Spoiler alert: this recap assumes you’ve seen the third episode of Undercover. Don’t read on if you haven’t.
It’s day one of Maya’s new job as the Director of Public Prosecutions. True to form, she’s giving an inspiring speech: “I have never prosecuted a case in my life.” How’s that for fostering faith and hope in a new team? Of course, she’s brought her Michael Antwi investigation wall with her, and his death in custody is the first case the department must put their energy into.
Almost as soon as she enters office, Maya gets some intel to help them blow open the high-level cop cover-up back in 1996. The new Antwi witness emails, begging Maya to tell no one, so she immediately discusses it with Nick – big mistake, huge – and concludes that the witness must have been an undercover cop, in the police station that day under the radar. At almost the same instant, she learns that Rudy Jones’ stay of execution has been lifted, and opts to jet to Louisiana (when she’s just started her new job!) to argue his case rather than meet the all-important witness. In Louisiana, there are some emotional moments – “Squeeze my hand if …” – as she tries her utmost in court to keep him alive, before establishing that Rudy does not in fact want to carry on. Still, she must return in two weeks to fight his corner for probably the last time.
Maya’s bid to get the “best shot at the truth” is the main, perhaps only, reason I remain intrigued by this series. It will be horrific for her, of course, but I can’t wait to see how she gets to the bottom of the whole hideous mess. Despite a sense that her uncompromising honesty seems unprofessional at every turn, Sophie Okonedo’s childlike brilliance makes Maya’s character very likeable. Elsewhere, the performances are often wooden, the dialogue stilted and the plot stuffed with implausibilities.
The pacing was a bit better this week though, with just enough flashbacks to ‘96 to make each snippet count: Mystery Man threatening the uncorrupt cop in charge to keep stumm about Antwi’s death; exactly what the witness Abigail Strickland (Nose Ring finally has a name!) saw and overheard; the start of the government cover-up over Michael’s murder, as Bigwig says “it’s a tragic death, we’re all very upset, so [use his] first name only”. Then of course there’s Nick’s police handler Carter’s stark warning about his fledgling relationship with Maya: “Don’t fall in love, and wear a condom.”
There were a handful of terribly nasty scenes here, such as Maya’s journalist friend Julia Redhead being ambushed into putting her byline on the Two Faces of Hate story, linking the activist Antwi to the alleged killer Jones. The sexism at her tabloid was believable (plenty of examples to plump for: “you’ve got the best tits in the building”, “you dozy cow”, “positive discrimination, girly”) but I don’t accept that she’d stay at the paper for 20 years, let alone keep up the belief that the Antwi article would allow her to tell “positive stories about black men and women because I put my name to this one first”. Of course, it was Nick handing over tapes of Antwi’s speeches that landed Julia in it, which made it particularly satisfying that she had Nick’s number from the start. After meeting him just once, Julia called him out on his dubious career choice to Maya: “he’s a real writer … he talks about his parent’s meeting like he was there … he makes things up so that you can love him.”
‘Institutional racism brought you to the top, remember’
Peter Moffat’s script is so heavy-handed by this point that it’s easy to lay good money on a fair few things: it can’t be a coincidence that the creepy investigator Alex Brady, the Woodward to poor Julia’s Bernstein, is introduced as lying outside the newspaper’s jurisdiction, not given a contract so he can “behave badly”. Perhaps he’ll actually stop being sexist and help solve the Antwi cover-up, because he’s not answerable to the editor/police/government. The police faking mouth-to-mouth on a rigid Antwi to keep up the front for the ambulance crew left a horrible taste too, as did the fact that only one officer looked even mildly disturbed by their part in his death. I would bet on us seeing that policeman again before long as well.
Moffat is also asking way too much of us as an audience: it would be remarkable if anyone could suspend their disbelief that Julia’s son happened to be going to the same or next-door college in Oxford as Clem, especially given her college mum’s marked comment that “there are two of us now”. Similarly, to suspend our doubts that Abi would be so weirdly chummy with Nick, begging him to save himself when she surely knows he got her sacked – “redemption could take you the rest of your life, but I think you might make it” she says, as he pegs that she’s the witness – let alone making gags about crack being “Jesus” then kissing him, all while overlooked by Maya’s best friend. Way too much.
That said, the last 15 minutes brought some much-needed tension and momentum, with nefarious Nick rushing to shop Abi to the cops yet again, telling Carter that she’s meeting Maya in just 45 minutes to spill all, in exchange for a deal that the police must leave him be. (In this, Nick seems even more naive than Maya.) Then there’s Abi carefully heading to King’s Cross station to meet Maya, checking over her shoulder all the while. We expect the worst, and it delivers. Watching Abi being dragged away and deposited by the bins with a needle in her arm was awful, tragic, as was Nick’s realisation that he killed her – and that the police would not loosen their grip on him. Things got going even more when Nick vowed to tell his wife the whole truth (wouldn’t he be frantic and frightened they’d do to his family as they’d done to Abi?) only for Julia to instead tell Maya after their strained lunch that her husband is having an affair. Just as Nick is on the brink of laying everything bare, Maya has a seizure in the kitchen. The illusion of cosy domesticity is shattered, presumably for good.
‘Go big’ speech of the week
Abi nearly won the award with her appeal for Nick to tell Maya the truth, but she was pipped by Maya’s team briefing. “A confession: I’m the new DPP and your boss and I have never prosecuted a case in my life. I don’t know what I’m doing. But I’m going to be as straight with you about you as I am about myself. If we’re going to go after the people that I want to go after, I need moral strength and proper bollocks from all of you. I’m gonna make us proud to prosecute.”
Notes and observations
• A 45-minute window? Pah. Nick didn’t give up the location of Maya’s meeting to the police, and Abi didn’t seem to be being followed. Could the evil Mystery Man really have got there that quickly?
• Call me a cynic, though hopefully call me a realist, but the link between Michael Antwi and Rudy Jones doesn’t seem strong enough to warrant the whole Louisiana strand. Granted, it gives Moffat another angle of institutional racism and police cruelty to cover, but it seems embedded to a) up the show’s saleability to the US networks and b) eke out the plot to six parts.
• If Maya should have suspected Nick when he said he was a writer then published zilch for 20 years, she certainly should have found him disingenuous when he told her he volunteered at a homeless shelter twice a week. Too good to be true isn’t a hackneyed phrase for nothing, Maya.
• I’m finding Nick, in Adrian Lester’s hands, increasingly wooden and unconvincing. Clearly playing a double, treble and quadruple crosser is trickier than it looks.
• Every interjection by Daniel this week really got us somewhere, from the prescient “there’s no such thing as invisible is there, Dad” to his lunchtime blurt to Julia that “Dad says one day he’s going to ask about your conscience”. Touché, thinks Julia, then promptly tells Maya that her hubby, the one with the seemingly spotless conscience, is a cheat.
• Daniel’s love for Rice Krispies knows no bounds. His cereal bowl is as big as a swimming pool. At least I was tickled by one thing, I guess.
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