Gemma Whelan Brings Star Power to Season 2 of BritBox's 'The Tower'

Picture shows: DC Steve Bradshaw (Jimmy Akingbola), DS Sarah Collins (Gemma Whelan), DI Kieran Shaw (Emmett J. Scanlan), PC Lizzie Adama (Tahirah Sharif) stand by a police car, looking upward.

DC Steve Bradshaw (Jimmy Akingbola), DS Sarah Collins (Gemma Whelan), DI Kieran Shaw (Emmett J. Scanlan), PC Lizzie Adama (Tahirah Sharif).

© BritBox

ITV/BritBox’s The Tower, and its second season, entitled The Tower: Death Message, is adapted by Patrick Harbinson from the first two books of Kate London’s Metropolitan Police Trilogy, Post Mortem and Death Message. Directed by Faye Gilbert, The Tower is a woman-led, densely plotted urban police procedural, with a strong cast led by Gemma Whelan (Killing Eve) as DS Sarah Collins. If you are new to the series, you can watch Season 2 as a stand-alone; however, the repercussions of the first season continue to haunt the characters and their actions.

Season 1 opened with the deaths of seasoned veteran PC Hadley Matthews (Nick Holder), and teenager Farrah Mehenni (Lola Elsokari), who fell from the roof of high-rise Portland Tower in south-east London, while Rookie cop PC Lizzie Adama (Tahirah Sharif) and five-year-old Ben Stoddard (Rex Parry) were left standing there. Lizzie, in a state of shock, panicked and disappeared, while Ben’s mother refused to let her son talk to the police. Whelan's DS Collins was tasked with finding out what really happened on that day, and wound up in a department-wide mess of police corruption, concealed evidence, illicit affairs, and lies from the top down.

A twisted tale of police corruption and wrongdoing emerged, beginning with a call a few days earlier from Ben’s mother, Claire Stoddard (Sally Scott) about her neighbors, the Mehennis, whose behavior ranged from messy trashcans to keying her car. While visiting the Mehenni family, Hadley used racist terms while his partner Lizzie was out of earshot. Farrah recorded the conversation on her cell phone, which was never found. After her father’s arrest, Farrah reacted by taking Ben to the roof of the tower, pursued by Hadley and Lizzie.

Season 1 was about upholding a male code of honor that protects corrupt cops. Sarah was just the officer you’d want working on this case — solid, thoughtful, and dedicated. The Portland Towers tragedy impacted the police community, breaking relationships and destroying trust, leaving an ugly residue of cynicism and resentment. Season 2 shows us the fallout, as the female characters, police and civilians, take charge, develop agency, and work together. It makes for an interesting, if somewhat conventional, viewing experience, with revelations about Sarah and Lizzie and the transformation of a new character, DC Elaine Lucas (Ella Smith).

Following the official tribunal on the Portland Tower case, Sarah has a new position in the Homicide Unit. The Unit is overworked and with resources stretched to the limit, led by DCI Jim Fedden (Stuart McQuarrie), who openly resents Sarah’s presence. The atmosphere is casually sexist, notably from PC Colin Ryle (Jack Shaloo), who’s always first with a sexist joke or comment. DC Elaine Lucas, technically his superior, has spent her carer there being bullied into submission, complete with an unpleasant nickname.

Not surprisingly, she is sullen and passive-aggressive and not thrilled to work with Sarah on a cold case, the disappearance of a teenager on the day of Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997. Some flimsy new evidence, based on prison hearsay, is considered adequate to re-open the case. However, you can’t help thinking that Sarah has been assigned this hopeless case as payback for the Portland Towers investigation.

Lizzie, exonerated by the Portland Tower tribunal, is given a warm welcome back to work by her colleagues and is back on the beat with a new partner, Arif Johar (Michael Karim). As they respond to a domestic violence call, they pass the tower, and Lizzie’s reaction is pure PTSD. (She’s one of many who’ll never forget that day.) At their destination, suspect Mark Brannon (Charley Palmer Rothwell) sits outside the apartment where his daughter Skye huddles with their injured dog. Family friend Marlie Daniels (Shonagh Marie) is suspicious and overly protective (of Mark?), as Lizzie makes it clear her interview with Georgina Teel (Rosa Coduri) is confidential.

Lizzie realizes Georgina has been abused by Matt (who claims he got drunk and tripped over the dog) and asks if she’d use makeup to cover Skye’s bruises too. She and Amir arrest Mark and take him to the station. He becomes agitated, requiring the assistance of several officers, and brands Lizzie as "the cop who let the girl fall from the tower." The next day Lizzie is summoned to the court to give evidence and is thrown off track when Mark’s barrister brings up the Portland Tower case. Mark accused Lizzie of undue influence on Georgina and claims Lizzie said Skye had bruises on her face.

Lizzie denies it, but her credibility is gone, and Mark is set free. Unsurprisingly, Georgina doesn't live long after that, killed because she didn’t have the resources to leave her abusive husband safely, condemned to silence with no one to trust (certainly not Marnie).

Picture shows: PC Lizzie Adama (Tahirah Sharif)

PC Lizzie Adama (Tahirah Sharif).

© BritBox

After consulting the officer who handled the original case in 1997, Sarah visits the missing girl’s mother, Claire Mills (Niamh Cusack). Fifteen-year-old Tania left the house to watch Princess Diana’s funeral on TV with a friend but never arrived. She had changed clothes in a hut in the park, putting on a short skirt that Claire considered disrespectful for a day of grieving. Sarah’s reserve drops as they talk about loss, realizing Tonia would be about her age now. (Gemma Whelan has a lot more to do in this second series, and it’s a pleasure to watch.)

Tania’s father tells Sarah that something happened about six weeks before she disappeared; she stopped playing her violin, one of her major talents, and her grades dropped. The violin teacher at her school, Adrian Stephenson (Tristan Sturrack), has since gone on to become a much-admired public figure and philanthropist, and his reputation, the passage of time, and lack of evidence make a conviction unlikely. The police have never found a body, although it’s unlikely that Tania is alive.

Elaine, now thoroughly invested in her work with Sarah, is an absolute joy, turning her cynicism and anger into productivity. “I’ve no problem with upsetting people,” she says, as she finds evidence of Adrian’s history of sexual interest in underage schoolgirls. Once again, the team’s attention turns to the significance of that time period. Adrian raised funds and involved his students in the creation of a memorial garden for Princess Di close by the school. Finally, Tania’s best friend Katherine Herringham (Rosalie Craig) comes forward; Adrian has been protected by silence from his victims, either from shame or from being complicit in his crimes.

Picture shows: DS Sarah Collins (Gemma Whelan)

DS Sarah Collins (Gemma Whelan).

© BritBox

Sarah's still grieving her sister, killed in a car accident in the summer of 1997. Ironically, it’s those awakened memories of her teenage years that give her insight into Tania’s behavior. Her friendship with DC Steve Bradshaw (Jimmy Akingbola) suffered during the Porton Towers investigation, and her former romantic partner left and has a child. But when an attractive woman, Julie Woodson (Camilla Beeput), flirts with her in the liquor store, she finds herself responding. In an unhappy coincidence, Julie was Farrah’s teacher. Conscious of her position, Sarah turns her down. But she takes Julie’s number, and a tentative romance begins as Sarah drops her defenses and allows Julie to give her the loving care she so badly needs.

Meanwhile, Lizzie remains dogged in justice for Georgina, and the net closes in on Matt, as Steve identifies the officer who’s been leaking information to him. In the inevitable and shocking showdown with Matt, she’s badly injured, and she and Sarah make their peace. Sarah tries to persuade her that rules exist for a reason, and Lizzie agrees but tells her that if a child’s life is in danger, she will almost certainly disobey orders and heroically rush in. It’s also a chance for Sarah to make peace with Kieran, who has blamed her for everything so far. He’s not a bad sort of guy, just a serial liar with a poor grasp of monogamy, sexual harassment, or contraception.

And if you were wondering about the gaps in the first season of The Tower, there’s an interesting twist. Kieran took Farrah’s phone with the evidence that would have proved Hadley’s and possibly Lizzie’s misconduct and which may even have footage from the top of the building. When Sarah ordered a search of his house, he handed the phone over to his wife, who told him she’d destroyed it. But she lied. She’s keeping it in a safe place for ... revenge? Insurance? Maybe we’ll find out in The Tower III.

The Tower: Death Message premieres Tuesday, May 16, with its four episodes released weekly through June 6, 2023. All episodes of The Tower Season 1 are streaming on BritBox. The third book in the series, Gallowstree Lane, has been published, and a fourth is on its way, according to the UK publisher

Janet Mullany

Writer Janet Mullany is from England, drinks a lot of tea, and likes Jane Austen, reading, and gasping in shock at costumes in historical TV dramas. Her household near Washington DC includes two badly-behaved cats about whom she frequently boasts on Facebook.

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