Taken Down review: 'A bone-shaker of a final scene proves Carolan is as fond of pulling the rug out from under his audience as ever'
It’s been almost four years to the day since Love/Hate’s Nidge Delaney met his maker, trainer soles facing heavenwards, effectively bringing the curtain down on one of Ireland’s most accomplished dramas.
Stuart Carolan’s drama, set in the seamy underbelly of Dublin’s criminal underworld, offered serious buck bang: double crossing, Machiavellian characters, a cat and mouse chase with law enforcement, main characters dying off with nary a warning. It barely needs to be said: whatever Carolan and the Love/Hate production team came up with next was always going to create some heat.
Yet for all the superlatives and critical garlands lobbed at it, there was one criticism that had often been levelled at Love/Hate: the relatively scant sketching of its female characters. Where the male characters had interiority and motivation in spades, the female characters were often without agency of their own: passive molls, monosyllabic assassins, lovers on the brink of hysteria.
Whether by accident or design, there are no such qualms when it comes to Taken Down (RTE One, Sunday, 9.30pm). The two female leads at its pivot are made of stern enough stuff. Inspector Jen Rooney (Lynn Rafferty) is all but dragged from a hospital bed to take on her latest investigation; the death of Esme (Marlene Madenge) a 17-year-old Nigerian-Irish teenager outside a Direct Provision Centre in Dublin. The garda investigation into her violent, bloodied death only serves to highlight the haphazard chaos within the centre. Its manager Wayne (Brian Gleeson) has a hard time keeping tab on the basics of running the centre, from locating CCTV footage to keeping log-books. He doesn’t seem particularly perturbed by his managerial shortcomings, either.
Down the hallway from Esme’s room live Abeni Bankole (Aissa Maiga) and her two sons, the teenaged Isaiah (Aaron Ado) and Oba (Sean Edo). The three arrived on a refugee boat eight years prior; Abeni’s husband succumbed to chemical fire injuries during the crossing. In any case, several years of living in a single room in Direct Provision Centre, raising two sons on her own, has created a streak of maternal fortitude in Abeni, even if living in stultifying direct provision appears to defeat her on a regular basis. She waits, apparently in vain, for her asylum application to move through the system, stunted by a system that won’t allow her to be the mother she wants to be. Isaiah, meanwhile, is a typical Irish 17-year-old, prone to doing the wayward stuff that teenagers do. Yet when it transpires that his relationship with Esme has more to it than meets the eye, the family get tangled up in the investigation.
To compare Taken Down to Love/Hate would be remiss and deathly lazy, but it is worth noting some emerging hallmarks in show-runner Carolan’s two works. Much like its predecessor, Taken Down is meticulously researched, showing a human side to a world unfamiliar to many, as well as the casual prejudices its residents often face. There are some wonderfully humane moments in this opening episode, even if it is a world drenched in unflinching bleakness and anxiety. Where Love/Hate’s tone had the perfect balance of light and shade - and a gallows humour in a world of visceral violence - there are glimmers of murky humour throughout Taken Down, too, often provided by the hapless Wayne. Mid-investigation, Garda Macken (Gavin O’Connor) decides to help himself to the centre’s unappealing cafeteria fare (its residents are clearly baulking at the toss-up between watery lasagne and Spag Bol, but not him).
“What do you think you’re doing?” asks Niamh (Orla Fitzgerald), appalled. “It’s free,” he says, stating the obvious, in a moment that slices nicely through the seriousness.
While Taken Down (co-written by Carolan with novelist Jo Spain) bears many of the traits of your common-or-garden procedural crime drama, it’s inevitable that the series will find its stylistic sea legs and break from the pack.
Episode One is more of a stall-setter than anything else, though enough intriguing plot strands have been thrown into the mix, presumably to knit together in satisfying fashion again down the line. A bone-shaker of a final scene proves that Carolan is still every bit as fond of pulling the rug out from under his audience as he has ever been.
The cast, meanwhile, benefits greatly from the energy that fresh new acting talent often brings. Casting director Maureen Hughes has worked the same magic that she did on Love/Hate, enlisting more established actors like Slimane Dazi and Enoch Frost from London alongside home-grown talents like Aaron Edo, Taby Ruigu and Florence Adebambo (the latter two emerge later in the series).
Raffery and Senegalese-French Maiga’s performances are by turns steady and subtle. Still, both are likely to unfurl nicely as their characters are forced to prove their mettle. There’s no hint yet of who, if anyone, might become the series’ breakaway character - an icon on par with Nidge Delaney. Yet whether the world is yet ready for another Nidge, though, remains to be seen.