Masterpiece presents a portrait of Mary Ann Cotton, the first female serial killer in the industrial era, in drama Dark Angel. A story of the a woman who killed her victims using pots of tea laced with arsenic, the two hour production explores what might make a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown tip into madness.
Mary Ann: Why don't you let me make you a nice cup of tea.
What does make a woman go over the edge? Presumably the same things that make a man go a little mad sometimes. And yet, our patriarchial society insists that women, though the "fairer and weaker" sex and also the "more emotional half" of the human race somehow never go on crazed killing sprees. Serial killing seems to be mostly the provence of men, especially in our society's telling. Perhaps that's why, when it comes to the Victorian era, they hold up Jack the Ripper as an example instead of Mary Anne Cotton.
Cotton got away with her killing spree for as long as she did--taking out three out of four husbands--exactly because of this social stereotyping. After all, what man would think that the soothing, loving wife and mother, sitting by his bedside pouring a nice cuppa tea, could be poisoning him slowly for the insurance money? And yet, that's exactly what Cotton did for nearly twenty years.
When we first meet Mary Anne (Joanne Froggatt), she has just married Billy Mowbray (Tom Varey), and returned home while he attempts to find work. Though we are not given much reason for this, Mary Anne's father and mother (Alun Armstrong and Penny Layden) clearly think this a bad match, and furthermore a weak one. Mary Anne is not shown as being the one to take out that first life insurance policy on her husband that she would poison him to get later. Instead this is the work of her father as "protection." In fact, Mary Anne seems fairly ok with her lot at first. At least, until her daughter Margaret Jane dies in the cradle, and Mowbray moves her and their other daughter Isabella away from her family, to his finally achieved job as a miner.
Mary Anne: I’ll not be a coalminer's lass for as long as I live! There’s not a woman alive, but she wants better than that.
Suddenly away from her parents, Mary Anne sees what a poor provider she's married. Living in a filthy hovel, there's a bed full of bugs, and squalor all around. We can also see that she's none too pleased with her lot as baby maker, as after giving birth to Margaret Jane 2, she laughs off the idea of having another one--until the next scene where she is already pregnant again. As if these oppressive circumstances weren't enough, we see her growing crush and sexual frustration over one Joe Natress (Jonas Armstrong)--the classic "bad girl falls for bad boy".
Add to that the insanity of single motherhood in these circumstances, while Mowbray is away. We have scenes of Mary Anne screaming and sobbing at her crying baby to please just be silent. All these factors come to a head when Mowbray comes home with a crushed leg. Though he insists he'll be fine, and off again to find work in a few weeks, inside we see Mary Anne finally snap. As she makes her now crippled husband that fateful cup of tea, she looks up at the cabinet and reaches for the arsenic.
With the first husband down, the pattern is established. Another poor choice of husband and provider leads to poverty, debts, squalor, life insurance policies and finally, pots of tea. And everytime there's a roll in the hay (or the filth), another baby is suddenly on the way, and just as quickly dies. While the show is perfectly happy to to confirm that the woman who goes from Mary Anne Mowbray to Mary Anne Ward to Mary Anne Robinson in the space of the first hour is definitely offing the men around her, they are far less willing to come down on the side of her killing off the babes. It is mostly accepted that she did kill off her children. (Each of them had little life insurance policies after all.) Their death count is partly why hers is said to exceed that of Jack the Ripper. But ITV, who was the original producer of the program, couldn't quite bring themselves to show a mother offing her babies, and leaves it up to the viewer to decide how many of their deaths were at her hands and how many really were of "gastric disease."
Mary Anne: So many children. And they die whatever I do. Whether i’m bad or I am good. They die all the same.
The deaths they are ok with pinning on her? The step children. Especially those in her way of of offing third husband James (Sam Hoare). How terribly Disney-esque. But James is special, since he's the only husband smart enough to figure out what's happening, instead of just drinking the tea without question. Once one husband catches on, it's only a matter of time before more do. The irony of Mary Anne desperate enough to wind up with Fred Cotton--the same one she sneered at in the opening scenes--and offing his wife to get him is not lost on viewers with the two episodes smashed together into a single two-hour special like this. Moreso since this is where the killing spree ended--after doing in his little boy, Fred Jr.
Dark Angel's script is definitely a little on the hokey side. The teapot killing spree is more than slightly comical, and not always in ways the script intends. But the prodcution does not shy away from this as a portrait of what the horrors of poverty in Victorian times could do to a person, and it should be commended for that. This is an ugly and unflinching look at a world that shows like Poldark turn into happy dancing poor people on the beach. Froggatt's performance is what holds the show together. Her Cotton is one with a steely determination that she deserves a better life that the one she wound up in, and that she was going to take it any way she could. Her growing contempt at those around her who couldn't see what she was doing grows into a sort of snobbishness. Everyone around her are fools who she could choose to let live, or kill off at will, like a mad avenging angel. She believed in the righteousness of her cause, and that she would be welcomed into heaven--all the way to the gallows as the rope snaps her neck.
If you missed Dark Angel, you can catch it on WETA/PBS streaming here.