The true monstrum of In the Flesh is not the rotters, but Roarton; not the zombie trope of schlock horror, but the small town setting out of kitchen sink realism Royston Vasey left uncaricatured, the shithole of Renton that gave Irvine Welsh his protagonist's name. Roarton is the housing scheme terrain of British miserabilism, a rural nowhere town gutted of its soul by the death of industry, decades of Thatcher. Yes, there are flesh-eating undead in this story; but in the cold open which gives us a classic carnage scene in a supermarket—only to catapult us into the waking reality of Kieran Walker, the young Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferer for whom this is a flashback to the atrocities he committed during the Rising—and in the moment we realise that the zombie apocalypse has been averted and our undead hero rehabilitated in a treatment centre in Norfolk (think support groups and muzak-accompanied medication time, medication time) it is clear that a distinctly different tack is to be taken here than the generic usual.
Here you'll find no misanthrope's monstrum of the mob. If you, like me, are tired with the same old same old in which Romero's critique of consumerist unthink (c.f. Dawn of the Dead ) has long since been exhausted of all sincerity by regurgitation, rendered an alt-reicher's shallow bogeyman of cannibal sheeple to expedite Last Man fantasies of endless sorties and sieges (yes, I'm looking at you, The Walking Dead), then you, like me, might well find Dominic Mitchell's BBC3 series a fucking blessed relief. I came to it weary and wary, at best prepared to . . . give it a chance. I came out of it impressed by the strongest and sharpest televisual exercise in strange fiction I've seen in years, a gut punch that hit me in the most personal way.
If you haven't seen it yet, I'd urge you to go and do so now, before you read on. This is not a review aimed to persuade you, in which I can dance around plot twists or blithely blow the gaffe on them in scorn of surprise as some lesser narrative trick. The power I want to unpack in this story resides in a limina and/or lacunae at its heart, a quirk of the absented and/or obfuscated, of the unknown, the unspoken, which I would not defuse for you in advance.
No, I don't care if you don't believe in spoilers. We're not talking cheap Dramatic Reveals here; just trust me.
Have you watched it now then? Good.
So, from the opening credit shots of graffiti ("BEWARE ROTTERS," "GOD BLESS THE HVF") daubed on the gray walls of some Northern England council estate edged by fields of sheep—tweaking memories, for this son of West Coast Scotland, at least, of small town sectarianism in the 1970s—to a Keith Harris and Orville reference dropped in as a sly signifier of the trite, by way of early 1980s Saturday evening light entertainment straight from the end of a pier, it is the bleakness and the banality of Roarton (board games at the dinner table, bottles of White Lightning on a train station bench) that's the true source of horror here, the drabscape of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, unpacked to full grimness (encapsulated no better perhaps than by the canny casting of Ricky Tomlinson as a neighbour of Kieran's family). Roarton is, as I say, the monstrum.
What I mean by monstrum, to be clear, is something technical. C.f. Delany's essay, "About 5,750 words," where he roots the essence of speculative fiction in the subjunctivity level of its sentences, which is to say the degree of (im)possibility of the events described in them (e.g. "The red sun was high, the blue low," which in the reading ruptures realism with its two suns). Delany on this basis characterises speculative fiction and fantasy as respectively trading in what could or could not happen. That subjunctivity level can, I contend, be set in a wider context: as could is only one modal auxiliary verb among many—would, should, must, might, will, did—there is scope here, I think, to see a far greater range of tricks in the strange. Those verbs come in flavours: alethic, the could of possibility; but also epistemic, the is/was of factuality; deontic, the must of duty; boulomaic, the should (not) of desire and dread.
In simpler terms? Any narrative can introduce a quirk that pushes the audience's buttons with a modality, an injection of tension. Throw in something that technically could not happen, not yet, and we get a frisson of incredibility that powers speculative fiction: we get the novum. Throw in that which physically or logically could not happen, and we get deeper tensions, more outré sibling quirks to the novum in the chimerae of fantasy and the suturae of surrealism (to coin some labels keeping in character with Suvin's).
Contra Delany, you might note, I'm casting the technical impossibilities by which speculative fiction is characterised with the could not subjunctivity level. But as In the Flesh exemplifies, the taxonomic discourse of genre tribalism is at odds with the reality of texts at times: the undead of this tale are pure chimera, corpses risen from the grave in rupture of known science, with no rage monkey virus or suchlike pretext to rationalise the fantastic; and yet, the neurotriptaline by which the undead have their faculties restored by stimulating the production of glial cells is, sat atop that apparently supernatural conceit of the Rising, a novum: an arguable development of known science. So this strange fiction is playing a game with the (im)possible that refuses the pat taxonomies. Feel free to read it as essentially SF or essentially fantasy if its use of these different flavours of alethic quirk decides it one way or t’other for you. I'm more interested in the other kinds of quirks it employs.
What I mean by monstrum, then, is that an alethic quirk like the zombie can function also as a boulomaic quirk: what could not be is often also what must not be. In another dimension to that frisson of incredibility, we feel the desire rendering a novum marvellous, the dread rendering a chimera monstrous. We get the horror which can, of course, be divorced entirely from the impossible, in the mundane form of a serial killer, but which is often bound to the chimeric, the dread unbound by the rupturing of the very rules of the world.
This latter is the horror we taste in that opening carnage scene, and do return to in the series via Kieran's flashbacks or the occasional encounter with an untreated (or "rabid") PDS sufferer, but it's a horror quickly captured, so as not to be the driving power of the narrative, bound into the zealous hate-preaching of Kenneth Cranham's Vicar Oddie. As he rants his conspiracy theorist suspicion of the government initiative to return PDS sufferers to their homes and communities, as we see him pushing for a ban on Halloween like the sourest Wee Free Presbyterian, as we see braggart yobs of the Human Volunteer Force clinging onto glory and free pints in the local British Legion pub, as we see the families of PDS sufferers desperately trying to buy new homes somewhere remote, somewhere they can keep a low profile, we quickly realise that it's this community's perception of the undead as monstrum that our dread is rooting itself in.
We're scared for Kieran coming back to this. Scared when his parents bundle him under a coat in the back of the car, having run into a crowd of locals leaving church. Scared of the fact that the local nurse employed to secretly dispense the PDS medicine has a son who's clerk of the local council, in deep with the vicar and the HVF—scared because no matter how jolly Ricky Tomlinson's Ken is when he’s trying to cadge a lift, or how gormless Stephen Thompson's Philip is when blurting out an excuse that he's watching porn when caught snooping on his mother's laptop, no matter the moments of wit and levity that salve the tension, (at a breakfast table, Kieran's mum to his dad: "Can we not discuss the colour of urine at the moment, please, Steve?"), we can feel the monstrum of what Roarton is gnawing at our guts.
The bleakness and banality of Roarton: this is what must not be. The insular ignorance of a small town faced with the return of that which it hates and fears, the "rotters" who are an almost perfect encapsulation of Kristeva's notion of the abject: that which was once part of us, which we recoil from, cast out, insofar as it destabilises the boundaries between Us and Not-Us. Blood, shit, corpses. Stigmatised and subaltern social groups othered by prejudice. The undead are virtually a checklist of Kristeva's examples combined for maximum possible power as emblem of that which we abject. But where other zombie fiction is all too happy to just milk the trope for all it's worth as a powerhouse of dread and revulsion, In the Flesh flips the script, turns the process of abjection itself into the true monstrum.
It does so brutally when at the end of the first episode, after a momentary panic that the HVF, having learned of a PDS sufferer on his street, are coming for Kieran, we see them raid Ken's house, drag his wife out into the street by her hair as she pleads for her life. And after swiping at the makeup by which the undead cover their pale skin, forcing her to remove the contacts that disguise the bleached irises of the undead, after thoroughly dehumanising Maggie—as her name is—the leader of the HVF coldly puts a bullet in her head.
That would, I guess, constitute a spoiler, if you haven't seen the series, given the feint where we're misdirected to think Bill, the HVF leader, is coming for Kieran; but this is not the aspect of the series I'd rather you came to unwittingly (if that's possible three years down the line). Rather it's an epistemic quirk of uncertainty—of what did or did not happen, might or might not be—that hooked me even more than the horror of Roarton, the monstrous social force of abjection all too recognisable for someone growing up queer in Thatcher's Britain.
It's the question I found opened for me from the moment the show announces its agenda in those opening sequences; because as savvy as it was to cast Tomlinson, a totem of kitchen sink drama, Luke Newberry as Kieran is also a shrewd call, bringing a doe-eyed vulnerability to the role that seeds our sense of him even before we see the family home festooned with his art. We don't know the cause of his death before the Rising, notably unspoken as he returns to find his bedroom exactly as he left it, but what it might have been is clear. A sensitive type, an artistic type, in a town like Roarton? When we see Kieran digging through an old shoebox of mementos for a photo of his best mate, Rick—who (we will learn) died in Afghanistan, leading Kieran to suicide—the pang of identification is all the more intense because confirmation of our niggling curiosity is denied.
This is the lacunae and/or limina that kicks in during that first episode to drive the story at (and to) a deeper depth than the affects achieved by mere chimera or monstrum—with maybe a touch of the flipside of the monstrum, too, for this queer viewer, for a viewer driven to queering characters like this by decades of denial. Which is to say, when a text invokes in us that excruciating yearning sense of what should be, that Kieran or Captain America or Styles in Teen Wolf must be as we yearn, this too is graspable as a quirk in the narrative, wrought from the subtexts, the Sehnsucht and saudade and straight-up fucking want.
In the second episode, Kieran says of Bill, "He's always hated me." "Why?" we ask. And whatever Kieran's sexuality, the answer is clearly homophobia; no matter the truth, in that culture artistic sensitivity is a red flag for a poof. We know fine well both that Rick's friendship with Kieran (his nickname of Ren for Kieran sets himself as doting Stimpy) will raise a red flag over his head too, and that a man like Bill will focus his angst on the bad influence, not even naming his fear but coding it with weakling. Since such a culture hits even the straight with that shit, it is still wholly possible for Kieran and Rick's relationship to be sans romance entirely, but we cannot see this and not feel . . . the tug toward a truth.
Call it projection, but all narrative is a conjuring in the audience's pointy noggin, even that fed in as images and sounds. The story takes place within our skulls and guts, so I see no problem in circumscribing this boulomaic quirk, the numina of what should be, as active thing in the dynamics of the narrative. So, many a text is not just capable of queering but evermade calling for it; when we ship Stucky, we are not just reading into Cap and Bucky what we want to be there but experiencing the numina wrought there that makes us want. (As, say, in a moment where Cap hedges awkwardly about his lovelife to Black Widow.)
Experiencing also, all too often, the absentings and obfuscations where subtext inveterately remains subtext. So here. Where the narrative raises the issue of backstory and leaves it as yet unanswered, a lacunae is born. As it hints at a possibility via traces that code for queerness, it constructs a limina. And does so with such balance that it's still walking the tightrope almost to the end of the final episode. Is Kieran . . . ? As I watched the scene snippets of the closing credits for episode one, indeed, the glimpse of a coming female character (the scene-stealing, irrepressible Amy) left me, I'll freely admit, furrowing my brow: Don't you fucking dare straightiron him with a female love interest. Don't you dare collapse the potencies of his relationship with Rick to mere fraternity. Don't blow it now.
Thankfully, thank fuck, it doesn't.
That it maintains the uncertainty could frustrate. There's much to be said for forthrightness when it comes to characters being queer, of course, and much to be said against equivocations born of a lack of guts: mumble mumble doesn't like labels mumble mumble just in love with so-and-so as a person. We've heard the rote evasions often enough, anyone's entitled to be just plain tired of that shit, to curtly ask exactly why a narrative is playing coy with a character's sexuality: enough subtext already; just give us the fucking text. But in this case, the suicide is largely bound into that negative space together with Kieran's queerness, as too is the undead status of not just Kieran but Rick—found in Afghanistan and returned to Roarton in episode two. So the silences enforced around all this by stifling normativity become the gripping focus, and In the Flesh begins to tell a truth that could not be done justice to without the evasions.
This is a portrait of the erasure of the abject, it becomes clear, painted in the absurd pretence of a family dinner where Kieran mimes eating to enable his father's denial, a breakfast where he responds to an offer of coffee with a pretence of trying to cut down. In the pretence that a previous night's turmoil was wild weather rather than Maggie's murder. In Kieran literally shoved into a closet when a couple come round to view the house; and in the coffin-awakening he flashes back to while in there. In Bill's complete denial that his own son ever died, and in the toxic masculinity of the shooting contest by which Rick sustains this tenuous acceptance. In the exchange between Kieran's mum, Sue, and sister, Jem, which slingshots from Bill's erasure of the abject in its figurative mode to the central silence around the literal abject:
Sue: People convince themselves of all sorts, love. Make their eyes see what they wanna believe.
Jem: We're not gonna do that though, are we?
Sue: What do you mean?
Jem: We're gonna tell Kieran that Rick's back, aren't we? Mum?
Or in another unanswered question, Kieran’s (who wanted to be cremated) to his parents: "Why did you bury me?" The answer that is not given: because that's what you do with the secret, the unspoken.
There are too many traces of the truth piled up over the episodes—Kieran's panic when Amy unbuttons her dress to show leukaemia lesions, Amy's gusto played not as manic pixie dream girl but as fierce galvanising shameless ally to the queer—for us not to see a posturing in Rick's room with its sports trophies, posters of bikini babes and football teams. But that the truth is always talked around, remains deniable even when acknowledged vaguely in Kieran's comment of how, the night before Rick left for the army, they smoked a few fags, drank White Lightning, and "messed around" . . . this makes for a more potent and truer narrative.
The silencing is more true because, under stifling normativity, it must always be possible that it's just a friendship, just a phase, just adolescent messing around even when it actually happens. To persist in imagining that Rick was, at most, a close straight friend who, at most, indulged his best mate's crush with one wee night of messing around would be, by the end of the series, an utter perversity, but that the series leaves that on the table is not coyness, I'd contend, but commitment to the conjuring of erasure. It must maintain the uncertainty to maintain the yearning, withholding confirmation not to queer-bait but to make of itself a ruthlessly empathic rendering of what it is to live that baiting, what it is to be the abject erased.
There is no confirmation even at the finale, the catharsis found not in love daring to say its name but in Kieran's father opening up about the trauma of finding his suicided son in the cave Kieran and Rick made their den. Confirmation would collapse the narrative to simply yet another coming-out drama, turn it all on Kieran (now, finally) daring to speak. And this is not about his hiding in the closet, but rather about everyone else shamming its barriers with silence, evasion, disingenuous interpretation. In that cave, we see in the final episode—when Kieran flees to it for refuge after that monstrum of Roarton has its climax in Bill murdering Rick—the truth is text, graffiti on the wall: "REN + RICK 4EVA." There might as well be a heart drawn round it.
But there is not. So, of course, the denialists would say, that could still just be the bond of best mates.
So, even as the deal is sealed in any reasonable reading, that undrawn heart stands as signifier of all the unreasoned and unreasonable readings torturing the self-evident traces of the truth to sustain denial. And it is not down to the audience, not to Kieran, to draw that line—it's already drawn by him, figuratively speaking, in the painting of Rick hung so he can wake to see it from his bed. For me, this is the crux of Mitchell's show, the raw truth of it: all we have seen defies the viewer to leave the heart around that love graffiti undrawn, and yet it remains so; it remains so, and all we have seen is also the reason why.
The show is, in my book then, a feat. It is one thing to abolish the silence, to defiantly draw the heart in the narrative, another to honestly render the silence itself; how to conjure the unspoken in its full force without, by not drawing the heart, colluding with it. I can think of few TV series that have packed such punch for me, felt so true to my lived experience, as I felt in seeing that impossibility achieved in the driving lacunae and limina of this show's first season, in the undrawn heart of In the Flesh.
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