Season 3’s just up on Netflix, and I’m Welsh. Where else would I start?
What is it?
Hinterland is a noir thriller series set in Aberystwyth, on the Welsh coast (Aber-uh-st-wuth, see, easy). It’s nicely dark and creepy, with great acting and some beautiful cinematography. It follows Detective Chief Inspector Tom Matthias, who has transferred to Aber from London following a personal tragedy, and the crimes he investigates in Mid-Wales. The episodes have a usual formula – there’s a murder, there’s an oddball weird suspect who seems to have done it, Matthias isn’t convinced, further investigation reveals the criminal to be a ‘pillar of the community,’ type – or several in some cases. That said, they don’t always stick to this, the show is so atmospheric and tense that you never really feel like they’ve recycled a story – and it’s never predictable in that you can work out the solution halfway through the story and spend 60 minutes playing Candy Crush while you wait for them to confirm that you were right. Some reviews describe it as ‘Creepy Cymru,’ and I’d have to agree that Hinterland is nicely creepy, twisted and dark.
Who’s in it?
Matthias’ team – Matthias himself (played by Richard Harrington), DI Mared Rhys (Mali Harries), DS Sian Owens (Hannah Daniel), and DC Lloyd Ellis (Alex Harries – IMDb doesn’t say if he’s related to Mali). Then there’s Matthias’ boss, Chief Superintendent Brian Prosser (Aneirin Hughes), troubled ex-cop Iwan Thomas (Geraint Morgan), and dodgy pathologist Haydn Blake (Geraint Lewis).
What’s to like?
Matthias is a compelling character, superbly acted by Harrington. His relationship with Mared is always interesting, as they frequently don’t see eye-to-eye and often disagree, but she remains a loyal subordinate when it counts. Some criticism has been levelled at him for being overly miserable, but really, I think he’s clinically depressed. He moves to Aberystwyth having lost one daughter, and with his wife and other daughter now living separately. At times he’s depicted as being suicidal. Now, I’m well-aware that ‘mental health issues,’ is a Noir trope, you can’t be a detective in a Noir drama without them, but Matthias’ come from a deeper place than simply, ‘Everything’s a bit grim.’ At least once he’s openly suicidal.
And yet, he’s engaging and provides a solid moral centre to the series, as every good fictional detective should – the episode where he, an elderly woman and a child are trapped in a farmhouse with the child’s father, who’s gone on a killing spree, strongly shows his sense of morality and his desire to protect life. Even after everything the man’s done, Matthias tries to convince him not to confront the armed police surrounding the farmhouse. His sympathy and understanding for the less fortunate, less well-understood suspects he encounters marks him out nicely, and we get some good bits of righteous fury from him at times when the real killer is exposed.
As much as Matthias, Hinterland is made by his boss, Chief Superintendent Prosser. You just know there’s something dodgy about him, and yet he’s often a very good boss, supporting Matthias’ seemingly stranger hunches, and even some of his mental health issues. Ambiguous and ambivalent, you spend the whole of the show wanting to know what he did, and feeling surprisingly sympathetic towards him when you learn the answer.
From its first episode, Hinterland hints that there’s an overarching story linked to abuse at the Devil’s Bridge care home, and that Prosser knows more about it than has been revealed. ‘You were one of the abusers, weren’t you? You’re scum!’ one witness shouts at him, but of course it’s far, far more complicated than that. He convinces Matthias not to resign at least once – he must know that he can’t control Matthias and that if Matthias learns that he’s protecting a network of abusers he’ll bring them all down, so why protect and encourage him? Prosser is shades of grey, a complicated, nuanced and layered character, who recognises Matthias’ abilities as a detective and tries to pull him through his depression even as he tries to protect his secrets and keep the crimes he knows about from coming to light.
In the end, we learn that Prosser has been manipulated, compromised and corrupted by going outside the law to do what he thought was right, and righting the wrongs he caused twenty years previously costs him everything. The thing with the broken mirror is a bit heavy-handed (and for a normally subtle, clever show that sticks out a bit. Look! His soul is fractured like the mirror!) but the shots of him sitting in his office at night, all the curtains open and only a desk lamp for illumination, glowering into the middle distance, made my skin crawl. Simply put, a beautifully crafted, wonderfully developed character. I’d ask for more of him, but honestly? Less is more when it comes to Aber’s Chief Super.
From the opening titles, you know what you’re in for here. Shots of rusty iron nails as mournful, one-key piano music plays sets up the creepy, brooding atmosphere that infuses the entire show. Those Welsh mountains loom menacingly over Matthias and his team in the landscape shots. Hinterland is set in a beautiful part of the world, and they make full use of it. The mountains glower and glare down at Matthias and his suspects, full of secrets and dark places, mirroring the secrets and dark places within the human mind that the show explores. At times, for such a remote location, it feels positively claustrophobic. And the beautiful scenery is also a lovely contrast with the dark, twisted, ugly parts of human psychology that Hinterland explores. The setting might be pretty, but where the show will take you mentally will not be.
The interior shots keep this up nicely – peeling wallpapers and paint in the police station and hospital, the remote caravan Matthias lives in in seasons one and two, the rusting hulks in a shipyard, the greasy spoon café on the Aber waterfront. Even the primary school featured in series two never quite seems happy and relaxed – there’s always an air of foreboding and decay over everything.
Iwan Thomas and the overall mystery:
From episode one, we know terrible things happened at the Devil’s Bridge care home. Vulnerable teenagers were sexually abused and raped – one even suffered a miscarriage. Eventually, a former resident murdered the care home manager who was complicit in the abuse. But Matthias never learnt the identities of any of the perpetrators, so it hung over the series like a pall. Prosser clearly knew more than he was saying.
The season one finale introduced Iwan Thomas, an alcoholic ex-cop whose adopted daughter had been killed. Thomas had spiralled into depression after Prosser blocked his investigation into the care home. A natural ally for Matthias? No, Thomas blames Matthias for his ex-wife’s death, and thinks he’s Prosser’s man. Throughout season two we see Prosser, Thomas and Matthias dance around each other. Prosser thinks Thomas is dangerous, and it’s heavily implied that he attacked Matthias and burned his caravan, Thomas thinks Prosser and Matthias are corrupt. It adds another level of complexity to the story – you want to root for Iwan Thomas, even though it’s made hard at times. Again, he’s very well-acted, and like Matthias and Prosser he’s a complicated character – he’s trying to expose what he knew took place, but doesn’t trust anyone in the police to help him.
That feeling of brooding menace I talked about? Part of it is knowing that there’s something rotten at the heart of Aberystwyth, something dark and corrupt that could reach out and destroy Matthias and his team. It’s a feeling that won’t be lifted until Matthias learns the truth, and banishes those demons.
What I had problems with:
Ok, so the policy is, no negative reviews. That doesn’t mean I won’t say what I had problems with – but these are my personal takes. Everything creative has flaws, and different people will find different ones, and find different aspects of any given piece that they enjoy. This is, after all, the whole point.
Some procedural niggles:
Fair enough, not everyone’s Line of Duty when it comes to procedural accuracy. Hinterland has a few of my pet bugbears though – no blue lights on unmarked cars, detectives not wearing stab vests to confront suspects (and no batons or pepper spray! Grrr!), Matthias can always get to the person in danger faster than any patrol car. His team is only four strong including himself – in reality, British police tend to investigate murders with teams of twenty or more. Now, obviously you can’t fit all of them into a TV show (or even most of them), but I’d like some indication that they exist and are Fighting Crime. I mean, these are pretty common niggles and if they spoil your enjoyment of the show, you’re watching it wrong.
I get that the show is set in mid-Wales, so I don’t want to make too much of this. Take away the university and Aberystwyth is hardly the beating heart of cosmopolitan Britain, it’s not going to be as diverse as London and reflecting that in casting is fine. But, still – if you look hard enough you can see one black background actor among the police at crime scenes. That’s not really an accurate reflection of society today. British TV can be hideously white sometimes. People of colour exist (and in a crime drama that often visits hospitals, you’ve got no excuse for not showing people of colour when they make up so much of the NHS workforce). Show them on the damn tele!
Matthias’ team – Matthias, Mared, and, er… the other two…
Until looking up the actors on IMDb, I couldn’t even say for sure which way round DC Lloyd Ellis’ name was, and that’s kind of an issue. The dynamic between Matthias and Mared is fresh and interesting, but sometimes we see too much of them and not enough of the other two team members. Lloyd especially suffers here, I feel, since DS Sian Owens does, occasionally, get stuff to do. In fact, Sian gets her own paragraph, because there are plenty of hints of interest with her, but they don’t get followed up on. Taggart, in its post-2002 format, featured a 4-detective team with officers in the same ranks, but everyone got enough to do even if Burke and Reid were the main focus more often. It would have been nice to see more from Lloyd and Sian – especially Lloyd.
As for Sian, well… it’s hinted at, at various points, that she’s not entirely happy with either Matthias’ or Mared’s styles of leadership. Hinterland never bludgeons you over the head with anything, it trusts its audience and expects you to figure a lot out yourself, but there’s so much teased with Sian and then never followed through on. So, for instance, at the end of season two she runs into a bloke she’s known previously during an investigation. They have a bit of an exchange which ends with Sian telling him that she has nothing to say to him. Now, I think he’s her ex, but we don’t get anymore than that – including anything on why they split. Then, at the end of the episode, she gets into his car, whilst Lloyd looks on disapprovingly. Why is he looking on disapprovingly? We never find out, it’s not mentioned again. At other times, she goes over Matthias’ head to report an encounter between him and Iwan Thomas that Matthias hadn’t told Prosser about, and Matthias hardly looks thrilled when she’s assigned to investigate first an attack on him, and then the murder of his suspected attacker. But the tension between them is never really explored fully, and we don’t know why Sian seems to mistrust him so much. Is it his depression? His maverick-cop tendencies? Is she the by-the-book one who feels he’s too keen to break the rules? Is she really ambitious and thinks Matthias could scupper her chances of promotion? She never gets enough screen time for us to really know, and when your episodes are ninety minutes each, with no ad breaks, there really should be time.
When the murder investigation in which Matthias is implicated winds down, he indicates that he has no ill will towards Sian and understands that she was doing her job. This would have more of a payoff if we’d seen more of the tension and mistrust between them in the past.
A bit too miserable:
Now, I have said that I think Matthias is clinically depressed (as opposed to just a bit down, they are different things), and that the generally gloomy air of the show is justified from that, so I don’t want to rag on this too much. But, saying that… I’ve heard, from actual cops, that grim, noirish shows like Hinterland, or The Killing, are often widely disliked within the police because they’re just so serious. They tend to think that shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, where everyone goofs around and spends every free minute pranking each other, are more realistic. Police work is a depressing, horrible business, and actual cops use humour as one of their most basic, common defence mechanisms to this (probably most public service jobs are the same – teaching certainly is).
It wouldn’t fit with the tone for everyone to be laughing and joking around all the time, and it wouldn’t fit at all with Matthias’ character. But one of my favourite exchanges of the series comes when Mared, who wasn’t able to reach Matthias to inform him of a murder, asks where he was. Matthias replies ‘Killing myself,’ and when Mared looks horrified (again, further evidence that Matthias is actually depressed and may be outright suicidal at times) he clarifies ‘Running.’ We don’t need huge amounts of this, especially not from Matthias. But I think they needed more than was shown – Sian and Lloyd’s relationship got almost no exploration whatsoever beyond a few shared looks in the office. A few jokes between them wouldn’t have been out of place.
You’ll enjoy this if:
You like your crime fiction on the noir side – particularly if that noir is creepy and twisted, taking you into dark parts of the human psyche and looking at what lies beneath the façade of apparently respectable people. And if you like overarching mysteries that, ever so slowly, build on themselves until the final reveal is not what you expected at all.
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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