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In case you missed it the finale of BBC drama ‘The Missing’ wrapped up last night and it was a huge ratings hit bringing in 6.6 million viewers or 28.5% of the UK’s TV audience. It was such a hit that already season two is on the way. Was it actually any good though? Not really
When you are writing a missing person story like ‘The Missing’ there are two ways to go at things. Either you write a character piece where you focus on the trauma and pain of the crime. Solving the actual mystery isn’t the point. Alternatively, you write a puzzle piece, a true mystery story where each detail of the plot slots together with a clever intricate beauty.
Both stories can be great. Donna Tartt’s ‘The Little Friend’ does the character piece brilliantly and you don’t have to look further than Agatha Christie to see how great a pure mystery can be. Mismatches of the two however tend to end up falling between two horses. Unfortunately, ‘The Missing’ did just this and ends up getting trampled under the weight of its own ambition.
The Character Piece
Anchored by brilliant acting from James Nesbit ‘The Missing’s’ strength has been showing how characters can get trapped in the past and struggle to move on with their lives.
Understandably, Nesbit’s character Tony Hughes is unwilling to move on from the kidnapping of his son. His ex-wife tries to move on but she is also trapped by the past. The detective Baptiste is trapped by previous trauma also not only from his injured leg but also from his drug addict daughter. The pedophile Vincent Bourg is similarly trapped by his past/character and ultimate hangs himself.
You could go through pretty much every character in ‘The Missing’ and find how they are held hostage by demons that trace back in one way or another to the disappearance of Oliver Hunt.
As the series wraps up some of the characters move on from the past and others don’t. The character arks of almost every character are done well. Every character that is except the protagonist Tony Hughes.
The problem with Tony Hughes is that he is the driving force of the story the protagonist. It is Tony whose refusal to let go of the past that begins and continues the story.
Tying up the solution to the disappearance and Tony’s character are interlinked and the writers never seem to decide whether they are telling a mystery or a character piece. The end result is that they do neither and it is unsatisfying.
As the finale enters it’s third act Tony’s character starts to unravel. At first Tony seems to accept Baptiste’s maxim that he will never know the whole truth and it is time to move on. We see real personal growth for Tony.
After much soul searching, brilliantly acted soul searching, Tony Hughes decides not to tell the wife that her dying husband killed Olly he decides not to take some measure of petty vengeance. Similarly, at the wedding when the detective calls lets it go to voicemail. He is no longer chasing after every impossible clue.
That all seems okay. What could be the problem? The problem comes with how this intersects with the plot i.e. it doesn’t. To hook the viewer into watching the episode the writers opened the finale with a cryptic scene is Russia where a lone figure is trooping through the snow and staring at children. After a minute or so the camera zooms in and we see a picture of a stick kid with big ears traced onto snowy glass. In other words it was drawn by Olly.
This scene deliberately draws you in. Doubly so since we are very deliberately not shown the face of the lone figure. WTF?
Ultimately, though it turns out that the writers have played a trick on us. After seeming to have let go of the past Tony is still hunting his son. All his character development has been tossed away in order to deliver a cheap hook to keep us watching.
If the writers want to leave Tony trapped in the past then they should never had this opening scene. They should never had given us any answers to Oliver’s disappearance.
Or even better if they want to give answers about Oliver’s disappearance then Tony should have ended up in prison for the murder of Ian Garret. Just imagine he goes to chase down a final lead that will lead him towards his son but then the police turn up to arrest him. Tony’s past, the understandable sins he committed, have caught up with him and for a kicker the police don’t believe his lead.
In the end though the writers attempt to split the difference. As a result the mystery of disappearance isn’t satisfyingly told and neither is the character journey of Tony Hughes.
‘The Missing’ then fails to deliver the ending that it promised.