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Babylon: “Hackney Wick”

Illustration for article titled Babylon: “Hackney Wick”
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“This is about finding the boy.”

In Babylon, there’s a certain meta element to the proceedings. Any character who steps forward out of the ensemble becomes part of the story, both in the greater arc of the series and by becoming a subject for the London press’ tireless lens. Either sense is doomed. In “Hackney Wick,” the Armored squad is taken to task, and Charles and Sharon’s step up to square off—for really secretive values of “square off”—as each of them guns for the Commissioner position. (Being a man of color or a woman is an angle, now; their respective camps assure them each one has the edge.) It’s not quite the series of gut punches that we got last episode, but it gives us an opportunity to see glimpses of Sharon and Charles we haven’t yet seen. And with Finn and Liz using them as game pieces and the usual daily disasters snowballing through the Yard, we know we’re already looking at somebody’s downfall.

Power on this show does more than corrupt. No one can keep hold of it for long precisely because of how slippery it is; it blinds you by its very nature, and makes you foolish. (“Giddy,” maybe.) Charles has been Acting Commissioner for about five minutes, and already he hopes to secure his tenure by telling the Mayor’s office he’s open to the sorts of outside considerations that make even Finn raise an eyebrow. And with only a fearmongering monologue and an inspirational index card from Liz, Sharon goes from a canny outsider to a pawn. The moment she said she wouldn’t be Liz’s sockpuppet, you knew it was just a matter of time before Liz was putting words in her mouth. (Nicola Walker sells the speech to the civilian-police PCSOs with absolutely sublime comic timing, minutes before delivering bad news with magnetic stillness; Sharon’s as screwed as anybody else, but it’s a great performance.)

And though Sharon wins the day, and Charles manages a flicker of ethics in the end, Finn and Liz alone seem aware of the larger stakes. Whether they’re aware of how excited they are to sharpen their claws at each other is yet to be determined. The first time we see Liz and Finn this episode, they’re so crowded into the frame it looks like they’re married in whatever circle of hell is reserved for vengeful PR directors who know how to manipulate copy. And while they’re no strangers to close-talk insult-hurling, her desperation and his smugness have created a level of honesty that’s its own sort of intimacy. His standoff with Liz in the elevator looks downright post-coital – loosened tie, The Lean, the extended eye contact. (Bertie Carvel is great in this episode; the genuine moment of ambivalence at the funeral and the extended beat of reading Liz here both work to scale him down from the edge of caricature at just the right time.)


If Finn is only minimally upset about Liz’s play, it makes sense. So much of strategy on Babylon is pointing a camera at other people’s mistakes and waiting for the right moment; working an angle when it comes up hardly even counts as a betrayal. The evidence, quite literally, is everywhere. Charles is caught renting out his cops, which becomes Sharon’s biggest advantage; the news camera swinging toward Sharon as she begins her speech is the most sinister lens so far. And Banjo, Tony, Warwick, and Robbie get called to the carpet for the nightclub shooting, where camera footage puts them all in the hot seat. Banjo crumbles on the scene, turning in Warwick to avoid further suspicion falling on himself; Robbie crumbles later, confessing to a camera he doesn’t even know is there. It’s a suspenseful build (with the interrogations themselves getting a little of the Danny Boyle-influenced quick-cutting), given how much they each have to hide. It‘s a tense mixture of selfishness and inevitability; Warwick’s limbo was never going to last, but it’s interesting to note who’s responsible for what. Tony, who’s tried to bring it up and gotten blowback for his kindness, delivers the party line when the chips are down. Banjo, who’s managed to overtake even Warwick in his downward slide, just waits for the camera to be pointed at someone else’s mistake.

(Speaking of cameras: Amid all the organic conflict this show generates at a remarkable clip, there are a few moments that feel structured from the outside rather than part of that great, inevitable build. Robbie isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but going to a documentarian’s house, drinking, and confessing to a crime while the documentarian is holding a phone seems avoidable even for him. I’m definitely still interested in what will happen when the documentary finally gets out, but it’s no wonder Matt looks at the footage like it’s a once-in-a-lifetime grail of good luck.)

Liz, on the other hand, has a smaller, more nuanced disaster in store as her conscience starts to worry her—maybe not even for ethical reasons so much as vocational ones. When she snaps at Finn in the elevator, promising, “This is about finding the boy,” it has both the ring of conviction and the tremor of doubt (and Finn twists that knife on his way out). Later, as she gets invested in the search, her grip on Sharon’s long-term position loosens, and when she realizes she’s viewing the child’s death as a PR loss as well as a lost life, Brit Marling delivers a great moment of Liz being brought up short. The series’ overall tone of inevitability doesn’t shift—she’ll keep navigating the falling rocks because she has to run or get crushed—but Liz is clearly thinking about what, exactly, she’s choosing every time she starts running this gauntlet. That’s already going to be bad news for Sharon; it’s less clear what kind of news it will be for Liz.

Stray observations:

  • Ella Smith does great work delivering Greek-chorus reactions in Mia’s split-seconds of screen time; her lack of a subplot may be all the better for Mia, given how this ensemble works. (In this episode she distinguishes herself briefly during the search and gets to make the “We found a corpse” phone call for her trouble.)
  • Liz gets the win over Finn by leaning on Sharon’s impulses to increase ties between community and police. Sharon’s spoon-fed speech about community officers’ importance feels like a smart move in the moment and a disaster waiting to happen. (So, like most things on this show.)
  • Finn, assessing the white male candidates Charles is up against for Commissioner: “It’s like staring into the crowd at a fucking Genesis concert.”
  • “Fire extinguishers. On fire!” It’s a hard monologue. This is not the best ending.
  • “But an open, friendly, accountable Death Star,” meanwhile, lands better, with an assist from Nicola Walker as Sharon quickly reassesses whether this is the person she wants at the head of her strategy team. (Not enough, I suspect, but still, she reassesses!)
  • “This isn’t some shit with Robson Green on a bike solving crimes in fucking Cornwall.” This is an actual show; it’s just odd it took so long for Robson Green’s crime-solving to turn to the picturesque.
  • Knobbo started out as a walking sexual-harassment seminar to give Davina and Clarkey someone to despise. He’s still breezily appalling, but at this point he might be the only one secure with themselves, which makes him both awful and somehow calming, like a misogyny pull-toy plush.
  • Whatever Banjo plans to do about discovering his wife’s plans to move on, we can all probably just expect them to be awful.
  • This show often moves too fast for more than perfunctory cinematography—if you catch every long-suffering eyeroll from the cast, you’ve done what you came to do—but it’s always nice to get a striking shot outside HQ. Director Sally El Hosaini’s shot of Mia leaving the apartment block at episode’s end is quiet, but gorgeously composed.

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