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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Babylon: “Thameside Centre”

Illustration for article titled Babylon: “Thameside Centre”
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“My kind of humor, well dark.”

Babylon has been so judicious elsewhere in its use of music—drums to underscore the action and very little else—that dropping Mazzy Star’s “Into Dust” in its final minutes feels like a very decisive move. Decisively sad, certainly; Miller vanishing into the water without a sound is meant to be a moment of emptiness, and it is. But it also feels like a very overt emotional cue from a show that has otherwise, so far, been very careful to avoid giving viewers many handholds. We know Finn is awful but has a view of the long game; Robbie’s a disaster who’s both the butt of the joke and painfully sympathetic; Sharon’s perhaps the most competent of the bunch but naturally that means we see less of her, while you can barely turn around without stepping into a cloud of Tom’s moist, fuck-up-y breath. But with Liz and Miller both shot in profile against the lonely city at night, and with such a melancholy song in the background, it feels like a show giving in to emotion, unable to stay objective any more.

And that’s fitting, since this was an episode all about the failure of objectivity. From the opening minutes—hapless Robbie gets pranked by his new team as they stage, of course, a suicide by jumper—“Thameside Centre” is about how objectivity holds no candle to inevitability. The emergency call will result in an actual bomb after they’ve dealt coolly with a dummy; Robbie will fall for the second trap just like he fell for the first; one admission of an affair will lead to another; the Deputy Mayor’s warning about the Commissioner being a volcano of bad news will pan out sevenfold. (Though not all of it happens neatly—Warwick carefully aiming his weapon at his television is quite literally a gun that doesn’t go off, and Babylon leaves it to us to decide whether that narrative demand is fulfilled by Miller’s death, or whether we consider that a portent of some other, later doom).

Among other things, Babylon can feel like an experiment in reframing tropes for effect. Miller as the stoic, beleaguered Commissioner trying to stay honest in a dishonest world could easily feed a full season of a different show: a well-meaning affair that fizzles out amicably, the forbidden love of your wife’s sister, a man who struggles with showing emotion seeking comfort, and the fallout. Instead, while we get the full brunt of Nesbitt’s outstanding still-waters-run-deep acting, it’s delivered to Liz in two rapid-fire bursts of awful news. The second round (a mistress who is, not was) is worse not just for the juicier scandal, but for being the very secret Liz begged him not to keep from her, a lie on top of all the others. Without the context of whatever those affairs might have given him, the words are sad, empty, foolish. It diminishes him. At the end, when we’re wondering what the hell his options are, he stands in the doorway looking at a family we’ve never met, unable to step closer and make himself any bigger in the frame. The rest is inevitable.


It’s also inevitable that after two episodes of good intentions and big ideas, Liz would have a major setback, and we know she’s going to lose her fight the moment Finn snaps that she can’t fill his shoes and the best rejoinder she can manage is, “I’ll wear thick socks.” The show has carefully avoided making her too much of a point-of-view character just because she’s an outsider. It pays off here, as Finn manages to be both awful and correct about Liz’s ambitions, the encroaching of private interests on the public sector, and what she’d been willing to do to Charlie to save the Commissioner from himself. And one of the episode’s most interesting character beats is Liz—whose home life’s a mess, whose every move this week is a miss—actually getting objectivity back when she pops the tension with Richard like a soap bubble with, “Would it have been me, next?” It comes near the end, after the lingering cheek kiss, after his gift of Metwork, and she’s finally right. Liz is moving backwards from the rest of the episode, gaining distance, and it means passing him by.

The actual bomb plot feels a little flat compared to the carefully stacking disasters of “Maze Hill”; it’s clearly just a backdrop to this personal bomb, and the payoff’s very nearly worth it. (Despite Liz’s emptiness making more sense, since she’s been saddled with hell and he’s in a hell of his own making, it’s him I feel sorry for when the montage hits—a failure of objectivity.)

It’s inevitable that every ignored phone call in this episode should have been answered; it’s inevitable that it probably wouldn’t have changed much about the outcome. Miller removing himself from the problem is inevitable. But what happens in his wake is suddenly wide open; it should be good.

Stray observations:

  • “Hey Girl. Is that a magazine?” The emergency operator was marvelous, but this line delivery was a gem.
  • “Do you do the Twitter Q&A? I love that.” This cop is working for the enemy.
  • “Liz, I hope it’s not inappropriate but I wondered if you had any plans tonight. There’s a Quaker meeting I go to and I thought you might like to join? It’s a very peaceful experience, you basically just sit in silence.”
  • It’s going to come back and haunt Robbie that, the one time he pulled out something close to a win, Matt wasn’t filming.
  • Daniel Kaluuya can make a meal from a single side-eye.
  • It’s been relatively low-key so far, but the affair between Davina and Clarkey has been deft and melodrama-free handling of two people whose affair has coated the rest of their lives: their inability to concentrate on other conversations all day was understated but well done.
  • The halo effect of the lighting in HQ works overtime for Miller this episode; either he looks out over tracks he can’t take, or it’s washed out behind him into white nothingness.

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