Criminal UK: Crime Drama with a Feminist Lens

When a reminder from my Netflix app popped up telling me that Season 2 of Criminal UK was available, my week took a significant turn for the better. If you didn’t catch this riveting drama first time around, you get the lucky experience of bingeing both seasons back to back — just be warned that this only adds up to seven total episodes. But small and focused is what this show does best, proving the old adage that creativity flourishes when it’s constrained.

There are no crime scenes here, no dramatic chases down city streets or grim findings in the pathology lab. The action is confined to the bland box of the interrogation room, the darkened space and bank of computers that sits behind its two way mirror, and the sterile institutional hallway where police officers occasionally escape for a private conversation and something sugary from the vending machine. The crime itself remains unseen and often unspoken until well into the episode; within the frame of the two way mirror, we are instead asked to look deeply at the person behind it. To join the specialist interrogators as they tease and probe their way towards some version of the truth. And if the first two episodes are anything to go by, to learn some lessons about gender dynamics in the modern world.

If you haven’t watched yet, be warned; spoilers abound from this point onwards.

Season 2 opens with an instant tick on the Bechdel checklist; two women sit opposite each other at the table, ostensibly in the midst of a routine follow up interview. Rochenda Sandall’s Vanessa is a model of empathy, putting her interviewee at ease, projecting warmth and giving her space to talk. As it turns out, this loosening of lips inadvertently leads to a vital breakthrough, but one that Vanessa entirely overlooks, focusing all her attention on the needs of the person in front of her. Unbeknownst to her, the tone of the station shifts from lazy Sunday afternoon to all hands on deck as her colleagues fill the dark room behind the mirror, hanging on every word of the exchange. When she finally emerges from the interview and is let in on the secret, Vanessa’s first reaction is embarrassment. Although her rapport building skills are the foundation for all that follows, she fixates on her shortcoming; the tell that she missed, the kind of ‘gotcha’ moment that pays the bills for the Poirots and Holmes’ of the fictional world. Though it has been extremely fruitful in this investigation, Vanessa still reads her kindness as weakness; and the orders she receives, to complete the interrogation of the witness turned suspect, as punishment.

“I’m not ambitious. And that doesn’t fly around here,” Vanessa laments to her colleague Tony as they sit on the stairs, that liminal space where the boundaries between the personal and professional are allowed to blur. Tony is an interesting character himself, one who subverts the dominant stereotype of an interrogator to his advantage, masking his incisive mind with a normcore accountant exterior and soft, unassuming manner. Here, he models for us a supportive male ally in the workplace. First, he acknowledges the importance of Vanessa’s role in supporting him behind the scenes, and is explicitly thrilled at being able to return the favour. Second, while he cuts through Vanessa’s overthinking and impostor syndrome around doing the interview by reminding her that she is following orders, he doesn’t deny her agency in choosing her own professional path. “If you don’t want to do the next one — that’s a different story,” he says. An offhand remark, but a significant one — one that validates Vanessa’s choice to be a team player, rather than a solo artist.

As they leave the station, Vanessa admits to Tony that she’s “bricking it” about leading the interrogation, and settling into the room the next morning she lets her nerves show. There are three women around the table now, the boys having been confined to the spectator seats, and the suspect’s lawyer brings the no-nonsense, hard-nosed attitude that we have been trained to expect from professional women on screen. Too late does she realize that by reading Vanessa’s emotion as fragility and responding with forcefulness, she has fallen into a trap. The clapback is swift and satisfying, and as the drama unfolds we watch Vanessa masterfully give just enough of herself, drift just far enough into the personal, to connect with a woman who is now an adversarial suspect. Skilfully she meets the need that she had sensed in Julia in the first interview, for a space to release the truths she has bottled up for so long. And in doing so, she gives her just enough rope to hang herself with. Sophie Okonedo’s performance as the titular Julia is chilling, darkly hinting at the roiling emotions beneath a numbed outer shell. Julia had surrendered her own agency, her happiness, to a man who could never meet her needs; by her own twisted logic, this now absolves her of any responsibility for her actions. It is internalized patriarchy taken to a twisted extreme.Behind the female killer lies the man who drove her to it, in a society where she was too ashamed, her sense of identity too compromised, to simply walk away.

The moment of triumph however, the moment that had me silently cheering on behalf of working women everywhere, happens after any revelations pertinent to the case. The suspect has left the room; Vanessa now faces her boss, Stephanie, a cool and clinical archetype of the kind of lean-in feminism that requires women to ape traditional male-coded leadership styles and smash glass ceilings on behalf of their entire gender. Impressed with Vanessa’s handling of the interrogation, Stephanie rattles off the next steps for her progression, more interrogations, more responsibility. And Vanessa simply, politely, says no. She knows herself. She respects her own needs. And she has the confidence to set her boundaries. As Stephanie calmly accepts the refusal, we are given a glimpse of a world where both leaders and supporters are valued and respected in the workplace. Where prioritizing your mental health is a sign of strength. And where there is more than one way for women to be powerful.

If you’re anything like me, after that revelatory opener you hit Next Episode and dove right in to a stand-out turn from GOT’s Kit Harington. As estate agent Alex he strikes a sexy but smarmy note that’s all too familiar to anyone who’s been for after work drinks in the city on a Friday. This nuanced exploration of a he-said, she-said rape case lays bare the horrifying irrelevance of physical evidence, our scientific gold standard of truth, in establishing something as pivotal as consent. Amanda Drew’s speech as Alex’s solicitor is brief, but so finely acted that by the end I too had tears in my eyes, as these quiet scenes in a small room shed so much light on the enormous challenges faced by those who would seek justice for sexual assault.

And yet, Criminal reminds us, there are reasons for burdens of proof. Men like Alex are entitled, sexist and unpleasant, but that does not always make them guilty. The factors that drive a woman to wrongly accuse might be structural, they might be a symptom of our discriminatory society, but a lie is still a lie. The struggle we watch the team endure mirrors our own; how to believe women, but not every woman. Alex is a man clearly used to getting what he wants, and Stephanie’s hallway analysis is spot on when she points out that women do not see the danger of this kind of man because our society positions this dominance, this rapaciousness, in all other aspects of life as a virtue. “The warning is a quality,” she says, and women everywhere nod in agreement.

Yet as a single text casts doubt on the victim’s whole account, we are forced into an uncomfortable position as an audience. Alex’s ‘exoneration’ rests on an extremely shaky foundation, the interpretation of an oblique reference that might speak volumes, but might also mean nothing at all. There are no easy conclusions; the woman who might be either victim or perpetrator of a crime exists only as a mute photograph on the wall, untouchable and beyond interrogation. Meanwhile Alex, for all his shiny suit and argyle sock facade, is laid bare under the bright lights, betraying all his unedifying prejudice and laddish disregard for the feelings of others even as he tries to make his case. He proves himself thoroughly unlikeable, and yet it is hard not to feel a stab of pity as he begs the detectives for some sort of proof of his innocence, an official not-rapist certificate to replace the scarlet letter that was pinned to his blue suit the moment he was arrested. He will not be prosecuted, but he has already been judged. Justice has been done, but it is not necessarily fair.

It is his reaction to unfairness that buys Alex, we can presume, a night in the cells; once again, any sympathy we might have is tempered by our understanding that he has no coping skills for when life doesn’t go his way, because clearly it always has. We’re left in the company of Kyle, a junior member of the interrogation team, and the silent portrait of Alex’s accuser, the void at the heart of this mystery and the only person who can even know the objective truth of what transpired. Kyle’s repeated attempts to shoot his crumpled wrapper into the hallway bin throughout this episode seem to be metaphorically telling us that the justice system will often fall short. Unlike on many TV procedurals, these cases aren’t a ‘slam dunk’. They’re messy. Everyone gets hurt. After a final unsuccessful attempt, Kyle leaves his wrapper on the floor; we do not know who will pick up the pieces and set the world to rights.

Criminal UK is available on Netflix: if you don’t mind subtitles, check out the Spain and France versions as well!

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Sophie Sharp

Sophie Sharp

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Writer, Marketer, Skier, Worrier, Former Londoner, New Canadian.