TV, 2021, 4 stars
Created by: Tom Edge
First Run: 2021 (1 season - renewed for season 2!)
Normally I’m not spoiler shy in my reviews, but for suspense you really need to be. Come at it fresh, with no idea about what’s going to happen, so you can enjoy the twists and turns as they are thrown at you, and this show is bendy and filled with red herrings.
All you need (and want) to know about the plot of Vigil ahead of time is this. A sailor has died on an active duty nuclear submarine off the coast of Scotland. The sub was in British waters at the time, so that places whatever occurred under the jurisdiction of Scottish police rather than the navy. DCI Amy Silva (Gentleman Jack charmer Suranne Jones) is despatched to investigate, carrying with her only a small duffle bag, her steely gaze, and a boatload of emotional baggage.
Silva enlists the help of DS Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie) to run the parallel on-land investigation. She trusts Kirsten’s abilities, and knows that with their personal history (they are exes by now) they have a shorthand that will allow them to send coded messages to each other that others would have no hope of deciphering. The two women bury their past and their feelings as best they can long enough to battle the Navy, MI5, politicians, enemy submarines, spies, and all other manner of bad guys on their way to the truth.
There is something that you have to get past if you’re going to enjoy Vigil. This is a nonsensical, made-up yarn. IT’S FICTION. It’s not trying to convince us that a Scottish detective would ever realistically be called out to a submarine in order to investigate a death which turns into a deadly international event and coverup. There’s hundreds of ways in which Vigil invites suspension of disbelief. You just have to get with the premise and go with it. If you can’t, you’ll think this is all intolerable.
The fact is, much like other military and cop shows, lawyer shows, political dramas, or medical procedurals, Vigil is meant as a suspense-filled drama with a bit of romance. Much like watching an episode of Game of Thrones, as long as the universe is internally consistent, has rules we can understand, and doesn’t entirely and without explanation bend the laws of physics, I’m happy.
To use an inherently British phrase, it is a ripping story, but I want to talk about the women. Their relationship - both now and in the past - is a given. Nobody has a problem with it (except perhaps Silva herself, remember the emotional baggage?) and it’s never a thing that impacts their work or their competency in doing it. The barest of connections is built quickly, just enough to hook us. The writers never let us forget this emotional bond, and they fill in the gaps and build proof points of their past as we need to know them. The end result is we can feel the pain, longing, and regret between them palpably, even though in present day they spend almost the entire series apart. Such a tricky line, but it’s walked skillfully.
Rose Leslie and Suranne Jones have great chemistry. Fact. For Kirsten, the juxtaposition of her in flashback as smiling, carefree and falling in love, with the present day where she’s obviously been burned but remains stolidly professional, is heartbreaking. There’s no attempt from Kirsten Longacre to ever hide how she feels. Even during the investigations, her face grows fierce, angry, quizzical, she’s an open book.
We know from the flashbacks that this was what she was like in her relationship too, and Amy’s reluctance to show emotion drives her to fury. Here, in the present, she’s driven to help Amy in any way she can though still grieving, she’s driven to get to the truth, and barely holds it together as she gradually realises Amy’s predicament out there on the submarine where she can’t get to her.
Suranne Jones has a completely different job in the show. Amy Silva wrestles with submariners, obstacles and distractions in the case, personal anxiety, and crippling claustrophobia. While Kirsten battles external foes, much of Amy’s battle is fought within. Kirsten naturally wears her heart openly, Amy is naturally closed off.
You can see from the start that Amy’s inability to commit and declare her feelings is what broke them apart in the first place. Even her own bisexuality puzzles her. To solve the mystery and keep herself alive, Amy must learn to work through her issues and frustration, and trust the men and women around her who have their own self-absorbed reasons for derailing her progress.
To have any chance of seeing each other again to fix what’s broken, each woman must embrace something that is unnatural to her. Amy must learn trust and depend on others, Kirsten must learn to swallow her emotions and just run the case. She knows her ability to do her job dispassionately could save Amy’s life. Neither is always successful, which feeds the other suspense elements of the story perfectly. They each fuck up, sometimes in painful ways with horrible consequences.
It’s not at all unusual for British crime drama to end unsatisfactorily. It’s a staple of the genre. There is no right or wrong, moral ambiguity is the whole point. The good guys don’t always win. The heroes are often scarred forever. Sometimes they die in shocking and surprising ways. You don’t always know why the bad guy did what they did, you only know you beat them in a way, but at a huge cost. Sometimes all that’s achieved is the status quo, and the world could go on, as if none of it had ever happened.
I loved Vigil because quite frankly, beating the bad guys in a police procedural is not usually an occupation for a pair of openly queer women. It doesn’t break any new ground for representing sexuality on TV, but what it did does do is entirely normalise the presence of queer women within a genre that is soaked in masculinity. It also normalises using the strengths of being a woman to solve problems. Quite frankly, many of the reviews (by men) have been downright scathing of Vigil, and you can tell that this is one of these “unrealistic” things that bothers them about it. This makes me sublimely happy.