[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
The first time a telegram shows up in “Vigil,” it’s a little bit of a novelty. Modern-day detective stories usually aren’t filled with paper messages printed out and hand-delivered by designated messengers. It makes sense, though, when half of this thriller takes place underneath the surface of the ocean.
That special kind of communication is fitting for a show that quickly becomes an unraveling mystery about secret knowledge and who has access to key whispers of information. The main person trying to track down all these threads is DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones), sent aboard the HMS Vigil to look into the death of a crew member. The obstacles to her investigation start before she even gets inside the hull — her descent from a marine helicopter onto the deck is the show’s first example of wringing tension out of something that could easily be presented in a banal way.
It doesn’t take too many questions before the crew members of the Vigil start to outwardly bristle at Silva’s presence on board. Of course, as you might already be suspecting, the mysterious death isn’t quite as cut and dried as it was explained. Extracting the truth from the persons of interest among the crew’s ranks gives Silva’s efforts the feel of an underwater edition of “Prime Suspect.” Sliva encounters her share of outsider pushback as she deals with other psychological reminders of what these ocean depths mean to her.
Topside, Silva’s colleague Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie) is looking into details of the case and finding a not-dissimilar lack of privacy in the process. Silva doesn’t have giant databases of research at her disposal, but through Longacre’s logistical legwork in tracking down leads, “Vigil” gets to have it both ways. Eventually, some of Longacre’s findings make their way down to Silva on the Vigil in concise, carefully worded dispatches. (Because what good is a submarine drama if you don’t have a little bit of code-breaking along the way?)
There’s a bevy of crew members and officials from different organizations filling out the detective story web here. Aside from Jones and Leslie’s anchoring work as the uncovering detectives, this show has another gem in Paterson Joseph, who plays Newsome, the Vigil’s commanding officer. Joseph finds the fascinating middle ground between crusty boisterous sea dog and aloof tight-lipped captain. He’s curt and direct, but always with simmering emotions of anger or annoyance or fear peeking through just the tiniest bit at any moment.
Oh, and did we mention that this submarine is carrying missiles? There’s enough life-or-death stakes here simply by trying to figure out the truth behind what happened on board before Silva’s arrival. Yet, this is a possible homicide aboard a military submarine, so there’s something inevitable about getting closer to some larger geopolitical picture the more the series progresses. There are some fireworks along the way that wouldn’t feel out of place in a more action-driven series, but “Vigil” finds a different kind of strength in laying out a more bureaucratic tension.
This series comes from creator Tom Edge, the writer behind “Lovesick,” a drastically different series in scale and tone. Edge does find a way to bring a gentler side to parts of “Vigil,” especially in flashbacks dispersed at strategic points along the investigation timeline. And though the Vigil scenes can’t help but take on some of the claustrophobia that Silva is experiencing, the hallway conversations and confrontations in private quarters don’t feel constrained. So “Vigil” becomes less a drama that happens to take place on a submarine and more a tale of manipulation that bubbles into a full-blown thriller. Regardless of the direction, there’s plenty more beyond crucial pieces of paper here to keep you hooked.