Entertainment

Why 'Collateral' Is the British Mystery Netflix Needs Right Now

collateral carey mulligan
Netflix

This story contains spoilers for Collateral. 

At first glance, Netflix's new mystery series, Collateral, may look like another run-of-the-mill British procedural. But peel back the layers and it becomes something else: not a mystery so much as the first incision of Britain's post-Brexit autopsy, anchored by several dynamic female characters, including a stunning lead performance from Carey Mulligan. In a genre that prefers its women dead, or naked, or hardened and distant, there's a refreshing vitality to the women of Collateral: They defy tropes and elevate their material into something quietly revolutionary. There aren't many shows like this.

The idea to fill a TV series with multifaceted women came, ironically, from David Hare, a notable British playwright and screenwriter who makes his TV debut with Collateral. (The series first aired on BBC Two in the U.K.; it's a BBC/Netflix co-production.) "I am sick to death of hearing about the need for strong women as protagonists," Hare told The Times in February. That sounds like a startling declaration for a series infused with female stories, but as Hare goes on to explain, strength alone doesn't leaven equality. "What's a much more important cause is to show women doing jobs equally, as the normality of the thing. Throughout the cast list."

That's certainly the case for Collateral, where women play cops, detectives, assassins, illegal immigrants, even priests. (Here's where we'll get into spoilers.) Even the murderer is a woman, something we learn in the first episode, another way Collateral evades its genre. It's not asking who, but why. We're trained to underestimate women like this, to assume they are brittle and unassuming, as dangerous as a feather pillow. On Collateral, that assumption isn't just awry; it's damning.

Who are the women of Collateral?

Collateral follows the murder of a pizza delivery man and the group of detectives, witnesses, and family caught in the aftermath of his death. The man, Abdullah Asif, is thought to be a Syrian refugee, which complicates the implications of his murder. In an age of heightened border security and terrorism-induced paranoia, there are a number of motives that might propel the assassination of an immigrant, especially a Syrian seeking asylum.

Although Asif is Collateral's victim, he's also its MacGuffin; his murder is a vehicle for political and social commentary about the status of rife-with-tension Britain at odds with the European Union. Sometimes this commentary is a bit of an ear-sore. David Mars (John Simm) -- a Labour politician who vehemently challenges the xenophobic border laws his party propagates, and whose ex-wife (Billie Piper) was a witness to Asif's death -- adds little to nothing to the story outside of his soapbox monologues about the dangers of isolationism, which can feel a bit preachy. (His wife is also something of a needless accessory, though the show's title seems to reference the satellite stories of those caught in the web of Asif's murder, from any relative distance.)

It's the more insular characters who give weight to this particular story, and all of them happen to be women. Carey Mulligan's Detective Inspector Kip Glaspie, who's assigned to the case, is the story's main focus. She's no-nonsense, but instinctive in the way her male colleagues are not; her sensitivity, though limited, is enough to keep her glued to answers, even if it means sleepless nights. She's also seven months pregnant and a former Olympic pole vaulter, details that may feel incidental, but inform the character's interiority and complexity. Female detective stories are often centered on their lead's anonymity, so it's a welcome change to see a woman who lives beyond the borders of her profession.

We also spend time in the head of our "villain," Sandrine Shaw (Jeany Spark), Asif's murderer who's more than some faceless assassin. She's an Army Captain suffering from intense spells of PTSD, whose fragile emotional state is preyed upon by an illegal immigration ring. The horrors of war are just the beginning for Shaw, who's tormented by her superiors, by her indiscretions, by a loveless family. She's a different kind of killer than we've ever seen, because it's through a different light; much of the pain inflicted on her is by virtue of her sex.

Then there are Asif's sisters, Fatima (Ahd) and Mona (July Namir), who are thrown in a detention center for their illegal status and who carry with them more than one devastating secret -- not to mention his pizza delivery boss Laurie (Hayley Squires); a drug-addled witness to his death named Kae (Linh Xuan Huy); and Kae's girlfriend, Jane (Nicola Walker), a female priest doing battle with the church. Their relationship to Asif's death varies in importance, but individually, they add up to Collateral's larger message of social hierarchies, perspectives on the refugee crisis, and the calamitous undervaluing of the female experience.

The show's director is crucial for Collateral's point of view

The series was written by a man, but directed by S.J. Clarkson, a woman known for her work on other Netflix programs like Jessica Jones and Orange is the New Black. There's nothing in Collateral that flashily announces its female director, but there's also nothing that runs counter to female points of view, as is often the case with these hardened detective stories. A moment of sexual violence, for instance, is completely non-gratuitous, and acquaints itself with the woman's pain instead of the man's actions. It's not the most momentous shift, but it's a perspective that men seem to struggle with.

The story is also never tenderized by Clarkson's "female gaze." Its politics and police work are as sharply portrayed as any episode of The Wire. (Though, story-wise, it's far less dense.) The camera never lingers on Kip's pregnant stomach, never plays up needless romantic tension, never softens a scathing blow. Perhaps that's all in the writing, but I think it's more than that. The result feels like a male writer and female director in simpatico: aware of its women's precarious bearings, but restrained in its sentiments.

Collateral is messy and inconclusive by design

Early criticisms of Collateral point to its lack of satisfying resolution, and it's overall disorientation. Those critiques aren't wrong, but they do a disservice to the story's intentional ambiguity. There are loose ends, a lack of grand heroic gestures. The characters fuck up, even the smart ones. Glaspie makes a choice in the finale that's almost embarrassingly amateurish, but also painfully human. She knows the second the words come out that she's undone so much of what she poured her soul into fixing.

But that's the beautiful thing about Collateral. It isn't interested in filmic revery, but in the brutality of failure. It's something the women of the real world know in detail, and that the women of Collateral give meaning to; that life goes on even when we don't win.

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Lindsey Romain is a writer and editor living in Chicago. She covers politics for Teen Vogue and has also appeared in Vulture, Birth.Movies.Death, and more. Follow her on Twitter @lindseyromain.