The tender love story was almost as integral to proceedings as the main mystery (Picture: Vigil BBC)
There’s one element in particular of Vigil, BBC One’s blockbuster Sunday night drama, that seems to have really riled a small handful of viewers and critics; but I for one can’t stop thinking about it.
No, it’s not the par-for-the-course accusations of inaudible ‘mumbling’, which seem to bubble away on social media for a whole load of scripted shows these days. It’s not the dwindling amount of screen-time given to the guy we all fancy from Sex Education. It’s not even the fact that apparently some viewers think that, er, the central character’s cat might be a killer(?!).
It’s the fact that this twisty-turny whodunnit has also – gasp! – increasingly contained elements of romance; to the point in this week’s episode where the tender love story was almost as integral to proceedings as the main mystery.
To recap: DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) is aboard HMS Vigil, a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine on which a sonar mapping expert, played by him off Line of Duty (Martin Compston), was killed off within the first few minutes of the series premiere.
Trapped in such claustrophobic confines and coming up against significant resistance from just about every member of the ship’s crew, Silva is trying to get to the bottom of the suspected murder – which may or may not be linked to, among other things, MI5 cover-ups, Russian plants, and a nasty incident involving a few scandalous seamen in Florida.
Meanwhile, DI Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie) is on dry land doing what she can to help: clashing with the Royal Navy, digging into the dead guy’s backstory, and chasing down suspected killers who turn out to be spies with diplomatic immunity.
She can send messages, often coded, to Silva; but Silva – becoming more and more isolated and struggling with her mental health– cannot send them back.
Flashbacks have been peppered throughout the series; flashbacks which had, until this week, revolved mainly around a car crash that left Silva’s partner dead and ended with her being permanently separated from her would-be stepdaughter. The trauma led to her being put on medication and (somewhat inconveniently) struggling with being confined to small spaces.
This week, though, the ‘flashback timeline’ properly explored what had previously only felt like a nice bit of textural detail: Silva and Longacre’s relationship. We got to see their meet-cute, their early rapport and, ultimately, their first smooches.
Not everyone was impressed: some critics have accused the show of being a ‘gripping drama that’s confused itself with a fluffy romance’ (The Telegraph), or wondered if the flirty encounters ‘did little other than disrupt the rhythm and tension of the episode’ (Radio Times).
I respectfully disagree.
It doesn’t disengage or distract me at all (Picture: Vigil BBC)
Those moments were, in my view, extremely powerful: cut against scenes of a stressed Silva’s intensifying struggles on the sub, the flashbacks enabled us to see her experiencing something resembling joy and happiness. Or at least, moments in which she realises that after everything she’s been through, joy and happiness might still be possible for her.
We saw how, in the aftermath of her darkest moments, Longacre made her smile again, made her laugh again, made her dance again.
That, in turn, gives us a very hopeful sense of what could be waiting for her when this case is solved – assuming, of course, that she and the rest of Vigil’s crew make it back to dry land alive, and she and Longacre can work through whatever made their relationship take such a sour turn before Silva got this assignment (I assume we’ll learn more about that in the coming episodes).
In short, the fact their relationship is taking up so much space has – for me – elevated Vigil to something more emotionally resonant than your everyday police procedural.
In DCI Silva, we have a three-dimensional human being in the midst of an identity crisis, grappling with the almighty impact of her grief and her trauma – things that are, quite understandably, having a tangible effect on her ability to do her job, especially in such isolating conditions. Knowing more about her life and what’s at stake for her makes me more invested in her success within the thrilling main plot; it doesn’t disengage or distract me at all.
Some critics have accused the show of being a ‘gripping drama that’s confused itself with a fluffy romance’ (Picture: BBC/World Productions)
Add in the fact that she and DI Longacre are both women, in a genre traditionally driven by straight males, and it feels all the more refreshing.
Their queerness doesn’t feel like it’s been chucked in for the sake of it; it feels authentically woven into the story and given an unfiltered spotlight without being heavy-handed or used purely for titillation. Yes, it would have been even more wonderful if either character was played by an openly queer actor; but at least in Jones and Leslie we have two genuinely brilliant stars playing the roles beautifully.
And hey, as well as just being great storytelling, the rare piece of LGBTQ+ representation in a prime-time blockbuster means a lot to audiences, too: Twitter has been full of queer viewers (especially queer female viewers) praising director Isabelle Sieb and writer Chandni Lakhani for how moving and empowering Sunday’s scenes were, and how much good they’ll do for normalising same-sex love for mainstream audiences.
With two episodes to go and things inevitably starting to heat up (that cliffhanger at the end of episode four? Oh boy), I’m more invested than ever in Silva finding her culprit and returning home to work things out with Longacre.
Let’s just all keep an eye on that shifty cat, and hope that the show doesn’t fall into the old ‘bury your gays’ (or, in this case, sink your gays) trap before the end of the series.