points out that she’s done all the things that Owen wishes he had, and is now nearly 40 and still sleeping in her childhood bed. This doesn’t feel written as a condemnation of either of their life choices – Cadi merely reflecting that the way she’s lived has had its consequences for her, much as impending fatherhood has for Owen. And it appears to reconcile Owen to these changes (on top of which, it’s nice to see a female character advising a male one).
I didn’t feel that the finale satisfied me, mostly because I felt that Cadi had earnt more of a confrontation with Dylan than she got. She’s an engaging, likeable character, of whom I’d like to see more. The series left this open – the plotlines around her father weren’t really resolved, and Ed Talfan can spin a good yarn about the secrets that lie dormant in rural communities.
What I had problems with
Some procedural niggles. And some unforgivable, major blunders.
My usual disclaimer about procedural niggles – they’re fun to spot, but if they spoil your enjoyment of the show, you’re watching it wrong. Hidden had a couple of my favourite UK-based bugbears, no blue lights on unmarked vehicles, detectives not wearing body armour or carrying any of their gear (batons, tear gas). UK crime dramas can be very, very lazy about showing minutiae like that, and there was the usual very small investigative team as well. I counted five cops working on this incredibly serious, major case. Six including Cadi’s boss. Some of what takes place goes past procedural niggles though, and takes us into the territory of major blunders.
After watching episode 3, I texted my Dad (who was also watching), something like ‘Boss, we have a description and license plate for the suspect’s highly distinctive vehicle! Should we alert all units and make an immediate appeal to the public to see if anyone knows whose it is?’ ‘Dammit Detective, we have to string this out into an eight-part series! That means NO appeals to the public that could solve the whole case in twelve hours flat, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES! Am I clear?’ Episode 3 ends with Cadi and Owen finding Dylan’s truck on CCTV after his failed attack on local nurse Lowri Driscoll – the one he drives to work in. What Cadi should do at this point is get the truck plastered all over the media – ‘We think the driver of this vehicle may have important information,’ type thing. Someone who knows it should see it, or hear it on the radio, and call in to tell the police whose it is. This is pretty basic police procedure. Cadi doesn’t do this, of course. There’s no operational reason not to, it’s entirely so that the next five episodes can happen. But this is a problem because, to anyone with a basic knowledge of how detectives operate, it undermines Cadi’s credibility. It’s a problem that shows like Hidden, which focus on one crime across several episodes, face – making the investigation sufficiently complex without making the detective into a complete idiot. Hidden gets the balance very, very wrong at this point, and this occurring so early in the series can’t help but affect the remaining five episodes.
There’s another major, only-so-the-next-episode-can-happen blunder right at the end of episode 7, when Cadi identifies Dylan Harris as the killer. My text this time went ‘Dammit, now we’ll have to completely botch the arrest or there won’t be an eighth episode,’ and of course this is exactly what happens. So, the shots of Cadi, Owen, and two uniforms running out to their cars and screaming off with lights flashing and sirens wailing are dramatic, but it’s all wrong. By this stage Cadi strongly suspects that Dylan is holding Meg. This is a hostage situation. She should be asking for Authorised Firearms Officers, sealing off the roads in and out of Dylan’s cottage, and getting the force helicopter up to monitor the property (yes, North Wales Police has a helicopter. It’s based just down the road from me). Rushing off the way she does allows Dylan to escape and go on the run, and again I can’t help but feel that this is done entirely so that Dylan can escape and episode eight can happen.
I actually feel that episode 8 might have worked better if it had been a hostage negotiation. We could have had the interaction between Cadi and Dylan that I think was wanted, and I wouldn’t have had to roll my eyes at my computer so hard I nearly dislocated them when Cadi and co rushed off. Cadi’s a good cop. The writers shouldn’t be having her do really stupid things to make the rest of the plot happen.
Wow, did I ever have a lot to say about Dylan…
Dylan was the source of some debate between me and my Dad. He thought that Dylan was one of the most realistically represented serial killers he’s seen on screen and really liked the way he was portrayed. I disagreed – whilst I appreciate that Talfan was trying to show a more realistic serial killer than TV often depicts, there are still some huge problems with Dylan’s character. These can roughly be summarised as 1). His relationship with his mother, which feeds into 2). We’re supposed to sympathise with Dylan, someone who is in no way a sympathetic character.
1). His relationship with his mother – ok, Dylan’s mother is a cruel and abusive woman. This is clearly an attempt to show how someone like Dylan can develop, and that’s actually quite a laudable goal, most fictional serial killers are hilariously unrealistic. Parental abuse is often a factor in the development of serial killers (although my understanding is that it’s not always present; neglect can do as much if not more damage, and the most important early step is that the budding serial killer never learns or develops any empathy). The problem with this is that Dylan’s mother, Iona, is shown as still being very dominant over him. The night after Mali escapes she thrashes him with a knotted rope and forces him to sleep outside. He often takes orders from her, especially around maintaining the house and looking after his daughter. Now, Iona isn’t able to force him to give up Meg, but she expresses her disapproval and Dylan frequently seems afraid of her.
I find this problematic for two reasons – firstly, Dylan’s activities are blamed almost entirely on the way his mother raised him, and this marches proudly into the trope beloved of many newspapers: Behind Every Serial Killer Is The Woman Who Made Him Do It (this is, to use a technical psychological term, complete bollocks, and I’ll give it more treatment below). But also, because Dylan has killed one woman and abducted three others. He, at least supposedly, has a capacity for violence. He shouldn’t be taking orders from him mother anymore, she shouldn’t be able to dominate him the way she does. Not at this point in his life. However Iona has treated Dylan in the past, by the time of Hidden, he should be able to threaten, intimidate, and abuse her into complying with him.
But he can’t. Even his defiance of Iona is rather weaselly – my sense was that Iona could force him to get rid of Meg if she really tried, even if she’d never free Meg and see her son in jail herself. And all this feeds into the second, much bigger, problem with Dylan.
2). The audience is supposed to feel sorry for him. In discussions with my Dad (the one who liked the portrayal of Dylan) he made the point a few times that Dylan is a victim too.
Well, yes, he is an abuse victim. But, he’s also murdered one woman and kidnapped three others, watched one of those die in childbirth, and drove another to throw herself into a river rather than let him recapture her. Whatever Iona has put him through in the past, Dylan has repeatedly chosen to abduct women for sexual slavery. No amount of past trauma justifies this. No amount of past trauma makes Dylan sympathetic.
I’m not sure whether this was intentional or not. Understanding and condoning are not the same, and I don’t feel like we’re meant to condone Dylan’s actions (Meg’s horror and terror are very effectively conveyed by Gwyneth Keyworth). But I do feel as though we’re meant to feel sorry for him, and I don’t like that approach. Dylan is morally reprehensible. A classic morally grey character (Ed Exley in LA Confidential is my favourite example of this) is someone you can sympathise with because they do some good, even if they do too much bad to be entirely good. Dylan does nothing good. He sometimes seems to feel bad about his actions, and between this and his mother we’re supposed to conclude that he’s a sympathetic villain, a poor lost soul.
As the series progresses, Dylan’s motivation is revealed to be that, lacking the social skills to form a proper relationship, he abducts women instead, and what he really wants is to have that proper relationship. To me, this seems a bit like someone read some cliff notes on ‘Why are serial killers,’ got to the part about serial killers lacking the social skills to get girlfriends, and thought Aha! He can’t get a girlfriend normally so he steals them, and he’s really a loving and caring soul at heart, or he’d like to be. I cannot stress how wrong that is. The only absolute with serial killers is that there are no absolutes with serial killers, but poor social skills, especially during important developmental phases, is a common factor, and it means many serial killers have a poor relationship history – that much of Dylan’s backstory rings true. But serial killers tend to react by starting to hate women for not dating them, and their sexual fantasies go from consensual, to non-consensual, to violent, to murderous. They aren’t poor abused souls who just want to be loved (and, to be clear, Dylan isn’t even someone who’d be nice if someone just gave him a chance. He is, at best, a Nice GuyTM), they’re pathetic, angry men who think that the world owes them sex and act out by killing when they don’t get it.
This attempt to present Dylan as a sympathetic, complex character, means that we never see much real violence from him – or even any real hints at a psychopathic streak. He tries to grab Lowri Driscoll, but is scared off by a bystander. Meg actually steps out in front of his car. When he tries to have sex with her, she pushes him away, and he actually leaves. He never shows any signs of manipulative or controlling behaviour towards his daughter – at times he even shields her from Iona. Even when he stabs his neighbour whilst on the run, he takes him inside and tries to control his bleeding at first. By the time he decides to smother him instead, the series is almost over. Overall, I don’t feel any sympathy for what he’s done – but I don’t really buy him as someone who’d do those things either.
Trying to show a more realistic, damaged serial killer was a laudable aim, but I really feel like Hidden missed the mark with Dylan. Cadi needs better villains – and the character certainly deserves to confront them.
The overall length.
Hidden probably didn’t have enough plot for eight episodes, and it tried to make up for this with a fair bit of filler. Some of this is actually fairly good – for a long time I wasn’t sure about the subplot featuring Mali’s dad Alun, whose reaction to his daughter’s death is to spiral further into alcoholism and then to start lashing out at friends of her ex-boyfriend, culminating in an attack on her ex himself, but his fight with the ex was actually a good payoff to this subplot. Alun lacks the ability to express his emotions in any way except alcoholism and anger, so drinking and lashing out is all he’s able to do.
Other parts fall a bit flat – there is a powerful scene when Lowri revisits the scene of Dylan’s attack, the gate to her parents’ driveway, and, plainly terrified, has to psyche herself up to open it, drive through, and close it again, something she was doing without any thought when Dylan first attacked her. This time, she runs to the gate and back to her car, sobbing the whole time. I thought this was shaping up to be an examination of how Dylan’s violence impacts on his victims (and would have been a bit of counterbalance to the efforts to show him as a victim). But this was Lowri’s last scene. She disappears from the narrative after this and is never seen again.
Instead, Cadi learns that an old murder investigated by her father may have been committed by Dylan – except that her father made an arrest and got a conviction of a man, Endaf Elwy. Now, the scenes where Cadi speaks to Endaf in prison are, again, well-shot, well-acted (Mark Lewis Jones is excellent as Endaf), but it doesn’t really go anywhere. We don’t find out how Cadi’s dad got the case wrong, or why, whether it was incompetence, corruption, or an honest mistake. It’s implied to be the latter, but the evidence against Endaf as Owen lays it out is actually very strong, and although Dylan confesses to the murder it’s never explained how he was able to kill his victim and pin the blame on Endaf. It feels like something inserted to make the running time longer.
You could take Alun Pryce, Lowri Driscoll and Endaf Elwy out of Hidden and it wouldn’t affect the overall plot at all. Losing Lowri would even smooth out the problem of Cadi not releasing the details of Dylan’s car to the public immediately – the police wouldn’t start to trace him until Meg’s disappearance several episodes later. I feel like Endaf was an attempt to show the police tracing Dylan’s crimes back in time (which is fair enough, it’s far more common for serial killers to be caught for one murder and then have others connected to them later on than for them to be caught after a reign of terror), but the murder of his niece could have just as easily been left unsolved, with weak circumstantial evidence pointing to Elwy that was never enough to try him, but enough to convince the public of his guilt.
Shortening the series to six, or even five episodes, would also mean that Cadi’s decisions could be based on how she should catch the killer, not on what the writers needed her to do to make their story the right length.
Behind Every Serial Killer Is The Woman Who Made Him Do It
Earlier, I complained that Cadi doesn’t get a proper confrontation with Dylan, and I felt that the character deserved it. Only, Cadi does get a confrontation scene. With Dylan’s mother Iona. And, the more I’ve thought about it, writing this review, the more I’ve thought that Iona is in many ways presented as the real villain of Hidden.
You really, truly do not sympathise with Iona, who abused and continues to abuse Dylan, and who also enables his crimes by allowing him to keep his captives in her home. Even when she wasn’t abusing him, the way she raised him is blamed for his lack of social skills. If Dylan is really a victim too, then it follows by extension that all that happens in Hidden is really Iona’s fault.
Behind every serial killer is the woman who made him do it.
Recent examples of this include the alleged Golden State Killer (newspaper articles about a woman who broke off an engagement with him shortly before the first murders) and the Parkland High School shooter, Nicholas Cruz (as well as the many, utterly false, allegations that he was bullied by Emma Gonzalez, there were commentators who suggested that the blame lay with a girl who broke up with him in the months before the shooting). Whenever a man kills women, there’s always a woman who can be blamed. If, like Dylan, there’s no ex-partner, then blame his mother instead.
I really hope that this was an accidental by-product of trying to make Dylan a more complex, morally grey character than TV serial killers often are, but the fact that Cadi’s final confrontation is with Iona, and her moment with Dylan is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fast (we don’t even hear what she says to him before he jumps off a bridge), make me think that Talfan and the writers saw Iona as their real villain, certainly by the end of the show. Iona smugly refuses to help Cadi, or accept any responsibility for her actions, and Cadi’s moment of righteous anger, the moment where she channels the revulsion of the audience at these terrible crimes, is directed at Iona, not Dylan. Whatever the intent, by the end of the show Iona has certainly taken on some of the trappings of the main villain.
Iona is villainous. But she also isn’t responsible for Dylan’s decisions to kill and abduct – decisions that he makes repeatedly. Presenting her as the real villain of Hidden dilutes any sense of Dylan’s guilt, and steps over the line into full-on ‘Behind every serial killer is the woman who made him do it,’ territory.
You’ll like this if…
You like atmospheric, creepy crime dramas which focus on one investigation across several episodes, and show you a villain who makes you think. Look, I didn’t like Dylan and how he was presented, and I’ve explained why above. But he certainly made me think about what a villain is, and how serial killers are presented on screen. You don’t have to agree with how he’s portrayed to enjoy the show.
This review feels quite unbalanced to me because the ‘Didn’t likes,’ section is so long, so I’m going to bend my rule here and say that, for all my complaints, I found Hidden to be compelling and engaging, and I binge-watched the last three episodes as soon as I was on summer holiday. It has problems, everything does (my own work included), but if you like your crime dramas dark and unsettling, with a villain designed to get you thinking and leads who provide a warm and engaging counterpoint to that, then give Hidden a watch.
If you’ve enjoyed this review, please check out some of the others, or, alternatively, some of the crime-related blog posts. Or maybe even some of my own short stories. Shameless plugs below…
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