love, loss, and disco: on river.
For all that nostalgia pervades every aspect of pop culture, from the neverending parade of biopics to shows like MTV’s I Love the ‘80s, it’s the rare story that rests its emotional weight on a disco song. The BBC/Netflix series River opens and closes with one — Tina Charles’ “I Love to Love” — and, by the end of the show’s six episodes, gives it such poignance that it’s difficult not to succumb to tears.
The show stars Stellan Skarsgard as the titular River, and though it’s billed as a police procedural, it is better categorized as a love story. (Maybe the song makes that obvious.) The tropes that it pulls from other genres — an unsolved murder and the resulting guilt, a case-solving gimmick — are, for once, just means to an end rather than centerpieces. The murder in question is that of River’s partner, Jackie “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker, absolutely devastating), and the gimmick is River’s penchant for seeing dead people. Far from being a twist a la The Sixth Sense, however, this is revealed to us within the first ten minutes of the show.
The ghosts that River sees, which he refers to as “manifests,” are entirely constructions of his own imagination, and he is aware of them as such. A suspected murderer starts out malevolent, but as River uncovers evidence that seems to prove his innocence, he becomes that much more innocuous. Likewise, his projection of Stevie shifts and changes as he learns about the circumstances of her death, and the more he talks to her (to the consternation of those around him, who see him speaking to thin air), the more it becomes evident that the unfinished business keeping her ghost hanging around is more than just her murder.
In an age of antiheroes, emotional breakdowns for a show's protagonist seem to be saved for season (or sometimes series) finales, so it’s thrilling — and terrifying — to watch a series in which the main character is constantly on that edge. In just the first hour of the series, River punches a wall until his knuckles are bloody, imagining that he’s pummeling one of the manifests that haunt him. It’s six episodes of Walter White’s breakdown in “Ozymandias,” except instead of having built and then lost a meth empire and a family, River is exempt from responsibility for the tragedy that’s occurred. His blamelessness makes his grief all the harder to bear and to process, and the guilt that he feels stems from something fundamentally human: how difficult it sometimes is to accept and then admit to your emotions, and the regret that comes with expressing them too late.
The entire show is crafted with this kind of care, and the result is truly unique, especially given the fact that the series spans only six episodes. Written by The Hour's Abi Morgan, River uses the tropes prevalent in one genre in order to tell a story that's set in another, and boasts remarkable performances from Stellan Skarsgard and Nicola Walker. If that isn't enough to reel you in, then let the disco be your guide.
“I Love to Love” serves as a shorthand for that guilt and the connection that River’s lost. To wit, River and Stevie’s friendship is the first thing that the show establishes. At the beginning of the pilot, we see the two of them driving around London as the song plays on the radio. Stevie sings along and tries to egg River into doing the same, to no avail. It’s a moment that everyone has had in a friendship in one form or another, laughing over silly behavior and trying to get the other person to join in. In the next few moments, River sees someone that we take to be a possible suspect in a case, and in a jarring contrast to his light-hearted exchange with Stevie in the car, he chases the man to his death. It’s only when his boss (Lesley Manville) appears on the scene and watches him leave, talking to himself, that we realize that Stevie’s dead, and the case River is pursuing is her murder.
River is bereaved, and the investigation is his process of moving on. As the series progresses, it becomes clear that Stevie was his only real friend, and also the only person aware and accepting of his “manifest” habit. Without her, he is utterly alone. It’s a loneliness that the show drives home with the first reprise of “I Love to Love.” At the end of the first episode, River goes to a karaoke bar, using a two-for-one coupon (for himself and for Stevie). He chooses “I Love to Love,” and finally, as he hadn’t at the beginning of the episode, he sings. Stevie sings and dances along with him, but as the camera pulls out, looking at River through the porthole window in the door, we see that he’s alone, using Tina Charles as a proxy for both confession and apology. I love to love, but my baby just loves to dance.