Sunday 9 June 2019

Mr. Mercedes

I know you're in there because hate hangs on, and hate is all you had. It could bring you back someday. But sure as taxes and Christmas, though, I'll be waiting, and I'll finish it.
Mr. Mercedes, and this applies to the three books in the series as much as to the two seasons that have aired so far of the television adaptation, takes well-used bits and pieces of the gruff, no-nonsense lone-wolf detective show and then undermines them just enough to make for an interesting story. For one, Bill Hodges (Irish here, played by Brendan Gleeson, pitch-perfect), retired police detective, looks and sounds every bit the same as many of his predecessors, but in the course of the show, he grows beyond the cliché. When we first meet him, he is newly retired and ill-adapted to a life that doesn't include crime-solving: after a dissolved marriage, and losing contact with his daughter, there isn't much left for him to do except drink himself to death. He doesn't now know how to exist in a civilian life, so when a man who identifies himself as the Mercedes killer - an unsolved case from years ago, when someone drove into a group of job-seekers at a job fair, and starts taunting Bill about not having caught him, something falls back into place. And this is how these stories are meant to go: the detective chasing the bad guy, finding purpose again, having a more intimate relationship with his prey than he does with any other person in his life. 

Mr. Mercedes is all the better for not really being interested in this dynamic, because Bill Hodges proves himself to be fairly useless at the chase, especially since the killer (who we know to be Brady Hartsfield, played by Harry Treadaway - we get to see both the cat and the mouse perspective in this, and sometimes they switch places) uses modern technology to torture the detective who was meant to catch him. Bill finds help in unlikely places - from the neighbour kid who mows his lawn, Jerome (Jharrel Jerome), off to Harvard in a year and a lot more capable at computers than he is. The odd and unlikely team completes itself only towards the middle of the season, through sheer coincidence. Holly Gibney (Justine Lupe), related to the woman whose car Brady stole to commit his crime (a woman who later become another one of his victims, when Brady taunted her over her involvement, after Bill and his then-partner Pete had planted the seed of her guilt in her head), proves herself even more capable at computers, and eager to join Bill if only to escape her overbearing parents. The show departs here from the novels, and makes Holly a good ten years younger than her character is originally. The heart of the show lies with these three characters and their relationship to each other, keeping each other in check and sane through their chase of a man who is as manipulative as he is obsessive. 

Brady is an interesting character mostly because he is so different from the more contemporary pop cultural interpretation of the all-knowing, powerful psychopath, who is somehow stronger and more capable because of his lack of empathy and humanity. Brady is far away from a Hannibal Lecter - for one, he is lacking resources, he lives in poverty, his life is determined by the two jobs he needs to work just to keep himself and his alcoholic mother alive in their ramshackle, mold-infested house. Brady's life story is sad, but Mr. Mercedes (both novels and the show) shies away from linking his childhood traumas to his psychopathy - it explains aspects of his personality, like his pathological connection to his mother, but it doesn't provide a satisfactory explanation for why he enjoys killing people, and more than that, taking control of people to drive them to kill themselves. When others attempt to interpret his behaviours, he mocks them for it, or uses them to his own advantage, like when he constructs a detailed scene to fake his own death. He does allude to his "masterpiece", and seems to carry an idea in his head that he wants to leave a mark on the world, perhaps because his life is squalor and misery otherwise, and doesn't offer any hope of change. 

Mr. Mercedes puts care into all of its characters, even the ones that will be dead a few scenes later. It's how the show begins, with an unemployed man offering his sleeping bag to a mother waiting with her baby in front of the job fair - a few hours later, Brady will plough into them with the Mercedes, but that doesn't mean that their few scenes aren't impactful, showcasing how economic hardship still leaves space for empathy, humanity and selfless acts. In granting these characters these moments before they die, they become more than Brady's victims. In fact, later on, there's a parallel drawn between the inhumane way in which Bill and Pete treated Olivia Trelawney, the owner of the Mercedes, and the horrible way in which Brady taunted her into suicide - if Bill and Pete had comprehended Olivia's anxieties and mental issues, they would have treated her differently, and she wouldn't have fallen victim to Brady's manipulations. It's a lesson that Bill learns the hard way after he falls in love with Olivia's sister Janey (Mary-Louise Parker, cast perfectly here, doing the most to create a character whose loss is felt profoundly after a few episodes), and once he starts to become friends with Holly, who is trying her best to live an independent life with some of the same struggles that her aunt shared. 

In a way, Mr. Mercedes is a show about outsiders - and everyone begins their journey isolated to an extent. Jerome may not be in the first season, but he returns in the second season after his first semester at Harvard disillusioned by the levels of racism he encounters. Bill becomes a much more likeable character when his grumpiness is tempered and called out by those who love him, and once he accepts that there are still people who do love him. Holly finds meaning in her work, to the extent that she founds Finders Keepers with Bill (and later, trying to put words into what Bill means to her, she explains that she has found meaning in trying to become him). Holland Taylor's Ada, a neighbour who constantly tries to remind Bill that his life may have meaning beyond chasing a psychopathic serial killer, adds humour and humanity to the show whenever she's on screen. 

But - and this is a surprise, as it plays out very differently in the novels - the storyline that truly surprised me happens at the end of the first and in the second season. Brady has the uncanny ability to not only cause destruction and chaos for his intended victims, but also to the people he doesn't hate. He accidentally kills his mother - an event that triggers his suicidal attempt at a masterpiece at the end of the first season, and lands him in a coma after Holly stops him by bashing his head in. Throughout the first season, his only friend - a hesitant term - is Lou Linklatter (Breeda Wool), a colleague at the failing electronics store he works for. They banter, they despise their useless manager, and at one point, Brady kills someone for homophobic remarks against Lou (he enjoys killing, so there is an ambiguous question here if it's just a convenient way of identifying victims or a genuine hatred of someone who has dared to put a fellow outside down - maybe both are true to an extent). Lou has a story that mirrors Brady - she grew up poor, she is ostracised, she never went to college - and she feels that they connect over this, that they support each other against a world ready to injure them. When she realises in the worst possible way that this trust was misplaced, it's already too late - even though Brady doesn't end up killing her, he nearly does when she endangers his plan to blow up a festival. We can see the moment when he decides not to kill her (and this moment will spiral out in the second season, into a complex question about what Brady is or isn't capable of), but from Lou's perspective, he has killed her, by taking away the only friendship that was meaningful to her and putting into question her ability to to recognise danger, the one thing that has kept her alive so long. 
Breeda Wool's performance as Lou in recovery, incapable of facing her demons, unwilling to go to therapy, suffering from nightmares, destroying her relationship, obsessed with comprehending what has happened, is absolutely stunning, especially because it just happens at the fringes of the narrative in the second season. While the show focuses on Brady in the hospital and the doctor who is baited by his ambitious wife to feed him an experimental Chinese drug, Lou fails at overcoming her trauma, and loses more and more. While Brady becomes a ghost in the machine in the hospital, capable of inhabiting the machines, successfully tricking everyone into thinking he is no longer in there, and close to death, while he teaches himself how to possess people, Lou is in a downward spiral. 
In the novels, this story plays out differently. Brady perfects his ability to be code, a virus able to spread itself into devices and through them into people. Who disembodies himself, and comes close to completing a masterpiece well beyond anything he has previously attempted. This story probably wouldn't have translated very well into a television (the bits that the show retains, like the Zappit devices, are the parts that work the least, considering that 2019 seems to offer a whole different technological playing field for a virus Brady). Instead, Mr. Mercedes positions Brady and Lou on different sides in a court room - Brady as the defendant, trying to prove that the drug he has been given in the hospital, without his consent, has transformed him into a different person, to the extent that this new Brady cannot be held responsible for the crimes the old one committed - and Lou as the only person remaining who can give a testimony that this is the same Brady. We know that this is still the same Brady, because we know how he has come to the conclusion that surrendering himself to the police and going to court is the only way to continue his treatment, and to turn himself into code, as Lou puts it. 
And in the end, with the writing on the wall that Brady will manage to get himself free to continue his spree, and after so many people have come into his hospital room with the intention to kill him but the inability to go through with it, it's Lou Linklatter, incapable of continuing her life while Brady still lurks in the shadows, after Brady has rocked her whole conception of herself, who is brave enough to shoot him before he does goes free. It's a horrible moment in part because Lou has become the kind of person who can pull the trigger, but in the course of that, she's lost herself (and maybe, depending on how the next season goes, this is just another version of the parasitic Brady, driving people to acts they wouldn't have committed otherwise). In any case - their conversation in this final episode, somewhere between genuine and a cat-and-mouse game, somewhere between Brady truly having changed, truly feeling empathy, or Brady horrified by the idea that there was already a shred of humanity in him when he decided not to kill Lou, angry at that limitation, is a masterpiece of television and acting, and way beyond anything that I expected from the show. 

2017-, created by David E. Kelley based on the novels by Stephen King, starring Brendan Gleeson, Jharrel Jerome, Justine Lupe, Harry Treadaway, Breeda Wool, Holland Taylor, Jack Huston, Tessa Ferrer, Nancy Travis, Mary-Louise Parker.

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