In the Flesh premiered on BBC Three in March, and aired over three nights on BBC America this month. I’ve noticed lately that things which air over three-4 weeks in the UK are crammed into 2-3 nights in the US; not sure why. This was no exception, but I found it easier to take some time between viewing the first episode and subsequent ones.
In the Flesh envisions a different sort of ending to the traditional trope of the zombie apocalypse. Though the zombies rise just as you would expect, the government has a different way of dealing with them than you might imagine. The ‘rotters’ are rounded up by the British government and rehabilitated. Through group therapy and medicine, Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) sufferers can be reintegrated into society and returned to the homes they occupied before their deaths. With the help of contact lenses and ‘mousse’ (foundation), they even appear normal.
We follow Kieren Walker, an 18-year-old PDS sufferer who is returning to his parents’ home. There are just a few problems with his return. Kieren’s village of Roarton was one of the major centers of the ‘rising’, and the village formed a Human Volunteer Force (HVF) to hunt the ‘rotters’. Roarton is still a hotbed of hatred toward PDS sufferers, despite a government mandate of peace and acceptance. Kieren’s own sister, Jem, is a proud HVF member and zombie hunter.
The first episode really shows the absolute sense of fear from having Kieren back in the family home. Not fear of him, fear of the HVF and its leader, Bill. It reminded me of something you might see in Nazi-occupied Europe, if you were hiding a Jewish person in your attic. At the end of the first episode, Bill and the HVF show up at a neighbor’s house, drag his elderly PDS wife out into the street and shoot her in the head. The hatred and anger are unforgivable and unacceptable.
The second episode had a bit more hope in it. Word gets out that Kieren is back home, but he’s given a reprieve from being shot in the street. Bill’s son, Rick, who was lost during the war in Afghanistan, is coming home. Rick’s parents have revered him since his absence, so his return as a PDS sufferer is confusing, given Bill’s hatred for ‘rotters’. Rick was also Kieren’s best friend, and (this is implied but never stated outright) his boyfriend. Lots of tension between Kieren and Rick, and Rick and Bill, and Bill and Kieren. Bill combines his hatred of ‘rotters’ with his homophobia to absolutely despise Kieren. As far as Bill and Rick go, Bill is totally in denial about what his son is, both as a gay man and as a PDS sufferer. But the rest of the town starts to show a bit more compassion and acceptance.
Kieren meets his old hunting partner, Amy, and has someone with which to share the crazy experiences of being a dead body re-introduced to the human world. Even Jem, his antagonistic sister, starts to come around.
The third episode gets into more of the meat of the relationships between all of these Roarton characters. We learn that Kieren killed himself after Rick was killed in Afghanistan. His parents and his sister were very angry with him, which explains a lot of the tension. This fact also proves even more tragic later.
Bill is the catalyst for almost all of the action in this last episode. He is in absolute and complete denial that his son is gay, and that his son is a ‘rotter’. His response is to get rid of what he sees as the problem: Kieren. Without Kieren around, he can pretend his son is normal, in every possible meaning of the word. And the best way to make sure of it is to have Rick do the honors. Bill tells Rick to eliminate Kieren (and Amy, for good measure). I think Rick, who clearly has a hard time saying no to his father’s orders, is tempted to do it. But how could he kill Kieren for the same faults that exist in him as well? He can’t do it. He washes off his mousse and takes out his contacts, and shows himself to his father as-is.
Meanwhile, Amy decides to leave town to find a ‘rotter prophet’ living in the woods, wearing a Guy Fawkes mask of some kind. She’s looking for answers. She doesn’t have a family anymore, and life in Roarton isn’t turning out to be peaceful. Kieren sees her off at the train station and then returns home…to find Rick at his doorstep with a knife in his brainstem. Dead for real this time. Killed by his own father.
Things are rough from that point on, obviously. Kieren confronts Bill. Bill gets what he deserves, though not at Kieren’s hands.
Let’s take a moment to think about Kieren’s luck. His best mate/boyfriend goes off to Afghanistan and is killed in an explosion. Kieren doesn’t want to live anymore, so he kills himself because of the ensuing depression and grief. He rises as a zombie (he can’t even kill himself properly!) and commits terrible atrocities, but after medical attention and rehabilitation he is able to return to his family. Rick returns too…and is killed again. The feeling of futility has got to be overwhelming at this point.
Kieren returns to the same place where he committed suicide, just to think this time. His mother comes to retrieve him, and that’s when the story of his suicide comes out.
The whole miniseries features a lot of very grim and taciturn patriarchal figures and their quiet beset-upon wives. We see Bill and his wife, one meek and victimized by her husband, the other a blustering despot with limited ability to process his own emotions. We also see Kieren’s family. His mother shows some emotion, but is still quiet. His father holds in all of his emotions until the very last scene of the miniseries, when he lets them out in a moment of healing and crying.
This all reminded me of American Beauty, and Bill particularly of Chris Cooper’s character. So much pain and denial and repression. Willing to do intense violence to cover up, to keep from acknowledging, the truth. But my only issue with this miniseries is that I think it would be better placed in the ’90s than currently. The gender politics alone were very traditional, and the ideas about homosexuality are also out-of-date. Of course, this takes place in the North, somewhere near where Heathcliff and Catherine would have been running around on the moors. It looks like the type of place where it is just never truly warm. Windy and cloudy and gray all the time. I know that the North is, stereotypically, a bit more conservative and less cultured than the South of England. Something like how the Midwest is thought of in the US. But, as someone from the Midwest, I also know that not to be particularly true. Is it (Lancashire) so very traditional that this is a reasonable depiction of a small village near Blackpool? Maybe. There are places like that in the US, small towns where homosexuality and atheism and being a democrat are unheard of, not talked about, absolute Sins with a capital S. It’s definitely possible.
I thought this miniseries was pretty good, actually. Lots of complex ideas and unavoidable tension. The actor who played Kieren could be a little stiff, a little numb, but how perfect is that for someone playing a partially-dead person? Anyway, everyone’s emotions were so repressed and covered, that it worked quite well. My only issue was that the ending was very open, almost not like an ending at all. I hope that will be resolved when the series comes back for another 4-6 episodes in 2014.