It’s important to know, first of all, that the entire plot of The Widow hinges on a ratty orange trucker cap imprinted with the word Rumpel4skin. Yes, Rumpel4skin. This is supposedly a serious drama about murder, about corruption in the Democratic Republic of Congo, about one audacious woman’s mission to discover the truth about a plane crash that killed her husband. But there that cap is, bridging the yawning divide between German fairy tales and male genitalia with a brain-bendingly bad pun. After you see it, you can never quite move on.
Georgia (Kate Beckinsale) certainly can’t. Early on in The Widow, in the first of its seesawing flashbacks, she’s reminded by her aid-worker husband, Will (Matthew Le Nevez), that he wears the cap because it transports him back to his glory days in a band. The cap is on his head when he calls Georgia from an airport in the DRC to tell her he’s on his way home. Three years later, after Will supposedly died that day in a plane crash, Georgia is watching the news in a doctor’s office when she sees a flash of orange on the head of a dark-haired man caught up in a riot in Kinshasa. From this, she intuits that Will is still alive, and that it’s imperative that she fly to the DRC to find him.
Imagine everything that could go wrong in this scenario. Imagine a plummy Englishwoman with a burning sense of righteousness and a swishy ponytail blundering around an African country, making no attempts to speak any language that’s not English and demanding that people do things for her. Consider how much worse it gets when she ropes in an old acquaintance, played by Charles Dance, for backup, meaning that the beleaguered police officers and hospital workers of Kinshasa suddenly have to deal with Tywin Lannister speaking very loudly and slowly to Make. The. Locals. Understand. Try to visualize all this happening while the actors wrestle with expository dialogue creakier than old floorboards: “Things in the east aren’t exactly stable right now.” “These people can’t get water unless we plough through miles of red tape.” “You gave me a bag with a laptop inside. Didn’t think you’d see me again, did you?”
The Widow is a co-production of Amazon and Britain’s ITV, written by Harry and Jack Williams. It echoes, almost to the letter, ideas that the brothers have mined in previous shows, such as Starz’s The Missing, about a father who reopens the case for his missing son after he glimpses a scarf in a photograph, and Strangers, in which a man’s wife has been killed in a car crash on the opposite side of the world—or has she? Somehow, though, The Widow is unutterably worse. From the start, there’s something profoundly graceless about seeing Georgia—a woman who has supposedly lost everything but carries herself with the vacant poise of a minor royal—give so little consideration to the country she’s in or the people she drafts into her mission. White privilege isn’t exactly short on exemplars these days, and yet I’m stuck on the image of Georgia in a rural village, charging up to people waiting for medical aid and thrusting a photograph of her husband in their face.
It’s easy to see how the show might have been conceived as a grisly, Tarantino-style revenge drama, with the widow scattering bodies and chaos in her wake like a Pilates-honed John Wick. Beckinsale gives Georgia a certain balls-to-the-wall confidence in her action scenes that’s intermittently thrilling. Spread out over six hours of television, though, The Widow gets mired in the travails of minor characters and its interminable flashbacks. There’s a whole subplot involving a romance in Rotterdam between a blind piano tuner (Sherlock’s Louise Brealey) and an Icelandic man with a tragic past (The Missing’s Ólafur Darri Ólafsson). Playing an aid worker, Alex Kingston (ER, Moll Flanders) has clearly never met writing this one-dimensional. (“You want answers?” she says to Georgia in one scene. “You have to ask questions.”) The most interesting character is a general (Babs Olusanmokun) who sees ghosts in his living room, yet those ghosts do little more compelling than tidy his kitchen.
As far as plotting goes, the one thing The Widow does well is cliff-hangers. Each episode ends with a climactic standoff, or a shocking revelation, or a morsel of information to stoke the hunger for more. But by the eighth episode, or at least by the time the orange cap is teased yet again, it’s hard to care about a show that refuses to care about anything. With the Sundance series Liar, the Williamses employed sexual assault as a plot twist, exploiting the dynamics of he-said/she-said for grim suspense. With The Widow, they use Africa as a backdrop in the most graceless kind of way, trafficking in tropes and clichés, and then looping in moralistic montages to make A Point. “Hasn’t there been enough misery?” one character asks Georgia in the second episode. Enough, indeed.