There are certain settings that are godsend for writers of episodic crime dramas. Carnivals, science-fiction conventions, fashion shows: If you’re a regular consumer of this genre, chances are you’ve seen many episodes set against these backdrops. They’re perfect for standalone mid-season “Petri Dish” episodes, where the show’s protagonists can be suspended in unfamiliar settings amid colorful supporting characters and relatively flamboyant murders. Of these usual suspects, Submarine is one of my favorite settings: the low-oxygen, high-stakes environment brings out fundamental aspects of every character, plus the whole thing is inherently a closed-room mystery. One of the pillars of the detective comedy genre in the 2000s, Monk, for example, had an extremely entertaining submarine episode. The films Crimson Tide (1995) and The Hunt for Red October (1990) were both good, solid, old-fashioned thrillers that also made good use of their submarine backgrounds.
Vigil (now available in India on Lionsgate Play), a six-part BBC series written and created by Tom Edge, arguably trumps these previous efforts with ease. What starts out as a murder mystery on a submarine, expands into a spy drama, a behind-the-scenes political thriller, and even a PTSD narrative about overcoming love. That Vigil does it all while maintaining a breathless pace of plot progression by letting you know just how effective Edge’s script is.
Detective Chief Inspector Amy Silva (Surne Jones) is tasked with investigating a murder aboard HMS Vigil, a “Vanguard-class” ballistic missile submarine off the coast of Scotland, one of the UK’s four ‘persistent-at-sea’ ‘ Nuclear is one of the deterrents. The Vigil, an eyesore for anti-nuclear activists, is led by Commander Neil Newsom (Patterson Joseph) and Lieutenant Commander Mark Prentiss (Adam James), who, detested to cooperate with Silva, seek their own leadership. Eager to cover failures. The victim, Chief Petty Officer Craig Burke (Martin Compston), was a whistleblower who claimed dirt on his superiors and fellow officers alike. Silva’s associate Detective Sergeant Kirsten Longcre (Rose Leslie), with whom she has a complicated romantic history, is doing her best to help her in the above ground. And to complicate things, Silva experienced PTSD triggers and an anti-depressant withdrawal on Vigil, as she survived years earlier due to a traumatic drowning accident that claimed her boyfriend’s life.
Meanwhile, the Navy, led by Rear Admiral Shaw (Stephen Dillon) and his colleague Lieutenant Commander Erin Branning (Lolita Chakraborty), is doing its best to keep the investigation as calm as possible. The opening two episodes are the closest vigil to a traditional detective drama, as Silva and Longcrew begin to make steady inroads into the case, no thanks to the Navy. An early scene where we see Silva struggling to sleep in a tiny bunk bed is shot impressively – in fact, the cinematography is excellent, making the most of its claustrophobic spaces.
But as is the case with a lot of BBC plays, it’s the performances that sell the thing, really. I counted three actors from Hustle and Game of Thrones (both good old-fashioned potboilers, respectively) – Patterson Joseph and Adam James played memorable, colorful villains on Hustle, while Chakraborty made a cameo as a British-Indian curator. did. Dylan played Stannis Baratheon on Game of Thrones, of course, while Rose Leslie played fan favorite Ygritte “The Wildling.” Of these, Leslie and James have the most challenging characters here: Kirsten Longcrew has to deal with a bullying Mi5 and her on-again, off-again feelings towards Silva. Lieutenant Commander Prentice, who by his own admission has devoted his entire life to the Navy (married to an admiral’s daughter for good measure), collapses after Silva turns the interrogation screw on him. In the hands of lesser actors, these passages could have come across as tired, but both Leslie and James hit it out of the park, it has to be said.
Where the show really finds its voice, however, are episodes 3-6 where Vigil turns up the detective and body count, as connecting the dots between the murders of Longcrew and Silva Burke and an elaborate plot to continually shut down the UK. Let’s begin a nuclear-deterrent program based on security (the matter for a vote in the near future, and how many foreign powers want to influence British lawmakers). The best moments in these episodes feel like a cross between House of Cards and Broadchurch, with Jones anchoring the show with a powerhouse performance.
Overall, Vigil leaves no stone unturned in delivering a top-of-the-line thriller that balances its cerebral and emotional beats perfectly. And although it’s a self-contained story with definite resolution on all narrative fronts, I like more adventures featuring Silva and Longcre.