A detective story without a clear central figure is a tricky proposition. Most mysteries, especially when a brutal unsolved murder is involved, benefit from having a north star, a home base for the series to return to when it’s needed most. If there’s one notable thing about “Collateral,” a co-production between the BBC and Netflix, it’s that instead of filtering the entire story through the psyche of a sole lead investigator, this four-part series is grounded in a half-dozen entry points. The result is something that isn’t groundbreaking at every turn, but it’s a show that tries to take a more global view to a localized crime.
Although the series isn’t entirely trained on her character, Carey Mulligan is still an excellent, welcome addition to the TV landscape. She stars as Kip Glaspie, a London detective investigating the death of Abdullah Atif, shot and killed while delivering a pizza to a London flat. During the investigation, she discovers that Abdullah’s status as a refugee has far more wide-reaching consequences than the single isolated incident that took his life.
Some of the other people caught up in an increasingly messy, international web? Karen (Billie Piper), a single mother raising two children who was also the last person to see Abdullah alive. Her involvement also brings in her ex-husband David Mars (John Simm), who happens to be a sitting MP.
With angles from law-enforcement, UK leadership, the church of England, and the British Armed Forces, “Collateral” establishes a number of different worlds to stage the story outside of the usual handful of locales in a detective drama: the crime scene, an interrogation room, the informal trading of intel at a surprisingly public venue.
The characters who make up the various parts of the mystery behind Abdullah’s death do come from countries well beyond Britain’s borders, though. Abdullah’s sisters, Fatima (Ahd) and Mona (July Namir) are immigrants themselves, trying to find a path that doesn’t involve deportation. Even the British citizens in this story bring traumas of their own from their time away from their home country.
Still, “Collateral” has as its anchor the familiar benchmarks of a detective drama. In the hands of Mulligan and Nathaniel Martello-White (Kip’s partner Nathan), those bits of under-the-police-tape banter and station debriefings really crackle. Mulligan is able to be direct without being unfeeling, bringing a surprising level of emotion for a character that is not always outwardly expressive. And coming off last year‘s captivating turn as political prisoner Dhari Bishop in “Guerilla,” this cements Martello-White as one of the most mesmerizing TV actors who can do so much with doing so little.
Through every corner of the story, writer David Hare and director SJ Clarkson (each serving in their roles for all four episodes) create a story that uses the central investigation to branch out further. Through Mars, “Collateral” tries to engage in the post-Brexit conversation of the UK’s place in the world, especially in relationship to how news stories are framed to fuel isolationist sentiment. That this conversation is happening on the fringes dulls some of the series’ ability to be incisive on that front, especially when some of the more forceful rhetoric within the show butts up against the more effective subtle work elsewhere.
The more graceful critique within “Collateral” comes in how it shows the many ways in which its female characters become commodified. They are dismissed in group conversation, they are explicitly referred to as cattle in a slaughterhouse, and they are the victims of assault via blackmail. As the murder case opens up and reveals the full extent to which its main players have been manipulated, it underlines how Abdullah is far from the only victim in this story. That idea is an effective unifying force, even when “Collateral” doesn’t always have an elegant way of handling the show’s other thematic throughlines.
There’s a surprising amount of efficiency that Hare brings to putting this mystery together, leaving no character unconnected. It’s the mark of someone who has made a career on stage and screen, but it also sometimes make “Collateral” feel almost too self-contained. For a story as broad and wide-reaching as this aims to be, there’s also a tidiness around the edges that belies some very complex human problems lying underneath.
On both ends of the director/star dynamic, Clarkson and Mulligan make for an effective team. Kip Glaspie is a fine entry in the upper echelon of detective characters who have the confidence of someone who’s the smartest in the room but never uses that knowledge to lord it over their peers or superiors. Even in the bleakest moments of “Collateral,” that faint wisp of a knowing smile from Mulligan is all that the audience needs to know that the story is on course. In a similar way, Clarkson has an effective sense of space within these familiar scenes, effectively establishing where every character is placed, both literally and metaphorically. The first time Kip visits the murder scene, it’s not until the scene is nearly over that you realize just how succinctly Clarkson’s conveyed all the necessary information and all the key players in the aftermath.
By centering this story around all of these totemic societal institutions, “Collateral” is taking a broad view of all of these key political, legal, and religious pillars, which are subject to the individuals who comprise them. (In case you’re wondering if any of the characters are aware of this, a bishop shows up to give an extended treatise on how individuals keep these entities together.) That the TV murder drama is another one of those ideas under the microscope is to the series’ credit. By de-emphasizing the mystery, “Collateral” puts a bigger emphasis on how we process power and control, both in the stories that we see and the ones that we tell ourselves.
“Collateral” is now available to stream on Netflix.