Recently, I rewatched three seasons of a engrossing British mysteries series, “Unforgotten.” Originally aired beginning in 2015, the series starred Nicola Walker as the lead detective, Cassie, and Sanjeev Bhaskar as her male side-kick, Sunil. In each season, the detectives discover remains of a body dating back 30 or more years. Walker’s character, Cassie, is determined to find the identity of the body and then of the person or persons who killed that person, no matter what it involves. Walker’s quiet speech belies the passion that drives her as she pursues every possible lead; she is determined to bring some measure of relief to those who loved the very old corpse when s/he was alive. In each case, it turns out that three or four individuals were in close enough contact with the victim to warrant Cassie’s looking into their pasts and coming to see all of them as possible suspects in the ancient crime.
The first time I watched each series, I assumed the title, “Unforgotten,” referred to the fact that our lead detective and her diligent and driven team refuse to forget their old case just because the murder occurred in the seriously distant past. The fact that several individuals and families are disrupted while Cassie follows leads seemed to me perfectly justified by her commitment to solving the original crime. In the first season, I didn’t particularly like the various suspects, so I was fine with seeing them become frustrated and at times frightened by what was happening. But in the second and especially the third season, I very much liked all those drawn into the detectives’ net. But I still saw the title as relating to those left with an unsolved disappearance of a beloved person.
When I decided to watch the series again, I was coping with serious worsening of conditions brought on by the covid-19 pandemic and with worsening actions against ideals of democracy at the hands of the then president. I remembered how engrossed I’d been by Nicola Walker’s acting and how good I’d felt about her finding the guilty party. But, as episodes played themselves out, I began to have very different responses to what was happening to the living suspects and those in their orbits. In each case, suspects were living inside an old secret from their pasts, secrets that would disrupt or even destroy their carefully crafted lives in the present. Several times I wondered if the writers of the various seasons had been in any way influenced by the adage “let sleeping dogs lie.” I found myself mulling over incidents in my own past that I was quite happy to have unknown by most people in my present circles of friends and associates. I even remembered being in a huge audience at a big church in my city when it hosted Sr. Prejean who said at one point in her talk about the death penalty “We are all better than our worst deed.”
All these new feelings about the mystery series came to a climax when Cassie and Sunil find at the end of the second series that none of the suspects is directly guilty of the old crime they have refused to “forget.” So they agree not to press any charges against those individuals, since doing so won’t accomplish anything about their original case. For several days after watching this season a second time, I realized that the title actually has a much deeper meaning than the one I thought of originally. The writer is asking me and the detectives to realize that poking around in anyone’s distant past easily can unearth behaviors far better allowed to stay in that past unless it becomes absolutely necessary to air them. Facts from moments in our past are not the same as truths achieved over our life span. Relentless pursuit of past actions can sometimes cloud genuine reforms undertaken and lived by.
So Cassie and Sunil must be vigilant in trying to bring resolution to those families who have lost members to violent deaths. Just as surely, however, associates or loved ones of those murdered people deserve to be allowed second chances. I’m very glad I chose the three seasons of “Unforgotten” as my escape viewing because the program has helped me see things in a much more nuanced context, surely a goal of any serious literary venture.
In reminding myself of details of the three seasons of the powerful program, I’m delighted to have found that a fourth season was being filmed when the pandemic forced work to come to a screeching halt. But crews are back at it and a new season has been promised to air sometime in 2021. I will be glued to my screen when that happens, eager to see if my new-found sense of just how complex the morality behind the episodes obtains in the new case.
Sherlock Holmes was fond of saying to Doctor Watson that someone had “vanished without a trace.” This phrase came to me about a week ago as I was walking my usual early morning route in my neighborhood. That route takes me to a Mall that extends for about five blocks and is where a yearly art fair usually installs white tents inside which artists set up and hawk their creative wares in August. Of course that event was cancelled this year because of the pandemic. Instead, in late spring, one morning I noted four or five tents set up and knew instantly that they belonged to homeless people. Within days, our park board had installed a Portapotty so people had a place to eliminate., Within a week or so, those initial tents grew into more than twenty, spread all down the narrow grassy area across from the Mall proper. My walk had always included going up one side road to the “U” at the top of the area and then down on the other side that ran alongside several old brick apartment buildings. As the homeless encampment grew, I shortened my walk and took it on the grassy Mall area, though I never felt in any danger. Usually I was there before any of the tent dwellers was awake; if someone was already out in front of their quarters, we spoke but did not have conversations.
As the size of the settlement increased, I noted that many were not living in “tents,” but had thrown together several large plastic sheets, often full of rips and holes, secured loosely to stakes or poles. Some of these structures sagged on a good day and, in early October when we had a very unexpected heavy wet snow event, collapsed into themselves from the sheer weight of wet stuff. That morning and for several more until sun melted the snow and dried the plastic sheeting, I wondered how those inside were managing since I felt pretty sure nothing so thrown together could be water-proof. Since I walked past the encampment five mornings a week, I noted the changing nature of each “tent” and had a range of feelings. The longer each person or couple stayed there, the more odds and ends began to be outside the pretend sleeping/living area. One spot had set up a dead chrysanthemum clearly retrieved from someone’s alley where it had been taken because it was no longer “fit” to adorn a front porch or patio. Several sites came to include grocery store push carts full of clothes or papers or more pieces of plastic, perhaps waiting to be used when other strips played out.. Initially I thought how “messy” the various sites were becoming, wondering why anyone would retrieve a dead flower and carry it blocks to be put outside the flimsiest of shelters. That privileged reaction morphed into one perhaps closer to reality: I began to feel that if I were homeless and forced to try and make shelter outside, then middle-class ideas of “neatness” couldn’t be applied. to me To such a person, a faded yellow plant might raise their frayed spirits more than I could possibly comprehend. So I began to let go of my judgmental reactions and just be glad the person or people inside that particular flimsy place had found anything to give color or life to their tiny bit of grassland that is all my super wealthy neighbor could offer or allow them.
As fall extended itself, I began to wonder when the city would ask or force these homeless individuals–mostly black–to “vacate the premises,” another often-used phrase when facing the realities of homelessness in this country. At first, I noticed that the man who lived at the end of the string of plastic houses was out one morning burning trash in front of his dwelling. Next morning, he was gone, though lots of bits and pieces of his life accumulated over about three months were visible in the grass. I wondered where he might have gone and hoped that perhaps some agency had found him better accommodations even as I suspected that were not the case. In the course of the next week or so, about a third of those living between him and the original group of tents cleared out as well and I kept wondering where they might be on a given early morning as I walked by the mostly empty space where they’d made the best places to “live” as they could. Then, after noting one morning that there were now only about seven or eight remaining tents, I came to the Mall, looked to my left to see how things were going, and found not a single sign that anyone had ever been there. Not only were the actuall people gone but the park board had gotten trash trucks to scoop up every shard of their belonging. Every large black or blue trash bin had been emptied, tidied on the outside, and replaced where it had “belonged” before the encampment happened. Anyone who had not seen this make-shift community as I had done would have no idea it had ever existed. To them, indeed, the women and men who had lived there had “vanished without a trace.” But I had seen them, morning after morning, for about eight months. They came to be part of my day in a strange and disconnected way. And now, when I walk further up the green meridian and look at bare ground where they slept and ate and talked and maybe even made love or argued or hurt each other, questions linger: Why didn’t I give them money or bring an old blanket as air got colder or leave food from the nearby grocery store where I shop often? Why didn’t I ever say more than “Hello” or “Good morning” to someone just up from their hard “bed”? And, most important of all, “Where are they now?”
Their “trace” is in my memory, nagging at me every time I walk past the Mall, haunting me until I find an action I can engage in that may help some other homeless person trying to make a life out of whatever fragments s/he can salvage from the largesse all around them.
Having just finished watching Season 4 of “The Crown,” I am once again struck by how powerful are the first few minutes of each episode. Perhaps before the end of Season 1, I knew it was important for me to watch each time as the somber music began and golden, back-lighted shapes appeared slowly on my screen, gradually. forming first a cross and then a crown. I even wrote a blog a couple of years ago, when “Victoria” also began to be shown in this country. I felt the powerful difference between one series’ calling itself by the first name of the queen it wanted to portray while the other focused on the object with which the young Elizabeth was invested when she was told she would no longer be “Elizabeth Windsor” but rather “Regina.”
Lots has happened since that first season and my first blog. We’ve seen people told they may not marry whom they love or pursue lives they are drawn to, that they must swallow or smother or outright deny and kill any thoughts or wishes that endanger that “crown” and the monarchy it represents. I’ve watched Elizabeth enjoy her corgis and her horses even if she can’t play with or extend much love to her children. Her sister Margaret has stumbled from alcohol to chain smoking to flamboyant and frequent sex even if she can’t be with the love of her life. The young Diana has been caught in the headlights of royalty even as she becomes more and more isolated and dismissed. And Charles has been driven into narrow lanes intended to end in marriage to some suitable young female instead of being allowed to make a serious proposal to the forbidden Camilla.
But not until I began seeing those first two minutes of shapes emerging onto my screen for these last ten episodes has their deep import become undeniable to me as someone fascinated by images and metaphors, verbal or visual. So what have I seen this season? Here is my clearest comprehension:
- As the music begins, golden tentacles at the far left of the screen grow, oozing out in beautiful\ albeit sinister fashion. These initial reachings cause me unease.
- These on the left of the screen vanish as others emerge from the far right of the screen, a little thicker but still squirming like alluring fibers that take on greater force as they move into the empty space that will become inhabited by one of the actors.
- As the music becomes a little more forceful, those tentacles become bars of gold that are brought into clashing contact, forming a collar that reminds me of similar iron ones fitted around the necks of enslaved Africans in the North American South where I grew up. My initial unease is becoming something tighter, more constrictive and constricting. I feel short of breath, like I want some people to get onto the screen and start talking, removing the images that pervade my consciousness.
- Solid gold bars become delicately carved squares that slowly become the vertical and horizontal arms of a giant cross, I try to find this comforting, but the sounds and the force of the cross emerging from the backdrop of the screen offer dread more than comfort. The “church” that houses this object holds out no forgiveness or protection or love.
- The cross metamorphoses slowly and amidst shrouded films that hide what is happening until we see, filtered through the haze, a golden metal circlet with a tiny Coptic cross at its top. The CROWN has been born from the altered substance that began as the golden tentacles reaching ominously out toward whomever and whatever might enter or be attracted into their aura.
It seems undeniable to me, looking back now upon the seasons preceding this one, that whomever designed these opening moments and wrote this opening music understood where this fictional story of Elizabeth’s long reign was headed. S/he knew enough to enclose the action and actors inside the inescapable and gorgeous web or net or prison we have been asked to imagine. I am so admiring of that person or those persons for providing me with this frame that keeps on making its way deeper into my consciousness, causing me to decide that the cost of being part of the British monarchy is high and harsh. So I will continue, when watching the next season promised us late in 2021, NOT clicking on the little box at the bottom of my screen that says “Skip Opening,:” That “opening:” is the gloss for how I am to enter what follows, no matter how oppressive it has become.
In 1971 Alma Routsong, aka Isabel, Miller published a lesbian novel entitled Patience and Sarah. It’s the story of two women who love each other and refuse to be denied that love by family or cultural biases against such relationships. They lead a quiet and fulfilling life together, touched by moments of humor and argument. At the end of the narrative, the author reflects on just how unlikely such a life story still was by saying “You can’t tell a gift how to come.” I’ve remembered that line all these years because it keeps being the best way to describe how I am feeling about yet one more unexpected event or realization. It came to me again yesterday after I had attended my regular 12-step meeting (currently via the magic of Zoomland). At this meeting, we spend the first half listening to someone reading who and what we are about and then someone else’s talking about a step or tradition. The second half of our hour is devoted to small groups where each person speaks to the step of the day and then shares how our week has been in relation to the program we are working.
Someone with more electronic savvy than I breaks the 30+ assembly into a bunch of small groups, each of us appearing in our little Zoom box as we are connected. I wait eagerly to see who will be in my group and am often delighted to see a face I know will have helpful things to say. Yesterday, however, two of the three other women were members I hardly know and with whom I have never been in a small sharing group. The forth person is someone with whom I do have slight context. So I was a little guarded as we began to share. What happened next was a total “gift,” wrapped in paper I hadn’t recognized as beautiful.
The first speaker took advantage of an option I’ve never witnessed being used in the meeting, i.e., she used her time to ask for feedback about how she was to grieve over a recent death. The other women said things that moved me to tears and showed me a willingness to be vulnerable just because a fellow member asked for help. So I finally spoke a little about my way of reacting to my own grief by saying that I decided some years ago to stop speaking about or hoping for “closure.” I shared that at one point I had written the word on a small piece of paper to which I struck a match and watched as it burnt out in a saucer in my kitchen. Once this exchange had occurred, the rest of us spoke about whatever we wanted to say about the step or our lives. It seemed to me the level of sharing reached a depth seldom reached even when I’ve been in groups with folks with whom I am so much closer than I am with my three Zoom-boxed women.
I kept hearing one or another of them saying wise and clear-eyed things about how hard she is working to stay minimally calm and hopeful even as the world around us is increasingly divided and chaotic. We all agreed that the program helps us in ways we never could have imagined, so maybe if I’d remember Isabel Miller’s last sentence in time, I could have introduced it into our little Zoom space. I’m pretty sure my tiny cohort would have nodded or done a “thumbs up” to show me they felt as I was feeling–our time in that break-out space was truly a “gift” and we none of us would have expected it when we saw the others being attached to our screen. But the gift came anyway…. Just as it did to Patience and Sarah.