Two cultural moments for this post, one crime fiction, the second true crime.
Firstly, The Unforgotten has returned to ITV with season 5, and a new charactor. Jesse James, played by Sinead Keenan who takes over from Nicola Walker’s Cassie Stewart. Walker’s understated but masterful portrayal of Stewart and her relationship with Sunny Khan, played by Sanjeev Bahsker, was so central to the series, that at the end of seasons 4, her untimely death left many wondering if Unforgotten would be returning.
Return it has, and it felt like a huge risk to replace a charactor who in the hands of a lesser talent may have faded into the background. No one wanted a replacement for Cassie that tries to be a carbon copy, and yet no one could quite under//stand how the show would work without her. Which is partly why Bahsker’s portrayal of a prolonged and quietly destructive grief for Sunny’s colleage, which underlined his day-to-day life felt so real and present.
Jess, is a charactor who we only get to see on what could be the worst week of her life, while also starting a role where she has massive shoes to fill. So in many ways, despite watching her solve her first case with the team, with more downs than ups, we still have not really got to know who she is, and there is much about her yet to be discovered.
In the journey’s of both Jess and Sunny, we see the seeds of what has made Chris Lang’s series so extrodinary. It’s adherance to the principle that drama does not have to be dramatic, there is enough story in the quiet reality of people’s lives to be mined that we don’t need to rely on the flashy criminal mastermind or increasingly unrealistic serial killer signatures.
In season 5 we also saw the series stray into a more political territory than it has occupied before, building in themes around the legacy of the slave trade, racisim and the impact of austerity an agenda which has been a narrative dropped by main stream media recently due to the omni-shambles of the country. The Unforgotten has addressed some issues around racisim before, with Sunny’s quite disaproval of Rami Sidhu played by Phalduit Shama, but it has never before looked at it’s structural qualities, or how historically those who do the most damage, pay the smallest price.
Secondly, in the Saturday Guardian, Lucinda Rosenfeld wonders about the if women who commit horrible crimes but are also abused by the men they commit those crimes, for or with are victim or villian. The more I have read true crime, the more I have pondered this. Ghislaine Maxwell, Rose West and Myra Hindley have all made me ask this question over time. West was 15 and Hindley 18 when they met the undoubtably manipulative and violent men they commited their heanous crimes with. Maxwell is a different matter having been a full adult when she started her international sex trafficking ring with Epstein. She had however, as Pollock details, been terribly abused by her father and grew up in an undoubtably toxic environment.
It is a conversation that is about more than just guilt, and mitigating circumstances though. The age of criminal responsibility has always been difficult to define, and even more so now that we realise a change of date does not convay anyone with sudden maturity, personal growth or self awareness and personal responsibility. In fact we probably all know people who faily to exhibit one or all of these qualities despite their age. If we are truely honest, depending on stress levels, health and a myriad other life factors we probably all fall short on some of these counts at times. However, I would hope my readers are not falling short to the amount that they commit crime and after thinking about the question of criminal responsibility and abuse the topic becomes even more thorny.
There is however a more difficult question underlying all of it. This is a question that is not often asked or talked about, but I believe has had an impact on many of the worse behaviours in our society, lack of tolerance of others, political difference spilling over into violent speach and actions, othering of minorities and the general and previously mentioned omni-shambles of society. It is our inability to see anything as having more than one fascet.
As a society we want things to either be black or white, good or bad, to neatly fit into an easy box. Thing about life, which is messy, and constantly changing is that it is never, or rarely that simple. It is interesting to note that it is often cultures that have developed alongside monotheistic belief systems as opossed to polytheistic that needs this fixed and rigid definitions.
We do women no favours if we discount their violence, their crimes or the great damage we can do and only see them as victims. More importantly we compound the damage they have done to their victims. We, however also do wrong if we don’t take into account the fact that we live in a society where it is all to easy for impressionable, vulnerable women to be manipulated by older, more powerful men. My answer to the question that we should never be asking, if these women are victims or villian, is instead to let go of the pervasive “perfect victim,” fallacy and accept that a great deal of the time, people can be both.