Pat Stacey: Taken Down catches fire, but is it too late?
Sunday's episode picked up serious momentum and was extremely gripping but the drama could have done with tighter pacing from the start, writes Pat Stacey
It’s been a promising month for Irish drama. Between them, RTE’s Taken Down and Virgin Media’s Blood represent a significant improvement on anything we’ve seen from domestic broadcasters in recent times.
**Spoilers for episode 3 of Taken Down ahead**
While neither is without its flaws (and what drama series isn’t?), at least they partially erase the memory of drivel like Striking Out and the dreary, mediocre Acceptable Risk — although, apparently, that’s getting a second season, God help us all.
What’s more, in the case of Jo Spain and Stuart Carolan’s crime drama, Sunday’s third episode was a big step up from the previous week’s instalment.
The six-parter — centred on the brutal murder of a young Nigerian migrant called Esme (Marlene Madenge), whose body was found dumped near the direct provision centre where she lived — got off to a strong start a fortnight ago. But it stalled badly in episode two.
The murder-investigation element of the plot slowed to a crawl and was more or less sidelined. DI Jen Mooney (Lynn Rafferty) wasn’t fleshed out in the slightest, while her subordinates, particularly the seemingly racist Fitzer (Sean Fox) and the downright buffoonish Mackin (Gavin O’Connor), remained nothing more than roughly sketched stereotypes.
The episode was more interested in showing us the degrading reality for asylum seekers living in direct provision centres. Fair enough; it’s the kind of hot button issue that contemporary television drama should be addressing.
But since the series had already done this very effectively the week before, there was a feeling we were being repeatedly hammered over the head with the same righteous message.
For a series that’s supposedly a thriller, the effect was to drain any trace of tension or suspense from the situation. Luckily, Sunday’s instalment picked up serious momentum and was extremely gripping.
Mooney was suddenly roused into action after an emotional meeting with Flora (Florence Adebambo), the teenager from the centre who’d been forced into sex slavery and burned with cigarettes by her captors.
Even the hitherto useless Fitzer and Mackin were putting their shoulders to the wheel and trawling through hours of potentially incriminating CCTV footage, which has been tampered with by the centre’s shifty supervisor Wayne (the ever-watchable Brian Gleeson).
What really raised the bar, however, was the introduction of a pair of genuinely loathsome villains. Jimmy Smallhorne is sleaziness personified as Gar, a gangster landlord and co-owner of a brothel who, having brought in three beer-swilling thugs to eject a Muslim family from one of his properties, then squeezed a dozen migrants into its cramped bedroom.
But Gar is in the ha’penny place compared to his partner in the brothel and sex-trafficking operation, the monstrous Benjamin. As played by Enoch Frost, a British actor of Ghanaian heritage, Benjamin is a properly terrifying creation. It’s a performance of extraordinary, blood-chilling power.
The scene where he terrorised Flora, who was frightened into returning to the brothel and raped by Gar, was deeply unsettling.
It was also revealed that Abeni (Aissa Maiga) works as a cleaner at the brothel and was aware of what happened to Flora all along. Her horror when she realised the red stain she was scrubbing off a sticky carpet was Esme’s blood was brilliantly conveyed.
Taken Down has definitely come alive; it’s just a pity it didn’t happen a little sooner. Can Spain and Carolan satisfactorily tie up all the loose ends when we’ve already reached the halfway point, or will the story be allowed to spill over into another season?
Far too many series end up padding out the plot. Carolan’s Love/Hate, which would have benefited from losing its meandering fourth season, was one of them. It would be shame if the same thing were to happen to Taken Down, especially now that it’s really got us hooked.