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J.K. Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’ on HBO Faces the End of Empathy

J.K. Rowling's 'The Casual Vacancy' on HBO Faces the End of Empathy

The second episode of HBO’s new miniseries, “The Casual Vacancy,” begins with a funeral. As the people of Pagford, a bucolic English village set amid burbling streams and emerald meadows, pour into the old stone chapel at the center of town, the set piece emerges as a microcosm of their fractured community. Conservative parish council chairman Howard Mollison (Michael Gambon) sports an ornate necklace; doctor Parminder Jawanda (Lolita Chakrabarti) wears a lavender sari; angry, abusive working man Simon Price (Richard Glover) hides behind dark Aviators; simpering school reformer Colin Wall (Simon McBurney) puffs on his inhaler. Though sketched in broad terms, the sequence is nevertheless a provocative clash of race and class as seen through the veneer of propriety, and no one is quite innocent except for the man in the coffin.

A potent, tragicomic parable of austerity Britain, “The Casual Vacancy,” adapted by Sarah Phelps from J.K. Rowling’s novel and directed by Jonny Campbell, thus uses Pagford and “the Fields,” a neighboring public housing project, as a prism through which to understand what happens at empathy’s end. As council member Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear) and his allies strive to protect Sweetlove House and its associated services from Mollison’s plan to turn the property into a luxury hotel and spa, the miniseries filters the secrets of small-town life through the lens of “us” versus “them” politics. “Raise the drawbridge!” Mollison urges, an aptly medieval metaphor for his regressive stance: to him, there are “Pagford people,” and then there’s everyone else.

One need not follow news of Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party to recognize the thinly veiled aversion to “outsiders” in Mollison’s rhetoric, however—it is, after all, featured in media coverage of civil unrest from Ferguson to Baltimore, the unifying element in paeans to border security and “the 47% percent.” “I mean, Aubrey gives tirelessly,” Julia Sweetlove (Emilia Fox) says of her husband, though they stand to profit most of all from Mollison’s plan. “Gives, gives, gives. And I do Fun Runs. Well, not personally, but I know people who do.” Though the keen satire eventually turns toward grief, “The Casual Vacancy” offers an involving portrait of the dismantling of the post-World War II social contract that’s taken place on both sides of the Atlantic, made manageable by reducing the battlefield to a single council election.

Along the way, Pagford’s tangle of personal relationships suggests just how deeply implicated we are in the damage wrought by our politics. Barry’s law partner is Mollison’s son, Miles (Rufus Jones); the resentful Simon, whining about “St. Bloody Barry,” is his half-brother; his friend, Tess (Monica Dolan), is Colin’s wife, and a counselor to the wayward teenager, Krystal (Abigail Lawrie), he’s taken under his wing. With social workers and addicts, rebellious children and dissatisfied spouses, “The Casual Vacancy” maps out the identities that define the fault lines striking and slipping right under Pagford’s nose, but it’s the characters’ foibles that prevent the miniseries from devolving into the schematic. Even Howard Mollison and his prim wife, Shirley (Julia McKenzie), earn a modicum of sympathy: their support for the project is an attempt to befriend the posh Sweetloves, who won’t give them the time of day.

Marked from the opening minutes by mirrors and plays with light—shattered reflections, lens flare, the multicolored blur of stained glass—”The Casual Vacancy” frames its group portrait in intimate terms, taking the old adage that “all politics are local” to mean that debates over food banks and methadone clinics, private development and the public good, necessarily derive from more than ideological posturing. As Krystal struggles to break free of her mother, Terri (Keeley Forsyth), or Simon’s son, Andrew (Joe Hurst) bristles under his father’s control, the benefits of a commitment to our fellow citizens that goes beyond Fun Runs can no longer be cast as the concern of liberal “do-gooders” and those “on the dole.” Though buoyed by delicious swipes at familiar figures, the miniseries in fact works away from the sun-spotted optimism of the setting, until its most terrible revelation arrives in the murky waters of the river.

Indeed, it’s “extreme apathy,” to use one character’s term, which ultimately decides the election. For there are no corporate conspiracies in “The Casual Vacancy,” no wealthy hoteliers or powerful politicians appearing to influence the outcome, only that insidious product of privilege, the belief that an individual’s success is predicated on the individual character alone. “It’s just take, take, take, and people have got to be responsible for their own choices,” Howard Mollison argues, and if the miniseries refuses the false hope of a happy ending, it acknowledges that men like Mollison, plagued by wormy, maggot-filled nightmares, must also reckon with the society their choices create. It’s not his funeral, but one day it will be, and the battle for his seat on the council is sure to be hard-fought. And maybe the good guys will win.

“The Casual Vacancy” airs Wednesday, Apr. 29 and Thursday, Apr. 30 at 8pm on HBO.   

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