/ 22 December 2015

Television’s intrigues (nearly) rivalled local politics

Eva Green as Vanessa Ives in "Penny Dreadful"
Eva Green as Vanessa Ives in "Penny Dreadful"

Not since Londoners wept in the streets when Little Nell died in Charles Dickens’s serialised The Old Curiosity Shop has there been such collective investment in a fictional narrative. Or perhaps it’s not since “Who shot JR?” became a burning question for Dallas watchers – at that time, apparently, everyone with a television.

I speak of the death of Jon Snow at the end of season five of Game of Thrones – and only two episodes after he thrillingly whacked an ice lord with his sword of Valyrian steel.

Since that final episode, and as the makers of Game of Thrones began shooting season six (to be aired in April 2016), speculation has seethed: Is Jon Snow really, really dead, or can he be brought back to life?

The precise length of actor Kit Harington’s hair has been carefully monitored: if he cut it, that meant he wasn’t coming back to the series. Tiny narrative details were interrogated for any sign of future developments – the red witch, who we know can bring people back to life, was in the vicinity when Jon Snow was murdered … and so on. A television series was given the kind of close reading usually reserved for Shakespeare or Keats; the interpretive arabesques that exfoliated therefrom were worthy of the most pernickety biblical exegeses.

At least Game of Thrones gave us a profoundly dramatic climax, not to mention a cliffhanger of note. Other series of the year managed less well.

The recent five-part British drama London Spy was built on a conspiracy theory and a set of very strong performances. It kept one gripped, but the final episode went so far over the top that it rather undercut the credibility of what had gone before.

Penny Dreadful, a brilliant rejig of Victorian Gothic that brings together such varied characters as Dr Frankenstein, Dorian Gray and the Wolf Man, will be back in mid-2016 with season three.

The big question is whether the Wolf Man, played by Josh Hartnett, will be back – the end of season two sent all the main characters in different directions. What will bring them back together? Or will we have to do without Hartnett, perhaps until late in the season?

Such questions are nearly as compelling as the one about how long Jacob Zuma’s ice-lord grip on power can last.

Meanwhile, in an alternative history, the Germans and the Japanese have won World War II and have divided North America between them. This is the adaptation of Philip K Dick’s famous novel The Man in the High Castle. The series replots the novel, but it has the right feeling of paranoia and oppression. It’s also very gripping and has good-looking leads. All 10 episodes are available simultaneously on Amazon TV, so that’s a whole lot of your holiday time accounted for already.

And, in a parallel universe, viewers of Mr Robot are wondering precisely when this motley bunch of Anonymous-style hackers is going to bring down global capitalism. The first season ended somewhat confusingly, in part because the protagonist has mental problems that cause his sense of reality to waver at times.

What the finale should have done is resolve the mystery set up in the previous episode (what happened to the bad guy who disappeared?) before setting up the puzzle to be solved in season two.

But no, Mr Robot happily left many loose ends untied, producing not so much a cliffhanger as a feeling of bafflement. But we’ll still be watching season two to find out what the hell is going on. And when global capitalism is finally going to fall.