If you’re looking for a pleasantly escapist drama during these dark times, I am here to tell you that new Acorn TV drama Deadwater Fell is not that show. It’s certainly a compelling series – dark and difficult, with great performances and a deeply murky and uncomfortable central mystery – but it’s not what you could under any circumstances call light.
Obviously, I think it’s worth watching, or I wouldn’t be here telling you about it, but forewarned is forearmed and all that.
David Tennant stars as Tom, a local GP in a small Scottish town who, on the surface, has it all. Respectable job, perfect wife, three beautiful little girls. The Kendricks look like a real-life version of a family from an advert, as they attend local festivals and share poignant life advice with their best friends, the Campbells, who are struggling whilst trying for a baby. The seemingly perfect foursome drinks wine, goes to the beach, plays with their collective kids, and dances at the town ceilidh. They’re kids are so perfect one gives the other a balloon – kindly and unprompted! – at the end of a night out.
You wonder, at various moments, how their lives can be so perfect. And that is, it turns out, the crux at the center of Deadwater Fell: They aren’t.
The first episode of this series seems deeply invested in showing us this Instagram version of both the Kendricks and the Campbells lives, filtered and polished and posed in a way that no real couple could ever truly achieve. Life is idyllic and lovely in the quaint village of Kirkdarroch, at least, until it isn’t. Because even as Deadwater Fell is depicting happy family outings to the beach, the scenes are interspersed with a house burning down.
The metaphor, as you can see, is not subtle.
At its heart, Deadwater Fell is a story about perception – how much can we ever truly know one another? Who are our neighbors, really? And who are we, beneath the shining facades we show to others? Who are the selves we present to the world, and how do they mesh with our real identities, the people who lurk in the shadows when no one’s looking?
The Kendricks’ perfect life is shattered is shattered by tragedy, when a massive fire engulfs their home. Though his BFF Steve barrels inside to try and save the day, Tom is the only survivor. Everyone is devastated, until the news comes out that the deaths of the Kendricks women weren’t an accident. The fire was premeditated, every member of the family was injected with an unidentified substance before they died, and the girls’ bedroom door was padlocked shut. Their Instagram worthy self-presentation clearly covered a much darker reality.
But what is that reality? That appears to be the mystery that this show will aim to solve. Who started the fire that brought the Kendricks’ perfect life crashing down? Was it a psychotic stranger, someone who crashed into their idyllic town and ruined everything, as some seen desperate to believe? Or was it someone much closer to home?
Deadwater Fell deftly mixes flashbacks with its current day setting to both underline and muddy our understanding of these characters. We learn that Kate has been struggling with depression in the five years since the birth of her disabled youngest daughter, and we see her have several outbursts that feel out of proportion to the events going on around her. We also see her – via CCTV footage – buying the padlock that would ultimately trap her daughters in their bedrooms.
Elsewhere, Jess Campbell’s memories clue us into the fact that she’s had sex with her best friend’s husband at least once, commiserated with him frequently about Kate’s often difficult behavior, and was with her during an argument that lead to a fairly serious car accident. Despite the demonstrable closeness between the two women, and Jess’ very real grief over her death, the two friends clearly had secrets from one another, and they weren’t they only ones.
Tom himself wasn’t perfect either, and may or may not be entirely trustworthy. His first words upon waking in the hospital incriminate his dead wife (“What did she do?”), but….isn’t that precisely what a guilty man eager to shift suspicion from himself would say? Plus, at least one of his supposedly closest friends already suspects him, insisting that he must be the person behind Kate and the girls’ deaths.
True, in cases like this, there’s a reason why the police almost always start by investigating husbands and significant others. The idea of a random stranger showing up in town to kill an entire family generally just doesn’t happen. Most crimes are committed by someone the victim knew and was close to. Which…doesn’t sound great for Tom.
Tennant’s performance plays into this assumption as well – for all his perfect dad and husband credentials, he also frequently comes off as extremely unnerving. Is he trustworthy? Or is he just another man who couldn’t handle being married to a woman he couldn’t control?
The mystery is why we’re watching, after all.
Thoughts on Deadwater Fell’s first episode? Let’s discuss in the comments.