Martin Freeman in A Nightmare is an absolute dream for viewers.
In BBC One’s new five-part drama The Responder, he plays Chris Carson, a police officer on the edge. We follow him on a handful of Liverpool night shifts who threaten – practically promise – to push him beyond the limits of mental endurance.
His job is to respond to emergency calls. These can be anything – the constant state of preparedness is as exhausting as it is exciting – but they are almost always a manifestation of poverty, inadequacy or despair. He tells his therapist (Elizabeth Berrington) that he feels like a mole. “Except moles wear tracksuits. Every night I have spit on my face and blood on my boots and it never stops.
The script (the first original work for the screen by ex-cop Tony Schumacher) is a surprisingly tough, vigorous, edgy thing without a wasted word or moment. Freeman – who must have stumbled upon it like a hungry dog – does justice to every moment of it. Carson is a man made up of layers of rage, pain, and despair, and Freeman slowly illuminates each of them; he will surely win awards for his performance. You can sense his dragging depression beneath the outbursts of anger (usually aimed at trackie moles, whose endless, futile criminality and lack of personal responsibility erodes Carson’s restraint), stress and frustration, scorched conscience. There is a good man suffocating under the emotional rubble.
During the first episode’s night shift, Carson helps collect body parts from the scene of a traffic accident, deals with neighbor disputes, and attends the scene of a natural death. He navigates a world of intentional and unintentional cruelty and ignores tirades of guy gang abuse as he drives around town.
He gets a call from his slippery friend Carl (Ian Hart, of course – thank God and the cast). Town Center Casey (Emily Fairn) – a local “baghead” or drug addict – has disappeared. Could he look for her? When Carson finds Casey, she says in greeting, “There’s no warrant for me!” He replies, “No one wants you but me.” It’s one of many little dark moments that dig into you before you have time to fully register them.
She tells him that she stole Carl’s coke stash. “It is not my fault!” she says. Carson grumbles, “Whose fault, then?” Whore at Thatcher’s? This line brings together approximately 700 seven-word sociopolitical discourse doctorates and should be revered by writers everywhere.
It’s clear that Carl is not only Carson’s friend, but also a drug dealer, with Carson at least half in his pocket. But rather than let Casey get beat up for no reason by Carl, Carson gives him the money to get a train to Leeds and safety. He feels, for once, that he has made a difference.
He even tells his mother (Rita Tushingham) when he visits her at her nursing home. “I did a good thing – just a thing for someone who normally doesn’t matter.” “Everyone matters,” she chides him softly. “They really don’t,” he said. It’s a measure of the strength and beauty of the script and performances that it’s not a dramatic moment. It’s simply an acknowledgment of the truth that audiences can usually ignore, but live with every night and that we’ve watched unfold over the past hour without compromise.
Of course, Casey didn’t go to Leeds. She also wasn’t robbed of the coke, as she told Carson.
The torque on the remaining four episodes (I looked ahead – couldn’t look away) is phenomenal, as is the searing humanity and desperation of it all. In the therapist’s office, historical damage is revealed as misery passed down from human to human is overlaid by new, more pressing issues.
The Responder is as fast-paced and captivating as a thriller and as harrowing as a documentary. It says some profound things about the toll that frontline jobs can have on our compassion and morality; how fragile every structure, from an individual’s psyche to society as a whole, is without emotional, financial and political support; and what happens when we cut ourselves off from each other and have nowhere to go. If you’re looking for a piece on the state of the nation, it’s here.