Welcome to the first of four episode recaps for the new Acorn TV thriller, Bloodlands. We’re promised a twisty cat-and-mouse game that also ponders moral questions about the balance between justice for past crimes and protecting peace in the present. The first episode has quite a lot of exposition, but by the end, things begin to speed up so I advise patience with this one.
We first meet DCI Tom Brannick (James Nesbitt) driving through Belfast with Irish rock band Inhaler playing on the radio. He’s attending his daughter Izzy’s (Lola Petticrew) birthday celebration. The doting father presents his only child with the gift of an owl pendant – one of a pair. Tom says his wife used to claim it helped her see in the dark. He wants Izzy to have his.
The next morning, Tom’s called to a suspected crime scene- a car with no number plates has been found in Strangford Lough. Turns out the car belongs to Pat Keenan (Peter Ballance) a current crime associate and a former IRA man. The police have received an anonymous call from his kidnapper invoking the loyalist paramilitary name, Major White. The forensics team find no trace of Pat, however, taped to his wing mirror is a postcard with a picture of a famous H & W shipbuilding crane nicknamed Goliath. Tom immediately gets the reference but declines to share it with his team for the present.
Instead, he asks his old friend, DCS Jackie Twomey (Lorcan Cranitch), to meet him. Jackie also knows about Goliath, but when Tom suggests they reopen the old case, the superintendent is more than a little hesitant. He strongly advises finding Pat Keenan and letting the past go, for the sake of keeping the peace.
DCI Brannick and his junior, DS Niamh McGovern (Charlene McKenna) go to talk to Pat’s wife, Clare (Kathy Kiera Clark) at the premises of their haulage company. She hasn’t seen Pat since yesterday morning and is very prickly with the police. Tom’s sneaky search of Pat’s office only makes matters worse, and the officers are unceremoniously shown the door. Clare Keenan picks up the phone as soon as the detectives have gone.
Brannick did discover a few entries on the calendar in Pat’s office so he and McGovern trace the missing man’s steps to the hospital where he had an appointment a day earlier. Keenan’s illicit sex life and vision complaints only serve to blur the motive for his kidnapping. Could Pat’s disappearance possibly be related to his personal life, and not his political past?
Upon their return to the station, Tom and Niamh witness two young men throwing petrol bombs at a patrol car. Rushing to rescue an officer from the flames, Brannick already realizes that Clare Keenan’s distrust of the police is behind this attack.
With increased urgency, the team is updated on the case and given their assignments. But Niamh is tired of being kept in the dark about the significance of the postcard. She threatens to quit the investigation unless Tom tells her what it all means. It turns out Goliath is the code name for a mysterious assassin dating back over twenty years ago. His victims have connections on both sides of the Troubles. Remember that exposition I mentioned? Well, here it comes...
Niamh is shocked to discover that Tom's wife, Emma Brannick, was an intelligence officer involved in undercover surveillance of terrorists, and was one of Goliath’s four targets.
Determined to move forward with the Goliath angle, Tom and Niamh seek out files related to one of the disappearances, only to discover they've gone missing. The pair go to McCallister, their commanding officer, who gives them her full backing to investigate the links between the Keenan kidnapping and the Goliath cold cases.
Tom suggests they start with Adam Corry (Ian McElhinney). His brother David was one of the Goliath’s alleged victims and Adam never believed the police’s account of what happened. A bitter, sick old mand Corry has spent the last two decades amassing a roomful of notebooks and files on the disappearances. Though he doesn't have a copy of the statement, Corry says suspicious activity was reported to the police by a local woman back in April of '98. She thought she saw digging on the island opposite her farm.
Back at work, Niamh and Tom see McCallister being escorted away from the station. DCS Twomey, concerned with how the Keenan case has been handled and the unrest that’s resulted, is taking over the operation. Jackie asserts that a senior Catholic officer will make for better optics and orders Tom to make peace with Clare Keenan.
Meanwhile, Niamh has located the statement Adam Corry mentioned. Tom is hesitant to pursue the lead, but Niamh convinces him that procedure warrants that they follow-up since the Keenan case is active and possibly linked.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Busby died over a dozen years ago, but the spot on the island she described between the bothy (hut) and the tree is intact. With a team of GPR technicians. Tom and Niamh lead the expedition to scan the island for bodies. In the meantime, Twomey gets wind of the operation and speeds out to the island in a huff. He has to admit to Tom that he knew about the statement at the time, but no action was taken because of the fragile peace. Goliath was off-limits then and still is.
Horrified that this information was kept from him, Tom begins to dig like a man possessed. Twomey talks his old friend down and promises nothing else was concealed. Tom’s seen for himself there are no bodies buried on the island and concedes they should stop the search. Niamh is left to make sure the team gets off the island and a devastated Tom leaves with Jackie Twomey.
But Niamh isn’t ready to abandon hope quite yet. She realizes there’s another tree on the island and that Mrs. Busby’s view was from the cowshed, not the farmhouse. DI McGovern calls back the technicians and the search resumes.
Just as Tom tells Izzy that he’s let go of any hope that her mother will ever return, things start breaking on multiple fronts. First, a car with Keenan’s car plates lead the police to a country hotel. The explosive device on the door turns out to be a hoax, but next to a handcuffed (and very much alive) Pat Keenan is yet another Goliath calling card.
Amidst all the hubbub of the kidnap rescue, Niamh phones her boss. They’ve found something on the island. As we peer into a newly dug hole alongside Brannick and Twomey, we see three skeletons piled inside and, YES, an owl pendant identical to the one Tom gave Izzy.
So what does your intuition tell you? Do you suspect Goliath has re-emerged or is it someone trying to bring these shadowy disappearances from long ago to light? Is Twomey to be trusted? And what about Dr. Tori Matthews? Momentary flirtation for Tom or something more? I look forward to chatting about the episode in the comments!