Not the Bloody Queen
If you’re not sure why it’s so awesome to see Helen Mirren unapologetically kicking ass in Red — and to see her doing so without getting grief for it from the guys — then perhaps you’ve never seen Prime Suspect, the British cop series she starred in through most of the past two decades. It wasn’t a regularly weekly series the way that American TV does things, but more like a string of seven miniseries bunched between 1991 and 1996, then with a big break till the final two in 2003 and 2006. There’s a newly released Region 1 box set with all nine big chunky mysteries (Series 4 consists of three merely movie-length stories instead of one fat story, as each of the other series do), catching up with Region 2, which has had such a set for a few years. It’s must-viewing for anyone who doesn’t quite get the Helen Mirren mystique… and an excellent and deeply satisfying reminder for everyone else who already does.
You may have caught the series as it was originally airing — on ITV in the U.K. and on PBS in the U.S. — but revisiting it all at once offers an eye-opening overview not only of Mirren’s work as the now iconic Jane Tennison, but also of how the depiction of women cops has changed in two decades. In that first 1991 story, the level of blatant sexism and outright hostility DCI Tennison of the London Metropolitan Police faces when she takes on her first murder investigation is shocking… and yet not at all implausible. She has to practically steal the case from another (male) officer, for starters, because she’s constantly overlooked when her (male) superiors are handing out the really juicy assignments that get an officer noticed and get an officer promoted. It doesn’t help matters at all when Tennison tenaciously uncovers what looks like corruption within the department that may be railroading the wrong suspect in what could be a serial murder case simply to get a conviction… or else it’s covering up incompetence at the Met. It earns her an enemy in the odious DS Bill Otley (Tom Bell), who’s nearly as big a villain — at least in the dramatic sense, if not the criminal one — as smarmy could-be serial killer George Marlow (John Bowe: Secret Smile).
Prime Suspect ticks along addictively — you’ll be glad of the box set, because you won’t want to stop watching — spinning complex, compelling tales of murder and modern policing. In Series 2 and 3, Tennison is still in the unenviable position of an officer who constantly has to prove herself in an environment where she is tolerated but not exactly welcome… and the mysteries take on angles of racism and homophobia, bringing in a new perspective: Tennison isn’t being overtly harassed and covertly thwarted because she’s a woman but because she isn’t a straight white man. Prime Suspect evolves into something that isn’t about sexism but about smashing the dominant cultural perspective that acknowledges only the needs and desires of straight white men.
The series is groundbreaking narratively, too. The title isn’t just any old random police-y sounding term: it’s the defining paradigm around which each mystery is structured. We don’t get a half dozen red herrings thrown at us with each crime, nor are there stunning last-minute confessions from some half-forgotten character who steps out of the background. The cops here — as I’m sure is more often the case with real-life cops, too — usually pretty much know whodunnit from the beginning; the drama comes in their ferreting out the evidence needed to prove it, and in the uncovering of the perpetrator’s motives. It’s all as much about cop psychology as it is about criminal psychology.
And there’s where Prime Suspect is enthralling, too. Tennison is every bit as fucked up as male TV cops have always been: her love life is a shambles, and the stress of the job pushes her, by later seasons, into an alcoholism that is powerfully impacting her work. She is always an intriguing character, but she’s often not very likeable as a person: that’s a huge step for the depiction of women onscreen, that they can be a mess and that this makes them worth telling stories about. By Series 6, Tennison is such an entrenched part of the power structure at the Met that she is dealing with the threat of discrimination lawsuit from a young officer, a mother of two small children who — Tennison says — isn’t putting in the hours… and yet it’s a wild measure of how much things have changed for women officers that Tennison’s underling is so totally accepted among her male colleague that they all share in the (nonsexist) complaining about Tennison: there’s no problem with Tennison’s gender, just the fact that she’s an overly demanding boss who clearly doesn’t understand what it’s like out on the streets for the rank-and-file cop. Tennison — all the female cops — has gone from being a woman cop to being just a cop.
There’s so much more here that’s just plain fun, too… like in seeing how suddenly the early 90s look dated, or in checking out the fun cameos by then unknown actors such as Ralph Fiennes, Colin Salmon, and David Thewlis. In that very first Prime Suspect, the male officers don’t know how to address her, and she has to tell one of them, “Don’t call me ma’am, I’m not the bloody queen.” Which is funny in retrospect, since in the interim, she was the bloody queen — the line get repeated, with a smidge of snark, in Series 7, which came after her Oscar-winning performance in The Queen — but also because, by the end of Prime Suspect, Tennison is practically royalty at the Met, and she’s depicted that way. It’s a beautiful and gratifying end point for the series to come to.