“I don’t want this to explode.”
Just before the halfway mark of this Babylon season (or series) finale, Charles visits the break room of the armed-response cops who are striking during a riot. The reasons why are varied but all traceable to Sharon: some are protesting her nascent plan to introduce a PCSOs-to-full-police-officers pipeline, while others are acting in solidarity with Banjo, who feels thrown under the bus by Sharon’s off-the-cuff remark that his murdering-a-trash-can footage might men reopening his investigation. Charles’ speech is mostly bullshit; he admits as much right a the top. But he’s also serious about inspiring them to go back to work—serious about leading the police in a way he hasn’t been when walking through the halls of HQ. Paterson Joseph’s performance quietly peels back Charles into the cop he used to be, once upon a time, before the lifetime of compromises and disasters we’ve had a sample of changed Charles into the overcautious bureaucrat he’s become. And it’s enough to singlehandedly change Liz’s mind about which candidate for Commissioner she’s backing.
It would be impossible for Babylon to wrap every story it’s introduced in its six episodes. In fact, it wraps very few; besides largely-throwaway subplots like Davina and Clarkey (poor kids can’t seem to make themselves particularly narratively important even when they sneak off for a quickie during the riot), there are still questions about what sort of revenge Matt will rain down on the London police for being unlawfully arrested by two crooked cops, what, what the Commissioner plans to do in the wake of the nightclub shooting, how to clean up the mess from the strike, and what will happen to poor Tony. As such, what’s here is great, but what’s missing or left behind is an absence duly felt; in case this is the only season we get, Babylon asks you to accept the kind of uncertainty its characters are constantly facing.
One of the biggest what-ifs is Sharon, whose character has been visibly altered by the glimmer of hope in the Commissioner post and the crashdown from the swiftly-tilting stage she immediately found herself on. She’s been one of the cannier HQ types for most of the series, and her downfall is nicely positioned to be a matter of reaction, not of failure. Sharon up on the podium choosing a single sentence in front of the town-hall assembly has, by now, a tension built in without even needing the percussive cue—as soon as she mentioned reopening the investigation (the only response possible at the time) she lost the existing police, and we knew it would come back to sting her. Her reaction to that was to pull back from grand gestures, which (despite Liz’s feeling) was probably a pragmatic option, however rhetorically disappointing. And when Liz throws her to the wolves during an interview that’s far more formal and punitive than she expected, she recognizes exactly what’s happened to her. (What happens to her is cringingly, laugh-out-loud awkward.) But she’s not a fool—she rarely is—and the accusation for Liz that drips in every syllable of “Maybe you can play rough” should linger for a while.
Liz does play rough this episode. She plays so rough that even Charles can’t turn her away when she asks to come over to his side. She plays so rough that the post-coital subtext I mentioned from last episode spills over here through sheer force of will, as if Liz, without meaning to, has given up appeals to logic and is going to just long-game him into being pliable. For what it’s worth, it’s totally working—one grip of the hand in the car and one soulful elbow-cupping during the ethical debate and he’s giving her lingering stares. I’m not sure it’s a better use of their dynamic than the subtext, which was working just fine and had that particular hateful intimacy that’s so hard to do well and was done so well here that I hate to lose it. But no matter how many snipey asides they hurl at one another, as soon as they were almost absentmindedly standing side by side in the war room, it was clear that, one way or another, the way they relate to each other has changed.
In the first episode of this series, I talked about how this show’s ground-level satire mapped occasionally uncomfortably close over current events in the States. This episode, which featured incriminating tape (by six and a half minutes into this episode, the footage of Banjo beating the living crap out of a trash can the day of the nightclub shooting is out across the nation), tense town hall meetings, civil protest about death by cop that get co-opted by rioters, and a police department concerned more with reputation then with civil service or even civil order, might have been the series’ most pointed yet. And though the rioting happens largely in the background of the episode and is positioned more as a narrative stumbling block than a moral stance the show wants to address (it helps that some looting and broken windows seem to be as bad as it gets), it’s both fascinating and disconcerting to see decisions being made largely on TV screens or through riot-cams. One of the fundamental fulcrums of the show has been disconnection and surveillance and their complex relationship to law enforcement, and “London” makes the difference clear whether in a police war room or watching Robbie and Banjo pocket the evidence that Robbie planted the gun.
When Charles and Liz sit down at season’s end to release Matt’s footage of the confession and announce the arrest of Banjo and Robbie, it’s a heavy moment. Not for the implied fates of Banjo and Robbie—they burned up any goodwill a while ago—but the scene’s structured to give the room the feeling of a turning point. There will be, no doubt, a disaster on top of this disaster (Liz and Finn go back and forth about whether releasing the footage will cause more rioting even though it’s a gesture of transparency.) But that suspense leaves the show the way it’s carried it—that the unknown disaster is inevitable, that the balance between morality and good PR is fluid and open to interpretation, that chaos is the natural state, that it’s mostly bullshit, and it’s just a matter of taking disasters one press conference at a time.
- Nicola Walker’s performance during Sharon’s interview was viscerally embarrassing, in the best way. (The worst way?) It’s topped only by the self-awareness of her telling Tom, “You’re not with the groom’s party; you’re with me.” Hell is HQ.
- Any time Bertie Carvel and Nicola Walker want to join together for a side-eye competition, I am happy to referee.
- In fact, pretty much anyone in this cast is welcome to join anyone else on this cast to do whatever; the ensemble work on this series has been great.
- I laughed at the shot in Charles’ office when Finn’s reflected on one edge of the office window and Liz in the other, with Charles in the middle trying to process their arguments. Great use of the fishbowl-windows by Sally El Hosaini.
- This show does an excellent job of asking you to find characters interesting without necessarily finding them sympathetic, but I won’t lie, I was thrilled when I saw Tony filching that USB, and even more thrilled when Liz decided not to bury it. He’s been a quietly moral guy at the center of the most unstable quad in London, and she’s been known to make the same calls everyone makes, that are good in the moment and disasters immediately afterward. It was nice to see him look for someone to trust; it was nice that, even if it’s just this one time, she could be that person.
- Babylon hasn’t exactly been widely watched, but it’s made a very good case for its quality. Thanks to everyone who’s been watching and reading!