Collateral: A Netflix Murder-Mystery With a Conscience

And Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan in David Hare's 'Collateral,' a co-production between Netflix and the BBC

The first episode of Collateral, a new four-part miniseries co-produced by Netflix and the BBC, launches viewers right into the middle of a compelling mystery: A man delivering pizza in London is shot twice in the head in what seems to be a military-style assassination, with no immediate clues as to why. The only witnesses are a callous single mother (Billie Piper) and a Vietnamese immigrant high on ketamine (Kae Alexander). But as the episode plays out, it introduces a web of other people in different industries, all of whom seem to be connected. The early thrill of the series is in anticipating how on earth Collateral might be able to put the pieces together in a cohesive and plausible fashion.

Which, alas, it doesn’t. Collateral is the first scripted TV series from the playwright David Hare (Plenty, Skylight), who also wrote the screenplays for the 2002 movie The Hours and the 2016 Holocaust-denial drama Denial, as well as the Johnny Worricker spy trilogy starring Bill Nighy. Hare, by his own admission, did no research before writing Collateral, which is framed as a police drama but is actually an interrogation of the refugee crisis in Europe. Well, less of an interrogation, more of a lecture series. For a show ostensibly about migration, it spends 95 percent of its time with westerners, who argue incessantly about whether Britain has a right to protect its borders or is cruelly ignoring the plight of the desperately needy.

This could be a fruitful exercise, if tackled with care, and a willingness to find nuance in a subject that’s deeply fraught. But Hare, whose work has always had a polemicist strain, paints only in black and white. The characters in Collateral who oppose immigration are cartoon villains, including a sneering establishment MI5 agent who freely describes himself as a “mid-level English racist.” The others, including Carey Mulligan’s Detective Inspector Kip Glaspie and John Simm’s Labor politician David Mars, either apologize or orate furiously about moral duty, soapbox-style. Given that television is such an extremely visual medium, Hare’s decision to tell so much and show so little quickly becomes wearing.

There are parts of Collateral that are intriguing—at first. The story points into all different parts of the British establishment, including the army, the church, and the government, as well as shining some light on the horrific reality of living conditions in London for illegal immigrants, and the grind of the gig economy. But as the plot irons itself out, its holes grow bigger and bigger. What could become a thoughtful exploration of right-wing radicalization leads to a baffling subplot about PTSD, and Glaspie’s investigation begins to feel increasingly ancillary. Mulligan is a tremendous actor and she elevates every scene she’s in, but it’s hard to get past the continually reiterated and incredibly pointless biographical detail that her character used to be an Olympic pole vaulter.

When the writing isn’t incredibly stilted, it has something of a Steve-Buscemi-on-30-Rock feel, with its occasional references to “boy crushes” and “K-holes.” That said, three separate characters under 40 engage in the charming but archaic act of letter writing during the show’s four hours. And when it comes to exposition, no fact is left unreiterated:

Bad Guy One: Did she know what she was being paid for?
Bad Guy Two: Not at first, but she was always going to put two and two together. She was always asking, ‘What am I being paid for?’

All of which, coupled with the fact that the killer is revealed fairly early on, leads to a less-than-propulsive viewing experience. In an interview with The Times, Hare talked about wanting to be “ahead of the curve” in working within television, particularly given the subject matter. But TV has been rich terrain for writers for the last two decades. The best shows tied to topical flashpoints have a willingness to learn as well as lecture—to be occasionally open to opposing points of view. Collateral, by contrast, is a haranguing in serial form, by a political playwright who’s long looked at the world and found it lacking. Hare’s arguments, made through the mouthpiece of his characters, are sound—they just don’t make for great entertainment.

Directed by S.J. Clarkson (Jessica Jones, Ugly Betty), the series finds a strange kind of beauty in London’s bleaker corners. And Mulligan’s skeptical listening face, employed frequently, deserves a show all to itself. Collateral swiftly pulls you in with a dynamite mystery, but it soon becomes clear that solving it was never the show’s goal, no matter what viewers might want.