BBC America’s post-zombie series In The Flesh returns for a second series and the social and political commentary remains as relevant as ever.
Let’s bitch it out…
In the Flesh was one of my favourite shows of 2013, so I was incredibly excited to learn that it had not only been picked up for a second season, but that the second series had been extended which would allow the storylines to be more fully fleshed out (sorry, couldn’t help myself). After the somewhat resolved ending of series one, series two has it’s work cut out to reboot the series and explore some dangling plot threads.
The opening Partially Deceased Syndrom (PDS) attack on the tram manages to address both of those concerns in one fell swoop. On one hand it reintroduces us to the post-Rising world by helpfully (re)clarifies the central conflict of the show, which is all about the uneasy relationship between regular people and the PSD, or – to put it more simply – the fear of the unknown and the different. On the other hand, the attack revisits a dangling thread from series one: the mysterious Blue Oblivion powder (and by extension the mystery of the Undead Prophet).
More than that, though, the PDS attack also sets the scene for the episode. In much the same way as the second season of The Following began with a train attack (and I promise to never compare the two shows again), there’s something incredibly terrifying about being trapped in a moving enclosed space with individuals who are threatening your life. It really kick starts the second series with a jolt. The decision to include protagonist Kieren Walker’s (Luke Newberry) neighbour, Ken Burton (Ricky Tomlinson) among those killed is a smart one because it personalizes the attack (the recent proliferation of zombies into popular culture has desensitized our reactions to the biting/munching carnage unless there’s something we care about involved). The fact that Ken suffered such heartbreak in series one and dies preaching to his frightened son about how people needn’t fear PDS sufferers is nice little emotional gut punch by the writers. Of everyone on the show, Ken didn’t deserve to go out this way…and yet he does.
After the opening scene, we return to the peaceful town of Roarton, where everyone is on the precipice of significant change. Kieren is preparing for a jaunt to Europe (specifically Paris) because they’re more tolerant of PDS sufferers and he wants to try his hand at being an artist. It’s no wonder he’s feeling threatened considering his day job: clearing tables at the Legion and taking abuse from morons like former HVF member Gary (Kevin Sutton) would be enough to make anyone consider a change in scenery.
Kieren’s sister, Jem (Harriet Cains), is similarly struggling with the day to day. She’s now attending a private school and considering going to university, but she’s unable to connect to her peers and is completely socially isolated. At night Jem still dreams of her time in the HVF, specifically the time she came upon Kieren eating someone in the grocery store. I can’t recall whether we knew Jem had seen Kieren in this state, but it doesn’t seem as though she’s afraid of her brother so much as she’s traumatized (she certainly doesn’t fear Kieren in her waking interactions with him; in fact their scenes are among the most light-hearted in the premiere). Still, the post-traumatic stress is bleeding over into her day to day existence and the suggestion is that things aren’t going to get easier.
The main conflict in the episode originally appears to be coming from Vicar Oddie (Kenneth Cranham), who continues to preach about hellfire and damnation. In a nice moment of inverted expectations, it’s revealed that there are only a handful of parishioners listening – a clear indication that the vicar has lost the ear of the community. Enter the real villain: local MP Maxine Martin (Wunmi Mosaku) of the Victus party – who is fairly quickly revealed to be an ardent advocate against PDS sufferers. It only takes a few days in town for Maxine to start stirring up the same sentiment that drove series one: fear. The owner of her B&B confides a distaste for those things and is then revealed to have one for a mother-in-law. Radio callers connect the attack in London with concerns about safetyand people like Gary use this as an opportunity to loudly lament the loss of the HVF. And even though Maxine offends local residents by describing herself as “local girl done good”, she’s soon cementing her position in town, setting up office and identifying PDS sufferers from local records. Before episode’s end, she’s put up a photo collage on her office wall – a visual hit list that includes Kieren – and it’s enough to make you shudder because it’s not hard to guess what’s going to happen to the people who grace that wall.
The other contributing factor to Roarton’s uneasiness is the return of Kieren’s friend, Amy (Emily Bevan) and her new boyfriend, Simon (Emmett Scanlan). Amy was one of the highlights of series one because she’s funny and flippant, refusing to apologize for her undead condition and challenging bigots left and right. In that sense she hasn’t changed, but her agenda has become even more political following her time at the PDS commune. That’s where she met Simon, who’s apparently one of the twelve disciples of the Undead Prophet. Their return to Roarton is ominous – we learn that the pair have been selected for a mission and Amy tells Kieren that there’s a rumour that the Rising began in Roarton. The nature of her mission with Simon remains secret, but before their first day is out they’re already challenging Kieren on his self-hatred and causing an uproar at the Legion.
Judging from the casual indifference Maxine has to putting down rotters and the attention-grabbing antics of Amy and Simon, these two opposing perspectives should clash in no time. Unfortunately for Kieren his plans to leave town seem bound for failure, which will inevitably put him right in the middle of the maelstrom.
- Kieren’s father, Steve (Steve Cooper) is among those living firmly in denial. He’s comfortable with Kieren because he knows his son, but he speaks about PDS sufferers as though they are completely different. Considering Kieren’s queer status, there’s an additional metaphorical layer here (and the series made no attempt to hide this reading in series one), but it does make things more challenging for Kieren.
- My favourite comedic moment in the opening episode is how mouthy the B&B owner’s mother-in-law is. She’s just as crusty as most mother-in-laws, but the addition of her undead status makes her complaints even more hilarious. Speaking of a TV mystery: “I didn’t crawl out of the ground to watch this garbage.”
- The password for the Roarton PSD safehouse is Ishtar. Ishtar is a Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, sex…and war. How much should we read into that in anticipating the plans of this splinter group?
- Just in case we don’t consider Maxine enough of a villain, she allows the Vicar to die of a heart-attack right in front of her eyes. It’s not entirely surprising since she clearly considered him a barrier to her plans for righting the wrongs of the town, but it’s still a pretty bold move for someone who just moved to town the day before.
- Amy (complimenting Kieren): “You’re more than gorgeous. You’re morgeous.”
Your turn: what did you think of the opening tram attack? Are you afraid of Maxine’s plans? Do you think Jem is going to return to her HVF roots? And are Amy and Simon planning violent attacks? Post your thoughts below.
In The Flesh airs Saturdays at 10pm EST on BBC America