So a couple of weeks ago now I wrote a post about my initial thoughts on the BBC serial killer drama Rellik. I basically didn’t rate it, but I found it the right level of fascinating-slash-irritating that I carried on watching it.
This article is going to include a lot of spoilers for Rellik, including giving away the identity of the killer, and the details of the ending. I don’t really expect that to be an issue for anybody, since my recommendation in the previous article was that the show wasn’t especially worth watching and having finished the show I haven’t actually changed my mind.
But I almost did.
I decided to write a follow-up article at the end of Episode 5, when the identity of the killer was finally revealed and I was able, for about the space of a week, to convince myself that the show was actually a smart and savvy deconstruction of the tropes of the serial killer genre. Spoiler, it wasn’t. But I thought it might be worth talking a bit about why I thought it might be.
Just to get everybody up to speed, because honestly my original post didn’t actually include much in the way of plot summary (being mostly concerned with describing the structure of the show and inventing insulting nicknames for the main characters), the premise of Rellik is this:
We follow DCI Gabriel Markham (the guy I consistently referred to as Detective Manpain, Acidburns McWhinyguts, and similar) and his partner DI Elaine Shepard as they attempt to track down a serial killer who leaves their victims displayed in public playgrounds, their faces burned off with acid, their fingertips severed and their other identifying marks removed. We start watching with the death of the pair’s most promising suspect, a mentally ill man named Steven Mills who is shot in a botched arrest attempt. Then we spool backwards through other significant developments in the case – the mysterious fire in the police station that destroys a laptop which might have contained vital evidence, the many interviews between the police and the obviously dodgy psychiatrist Isaac Taylor, and so on. The mid-season climax (as it were – this is a British show we’re talking about, so the series is six episodes) comes in episode four, when we finally see the attack in which DCI Markham was scarred with acid.
The fifth episode shows us the events that led up to that attack, and brings the whole case to the beginning, finally revealing that the killer (the rellik?) is none other than DI Shepard, who has played DCI Markham and the audience for fools this whole time. I sort of meta-spoilered myself for this reveal. I watched the last three episodes of Rellik with half an eye on other things because it – well – because I didn’t really like it very much. I was flicking between the show and reviews of the show on the internets, and I noticed that reviews were saying that the identity of the killer got revealed at the end of episode five, at which point I put about forty seconds of thought into working out who the killer could be, at which point it was pretty obvious.
I’m going to go into a bit more detail about this. I should add that towards the end there will be trigger warnings for child abuse.
Clues and Twists and That
So here are the forty-seconds-worth of thoughts I had when I noticed that we’d be getting the reveal about the killer in episode five.
I’d already basically ruled out all of the most obvious suspects (like creepy Isaac Taylor and all of the people the detectives suspected) for basic TV reasons. I was also about 50/50 on whether the fact that the killer had been able to destroy evidence in police custody and ambush Gabriel outside a police safehouse that only he and Elaine knew he was going to would turn out to be actual clues to the identity of the killer or just things the writers lost track of in pursuit of dramatic events to put in earlier episodes. This is why I only worked out that Elaine was going to be the killer when I found out that we were finding out the killer’s identity in episode five. I couldn’t quite believe that the writers would put something as obvious as “the killer attacks Gabriel at the precise place he arranged to meet Elaine, and then Elaine shows up on that exact spot mere moments later just as the killer whose height and build matches hers very closely disappears” unless it was either a legit clue or a deliberate fakeout. And since there was no indication that we were supposed to be suspecting Elaine at that point, I figured she was probably the serial killer. And I was right.
This was the bit where I almost decided that the show was being subversive. Serial Killer shows have a tendency to devolve into a Battle of the Geniuses: the detective is a super genius brilliant detective whose super genius brilliant detectiving can be thwarted only by a serial killer who is even more super genius brilliant. TV serial killers quite often seem to have literal superpowers – part of the reason I wasn’t sure whether tracking the detective to a definitionally secure location that only one person knew he was going to or starting fire in a police evidence locker were supposed to point to the killer being a police insider is that those are the sorts of things TV shows often assume that serial killers can just do. Red John in The Mentalist is an especially egregious example of this phenomenon – by the time I quit watching he had demonstrated so much reach and influence that the only person he could turn out to be and still have things make sense was “actually God, like literally”.
Once it was revealed that DCI Markham had failed to identify the killer despite the fact that he was not only having sex with her, but had actually arranged to meet her for sex at the police safehouse outside which he was attacked (and had done this at sufficiently short notice that there was definitely no way anybody else could possibly have been expecting him to go there) I thought for a moment that the show was trying to deliberately challenge the “genius vs genius” stereotype. I thought that the reverse format had been chosen quite cleverly so that the audience would start the show assuming that they would be watching the story of a smart, dedicated cop diligently pursuing a serial killer and be surprised and challenged by the realisation that they had instead been watching the story of a selfish, narcissistic dickhead of a cop fucking up a murder investigation because he’s a prick and bad at his job.
This interpretation was (in my brief window of thinking the show might turn out to be good) reinforced by the strange way that Gabriel’s character develops over the course of the show. Because we watch the action unfold backwards, we see Gabriel’s character develop backwards as well. But what’s weird is that the further back in time we go, and the less time Gabriel has spent hunting down this mysterious unstoppable serial killer, the more starts to act like a cop who’s cracking under the strain of a high-pressure criminal investigation. In the first episode Gabriel, although scarred, is basically a pretty decent cop. He tries to talk Mills down, and is only prevented from succeeding because Mills goes for his phone and the snipers (who Gabriel never asked for in the first place) overreact. And afterwards he’s introspective and thinks carefully about the case and tries to evaluate clues in order to work out who the murderer might be.
Then we go back 24 hours and he’s intimidating suspects, driving the wrong way up motorways and yelling at people. A couple of days before that he’s punching clubgoers. When we see what he was like before the acid attack, it turns out he was even worse, using police safehouses as his personal shag pad, freaking out at press conferences, and beating up barmen and banging their girlfriends. Backwards-in-time Gabriel seems to have the emotional arc that the detectives in these kinds of shows normally have forwards in time, starting out calmly and rationally seeking the public good and ending up freaking out at his family and jumping at shadows. By the end we see way, way, way more scenes of Gabriel arguing with his wife, trying to have sex with random women, or needlessly harassing people than we do of him actually trying to solve the serial murders he’s purportedly investigating. The people around him are just as bad – we see them playing pranks on each other, being homophobic at each other, and ill-advisedly proposing marriage to one another, but we never see them actually trying to solve the crimes.
When they revealed that Gabriel had literally had his dick inside the killer and not noticed, I really thought that they might be building to an ending in which the twist wasn’t so much “you thought Elaine was a good guy but really she’s a bad guy” as “you thought Gabriel was the hero but really he’s a shitty cop and the reason they didn’t catch the killer isn’t that the killer was hard to catch, it’s that this entire police department is clearly miserably ineffective.” Which would have been amazing.
That wasn’t how it ended.
Forget it, Gabriel, it’s the Salvia Unit
The last episode of Rellik abandons the reverse chronological format and adopts a much more conventional “linear narrative with flashbacks” structure. I’m honestly torn about this. On the one hand, telling a satisfying story backwards is clearly difficult, and you have to cheat a little to make it work (even Memento has forwards bits). On the other hand, having watched the whole of Rellik, it feels a lot like you could basically watch episode one, then jump straight to episode six and miss out on basically nothing. All you get in episodes 2-5 is information about false leads that the incompetent investigators ran after and personal melodrama stuff that basically doesn’t lead anywhere or add up to anything.
Perhaps the most damning indication that the last four episodes of reverse-order mayhem haven’t really achieved anything is that one of the first things we see in Episode 6 is a series of flashbacks from Elaine’s perspective showing how she got to the point of being a serial killer. In the first episode Markham muses about how we could understand crime better if we could go back to where things began, and he’s sort of right, but this flashback sequence highlights quite how little connection there is between this core concept about the origins of seemingly inexplicable things and the central plot device of showing us the investigation in reverse chronological order. Because it’s pretty clear that if we want to understand anything that happens in the show, we need to go back to well before the show even started. You don’t learn anything by following the investigation backwards, you learn stuff by being told – through entirely non-diegetic means – about things that happened twenty years ago. The unspooling through the investigation tells you nothing, because the police never came remotely close to investigating the right things.
I’ve described about six different things in this show as perfectly encapsulating everything that is wrong with it. I’m going to add a seventh now.
In an early scene of the sixth episode we see that Elaine has now abducted the creepy psychiatrist Isaac Taylor (whose partner had been her first victim) and is in the process of trying to frame him for the murders (why she feels the need to do this when the police are clearly nowhere near suspecting her I have no idea). During this sequence, she asks if he recognises her and, when he says he does not, she hints to him that her name is an anagram. She then reveals that her real name is Helena Parides.
I am … I am fairly sure that we have never heard the name Helena Parides before.
A lot is made of how confusing it is to follow the plot of Rellik on account of its being told backwards, but the truth is that it’s hard to follow the plot of Rellik because it doesn’t make a lick of sense, and because so much effort gets put into creating scenarios that will lead to a cool revelation when you go back in time, there isn’t room to actually establish long term setups and payoffs. I couldn’t absolutely swear that we never once get a reference to a Helena Parides anywhere in the series (I wasn’t engaged enough to keep track of every minor detail), but the internet is really good at following this kind of thing, and I’m sure I would have noticed if “who is Helena Parides?” was a recurring mystery. I mean I’ve read articles with recaps of most episodes, including those “10 questions from episode 4” type lists that fixate on exactly these kinds of tiny details. Helena Parides, if she was mentioned, was not on the community’s radar.
Which is good in some ways, because fandom fucking loves an anagram, and if “who is Helena Parides” had been a major question in the show, the fact that it was an anagram of “Elaine Shepard” would have been worked out in minutes. Indeed, I wonder if that was part of the reason the writers were so cagey about dropping the name in the first place – fear of giving away a surprise. But if so, they made a classic rookie error. An audience can only be surprised by something if it runs contrary to their expectations, and it can only be contrary to their expectations if they have some expectations to begin with. Discovering that Elaine Shepard was really Helena Parides would have been shocking if we’d had any idea who Helena Parides was, or indeed if we’d been more than peripherally aware that a person named Helena Parides existed at all.
It’s sort of as if we’d got to the end of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Tom Riddle had revealed that his full name was an anagram of I AM LORD VOLDEMORT … but we’d never actually heard the name Voldemort before.
Of course the whole Elaine Shepard/Helena Parides thing has a couple of points in common with the Tom Riddle/Lord Voldemort thing. And they’re points that you can more or less get away with in a children’s book about wizards and very much can’t get away with in a mature thriller series about a serial killer. Firstly, there’s the fact that both names only work because they contain essentially made up elements to account for the spare letters. “Marvolo” isn’t a real name, JK Rowling invented it so that Voldemort’s very mundane Muggle name would link up with his ah-do-you-see-it-literally-means-fly-from-death Wizard name. Similarly “Parides” isn’t an actual surname, it’s the Latin name of a butterfly. It also makes her sound vaguely Mediterranean, which is weird because her dad and mum both look like “Shepard” fits them as a name far better than “Parides”. Essentially it looks a lot like they came up with the name “Elaine Shepard” first, then decided that it would be cool for it to be an anagram afterwards.
Of course the second point here is rather more pertinent, which is that picking a pseudonym that is an anagram of your real name just feels … a bit naff? I mean it’s fine if you’re an actual supervillain in a children’s book, not so much if you want me to take you seriously as the antagonist of a gritty thriller for grownups. And before you write in, yes some real serial killers have used wordplay, but not in quite that way. For example the BTK killer sent letters to the police using the name Bill Thomas Killman, but then he was just using a pseudonym that hinted at a different pseudonym. He wasn’t using an anagram of his real actual name that the police could immediately use to catch him (he left that in MSWord documents he hadn’t deleted properly).
The anagram thing makes particularly little sense because it’s fairly clear that Elaine had largely suppressed the memories of the traumatic experiences that led to her going all serial killer until a chance encounter with one of the people responsible for her childhood abuse brought everything back to her (more on this later, it is problematic in about nine different ways). The arc the show seems to be asking us to accept is one in which young Helena Parides, after witnessing her father murdering her mother is committed to a psychiatric facility at which she is further abused then, as an adult, tries to put everything behind her by changing her name to … an anagram of her original name? Was she actively trying to set things up for a cool reveal in later life? I mean I get that there’s no single right way to handle a traumatic experience but that just seems weird.
And I suppose we’ve now got to the point where we can’t avoid talking about Elaine/Helena’s background, how it connects to Gabriel’s background, and why it can seriously go fuck itself.
So for reasons that are never entirely made clear, young Helena Parides’ father stabs her mother to death with a broken bottle in front of her. As a result of this, she is committed to a psychiatric facility called the Salvia unit, which is run by Creepy Isaac Taylor and his partner Dead Jonas Borner (the acid killer’s first victim – and incidentally I am childishly amused that if you google for “Jonas Borner” you get “did you mean Jonas Boner”). Here she is systematically and repeatedly raped by at least one member of the staff, and this is covered up by Taylor and Borner, who give her electroconvulsive therapy in order to make her forget about it (I’m not completely certain that this is how ECT actually works).
At the same time Helena is incarcerated in the Salvia unit, a young rookie cop by the name of Gabriel Markham and his partner Edward Benton (later the superintendent in charge of overseeing Gabriel’s hopelessly incompetent investigation into the acid killer case) receive a 999 call from the Salvia unit. They are told by the receptionist that it was probably just a false alarm because sometimes the inmates get hold of telephones and call the police on them, but the cops ask if they can look around anyway. And the receptionist is fine with this. Because apparently Taylor and Borner are willing to electrocute the brain of a ten-year-old girl to cover up the abuses going on at their hospital, but are perfectly happy to let cops walk around anywhere they like? So like basically everybody else in the show they’re both amoral and incompetent?
Anyway, Gabriel hears crying, and walks in to literally find Helena in the process of being raped by an orderly (listed in the credits as “Salvia Unit, Evil Orderly” which is … not the most nuanced way of describing the abuses of power that can take place in closed communities without external scrutiny). The orderly rushes at Gabriel, who shoves him sideways, causing him to crack his head on a radiator and instantly die. Y’know. Like always happens.
We then see Gabriel outside, and we realise that this is the traumatic past experience that led to the collapse of Garbriel’s marriage, his drinking, drugs and philandering, and general descent into narcissistic fuckholery.
Because obviously what’s really important about the systematic and repeated rape of a ten-year-old girl by the employees of an institution that had an obligation to protect and care for her is the emotional impact it has on the policeman who witnesses a tiny fraction of it.
Anyway, the flashback ends with Helena giving Gabriel this weird grateful/creepy/yearning look that basically says “I’m going to get totally obsessed with you and start murdering people when I grow up.”
Then we cut back to the present day, and Gabriel finally works out that Elaine was the girl from the Salvia unit, that everything really is all about him and his manpain, and that if they want to catch Elaine they will have to go back to the ruins of the spooky abandoned psychiatric institution so that it can all end where it began.
Which would, again, be way more satisfying if we’d had more than the slightest inkling that Helena Parides, the Salvia Unit, or Gabriel’s past experiences were remotely significant to the plot. Which we didn’t. Because we were too busy watching supporting characters dressing up as chickens.
To go back to the “it’s like [other thing x] without [thing that makes other thing x work]”, it’s basically like if you took the film Chinatown, made the final scene into a big fight in Chinatown where everything gets set on fire, and then systematically removed all references to Chinatown in the rest of the script so that people wouldn’t guess where the final showdown was going to happen.
Rambling Towards a Conclusion
Annoyingly, I suspect I will once again find that the most helpful thing I can say about Rellik is “it is exactly like you would expect it to be, given that it is called Rellik.” Which is to say, approximately 78% less clever than it thinks it is.
I think the thing that most bugs me about the show is that people still persist in talking as if it’s the structure that made it difficult to follow, rather than the fact that the plot just legitimately did not make sense. It feels like a classic Emperor’s New Clothes situation – there seems to be this feeling out there that the reason the viewing public didn’t like Rellik was that it was too smart for them, when actually they were, by and large, too smart for it.
The show persistently fails to keep track of its own plot, consistently has characters act in irrational ways, and consistently has major plot points that only make sense if the characters are deliberately self-sabotaging.
In the last episode, Gabriel intuits that all of the victims of the acid killer are associated with the Salvia unit. But he has made no effort to identify any of the victims except Borner. And yes, the point of burning their faces off with acid is to make identification harder, but surely you’d still try. Otherwise the cops just feel like those Stormtroopers in the first Star Wars movie who decide that the droids they’re looking for couldn’t possibly be inside a locked building. It’s like they look at the bodies and go “welp, the killer didn’t want these people identified, so we should probably respect that, y’know.”
Then there’s the fact that Gabriel never bothers to consider that the killer consistently demonstrates specific knowledge of police procedures, and access to police resources including safe houses and evidence rooms.
Then there’s the fact that the reason the killer needed to access the evidence room in the first place is that the laptop Gabriel took from Creepy Isaac Taylor contained archival footage of his interviews with young Helena Parides, and she was concerned that Gabriel would recognise her on them. Just to clarify, those interviews took place twenty years ago. And they were evidence of Gabriel’s complicity in the abuses that got the Salvia unit closed down. Yet he apparently kept copies of them anyway, even after starting a new practice. And didn’t keep them on an external drive or a separate server, but actually on his personal laptop. For twenty years.
I mean, maybe I’m just a technophile, but I’m pretty sure I’ve owned more than one laptop since 1997. So did Isaac carefully sit down every time he bought a new work PC and say “hold on, better make sure I safely transfer over those videos that prove I covered up for a rapist, wouldn’t want to lose them at any time in the next two decades”?
Then again, since Taylor had, in fact, done this, Elaine’s instincts were at least correct. But maybe it just took one to know one, because a core assumption of the show’s criminology seems to be that criminals always make video recordings that prove they’re guilty of crimes that could otherwise in no way be traced back to them. Which is presumably why Elaine videoed Steven Mills killing the last victim, even though the existence of such a video made it obvious that he was being coerced and could only ever have made it less likely that he would have been convicted for the crimes for which she was presumably trying to frame him.
So … so yeah. That’s Rellik.
The internet talks a lot about how confusing it is. But the truth is that it’s not so much “confusing” as, well, “blah.”