PBS' latest series, Flesh & Blood, opens in what looks to be the aftermath of a terrible accident. A house on the beach in the dark, rain and blood on the stones below, broken glass, perhaps a broken balcony, flashing lights from police cars, emergency responders trundling what looks to be a body away. And a voice, Mary (Imelda Staunton), telling the story of her next-door neighbors. She seems quite familiar with them all, not just the widowed wife, Vivian (Francesca Annis), who has lived next door for 40 years. She also knows her three now-grown children, Helen (Claudie Blakley), Jake (Russell Tovey), and Natalie (Lydia Leonard), and the new love in Vivian's life, Mark (Stephen Rea).
Mary: I should have known; a woman like Vivian wouldn't be single for five minutes.
As the curtain pulls back, viewers realize Mary is not narrating this for her health. Two policemen are in her living room, D.I. Doug Lineham (David Bamber) and P.C. Isaac Cory (Karen Gill). She's gleefully regaling them with all this gossip, thew saga of those next door as she serves tea, delighted, for once to be the center of attention and full of unnecessary detail.
So far, in 2020, PBS' Masterpiece Mysteries have been a long line of police procedurals. Starting with Vienna Blood back in January, these stories have all followed similar lines, male-dominated odd couple pairings in different periods, from the turn of the 20th century to the present day in Van Der Valk. Baptiste, Grantchester, Endeavour: all have been stories of men following clues and trying to figure out where they lead. Not so here. Sure there are plenty of clues and hints dropped all over the place in this opening episode. However, there are just as many red herrings. Viewers are left to discern where the truth lies with these characters, all of whom are lying openly, lying covertly, or lying to themselves. And the question is, how much benefit of the doubt do we give them? Who do we assume is the victim of circumstance, and who is behaving suspiciously?
When Vivian introduces her new love, Mark, to her children, none react well. However, both daughters try to be open-minded, especially when their mother drops the bomb that her marriage to their late father, which they were allowed to believe was a glorious romance, was miserable. Jake's denial and his instant alpha male posturing make him easily the most dislikable character. Toxic masculinity has destroyed him through and through. He has a gambling addiction he cannot admit to, which has destroyed his marriage to Leila (Lara Rossi). He now works as a "personal trainer," which is polite-society for "gigolo," apparently, as his real money comes from client Stella (Sharon Small), who sees him as her latest plaything, and unworthy of much respect. It's hard to feel sorry for him, though, since he doesn't respect the wishes or boundaries of his soon-to-be ex-wife much either.
Jake's response to his mother moving on with her love life is entirely borne of his own trauma, but he's not the only one. Youngest Natalie is ultra-supportive of her mother once she finds out their father cheated on her. It's a twisted response considering Natalie *is* the other woman, banging her boss Tony (Vincent Regan). Tony has been promising to leave his wife for years, dangling free houses in front of Natalie, a comfortable life, until she tells him she's pregnant with his kid. Oh, and his wife, Carla (Stephanie Langton), knows about the affair and is determined to end it, much like Vivian once forced Natalie's late father to stop cheating. No wonder both of her older siblings thing she's living a spoiled lifestyle taking what's not hers. That's reinforced when eldest Helen brings up that their father gave Natalie $10 grand for her first apartment, largess neither of the older ones ever received.
Helen is someone the show probably wants you to feel sorry for the most. She's a hospital admin whose job, from the looks of things, is attempting to ruthlessly streamline NHS. Such positions are super stressful, trying to force the square peg of nationalized healthcare into the round hole of capitalism and shareholders. But the toll such a high-powered job has taken on her marriage is ugly. She has nowhere she can deal with scenes like ex-employee Meera (Clara Indrani), flipping out at being called a "significant resignation" instead of the brutal firing she endured.
Worse, her husband, George (Keir Charles), seems far more into Natalie than he does his wife, which. Yeah. This is why Helen drinks. And that's not even getting into the daughter, Lily (Grace Hogg-Robinson). She has turned to social media to get the attention she's not receiving at home and may wind up posting things that bring her mother unwanted attention as well.
And yet, though all three kids are messes, Jake might be the one with the right end of the stick when it comes to Mark. Everything Mark does could either be interpreted as "super shady" or "idiot romantic." The show rides the fine line of the storybook romance reality often masks controlling men's behavior. Scenes like Mark stealing her passport suggest he's not got her best interests at heart until it turns out he stole it to bring with them for a surprise trip to France, to a vacation spot from her childhood where he plans to propose. Romantic? Or shady? When she says no to his proposal, he apologizes, only to perk up at her, "We have all the time in the world."
Suddenly Vivian's collapsing, unwell, and while her kids are all up in arms to look after her, Mark's the one who is moving in. After all, he's a doctor, he can monitor her tests, make sure she takes her meds. Is it love? Or control? Are those her real meds, or poison? He's suddenly looking up quick places to get married. Is he just romantically fantasizing, ready if she changes her mind? Or is he preparing to push those boundaries with an unwell woman who has a tidy fortune?
But though this family is full of secrets, Mary's got a raft of her own. The scene where she steals the present Mark sends to Vivian starts as a curious neighbor, steaming open the package. But then we cut to seeing he wearing the bathrobe herself, pretending it's hers, and then regifting it as a thoughtful package from such a well-meaning neighbor like herself. Is Mary positioning her storytelling to frame Mark after he catches her watching through her binoculars. But is that evil face Mark gives her because he's caught the creepy neighbor is spying?
But the best twist of all comes at the end. Whoever it is who fell isn't even dead. Perhaps a survivor can tell the truth.