“Welcome to the Inside!”, one character says to another at the end of the finale. It is quite a simple yet deep attack on our idea of justice. That is perhaps the most unique and compelling aspect of BBC’s new thriller drama, Inside Man. While all along we were occupied with what seemed like the central conceit – a rescue mission to save a maths tutor and a teenager – writers were hiding the highlight for the very last minutes.
In the absence of that meeting, this review wouldn’t have been as positive. Inside Man may not have a chunky season with flashy editing or camerawork, but its precise characterizations and weighty themes told in a simple fashion ensure a very rewarding watch.
While the plot is fairly simple and may be naive to a fault, here is a brief summary. Janice, a maths tutor, is inadvertently locked up in the cellar of the local Vicar, Harry, after she discovers child pornography on a flash drive given to her by Ben, Harry’s son.
Beth, a journalist, had earlier met with Janice on the tube, where the latter helped the former wade off a pervert. She gets what seems like an SOS message from Janice. It coincides with her meeting in a US prison with a death row inmate, Professor Jefferson Grieff.
He takes up cases for people, looking for redemption for killing and mutilating his wife. Beth requests him to take her friend’s case and he obliges. The cat and mouse game is also one of the conflicting philosophies and moral turpitude, as much as it is a titillating search for Janice.
At just four episodes long, there wasn’t a lot of time for dilly-dallying. Some of the choices made in Inside Man are tailor-made with that reality in mind. Right in the first episode we get attuned to the mechanics of the plot and by the time episode 2 starts, we are already behind the action.
Inside Man’s cleverness comes from its creator Steven Moffat. He did it earlier with Sherlock and Doctor Who, two of the most successful shows to come from England in recent times. Moffat optimally uses the setting of a prison and the Vicar’s house to keep the exposition generously in balance.
The probe is equally inward as it is outward to solve the mystery of Janice’s disappearance. The point of view from which we access the plot is a mostly neutral one, as there are no big reveals relevant to the plot, at least. A number of different ones could have been chosen. Janice’s survival bid, Jefferson’s self-introspection in jail, or even Ben’s suspicion that something isn’t right. But the one we see, where we know exactly what happens until the final fifteen minutes, is adequately paced and filled with information.
But this shouldn’t be taken to mean that it was all smooth sailing. Episodes 1 & 2 collectively did not inspire too much confidence as our perception of Janice was one of a damsel in distress. It was when Jefferson mentions that she is a smart and manipulative person, we actually began to see her so.
Dolly Wells expertly changed emotions in episode 3 which gave us a sense of tension. Her plan to turn the husband and wife against each other, and later Ben against his parents, started to unfurl. The last two episodes indeed brought back the interest in the storyline. As a viewer, the only way you can emotionally invest yourself in a movie or a show is through the characters.
It is fair to say that Inside Man’s ensemble, led by Dolly Wells and Stanley Tucci, did just that. Even when the big names weren’t on, characters like Mary (Lyndsey Marshal ), Beth (Lydia West), and Edgar (Mark Quartley) presented a challenging watch. The performances were quite engaging all around. One miss was the fact that you couldn’t properly sympathize with Janice by no fault of Wells’. She was just written not to be liked, despite being the most practical and heroic among them all.
The insights into the morality of justice through the wise words of Jefferson certainly brought an intellectual side to the show. Despite being billed as a mystery-thriller, Inside Man’s biggest highlight was this question of “moral worth” and moral character of actions that can be so easily perceived as a crime in the eyes of others.
The final exchange gave those final touches to the show overall. It really opens your eyes to what we missed in plain sight in the four episodes. “Inside men” lends a universal appeal and concept-stage feel to the show in hindsight that we wouldn’t have caught when it first started.