Review: Marcella

Anna Friel in Marcella

Marcella is an 8 part mystery series from Netflix starring Anna Friel as British police officer DS Marcella Backland. Overall it was excellent and I watched it with great interest, but there were many confusing aspects to the series. There are minor spoilers ahead.

Marcella is the only character who is developed with any depth in the series. There are many characters – many characters – in the 8 episodes. We see more of Marcella than any others. She suffers blackouts. She goes into fugue states when she loses time. As viewers, we lose that time with her.

We’re never sure what Marcella did during those fugue states. Did she kill someone? Did she interfere in a murder investigation? Marcella investigates crimes she’s convinced someone else did, but she also investigates crimes to make sure she isn’t the one who committed them.

I thought Anna Friel did a terrific job going into and out of these blackouts. She’d find herself staring at a wall or in the bathtub covered with blood or at her computer covered with dirt. Then she’d try to go back and recover some clue as to how she got that way.

Created and written by Hans Rosenfeldt, also known for The Bridge, the series has all male writers and directors, even though the main character is a woman.

the cast of Marcella
The team

I liked the team of cops Marcella worked with. I liked that they were not all white and not all straight. I loved that Nina Sosanya had a part as DCI Laura Porter, the boss. DC Alex Dier (Charlie Covell) looked like a lesbian, although that was never explicitly stated. DI Rav Sangha (Ray Panthaki) is not the standard white guy. DC Mark Travis (Jack Doolan) is the standard geek guy. Finally there is Marcella, who came back to the department after a break of several years and went right back into her old job just like that.

Marcella is brilliant when she’s in control of her mind – a superior detective. Rav is in charge of the current case and doesn’t know Marcella. He keeps trying to rein her in. Laura, who worked with her before, tells him to give her the freedom to investigate and he’ll be happy with the results.

Nicholas Pinnock and Anna Friel in Marcella
Maybe I’ll take you back, maybe I won’t

Marcella’s backstory is that she took several years off, possibly because she lost a child but that was never clearly stated. Jason (Nicholas Pinnock), her husband of 15 years or so, left her a couple of weeks ago. Their two older children are in boarding school at Jason’s insistence because Marcella acts “weird” sometimes. Marcella wants them back home.

Laura Carmichael and Ian Puleston-Davies in Marcella
Naive Maddy befriends a possible killer for her doctoral studies

Marcella goes back to work when a crime like those she investigated back in 2005-8 surfaces again. The guy she liked for those crimes, Peter Cullen (Ian Puleston-Davies) is recently out from behind bars. She never managed to convict him of the older murders, and she’s hot after him for the new ones. A young doctoral student Maddy (Laura Carmichael) is acting friendly toward Cullen because she’s studying criminal psychology and wants to include him in her work. Really, Maddy?

Jason’s been having an affair with Grace Gibson (Maeve Dermody). Having one parent go a little crazy and the other have an affair after the loss of a child isn’t exactly original thinking. The convoluted crime stories make up for that.

The Gibson family includes Sylvie (Sinéad Cusack), who is head of the construction firm where Jason works. Sylvie’s daughter Grace worked there, as does her son Henry (Harry Lloyd) whom Sylvie regards as a failure. This family gets tied into the murder investigations in various ways. The construction company generates its own set of crimes, which may be related to the murders Marcella is investigating. Some of those crimes are instigated by Jason.

When Grace is murdered with the same MO as the other murders, things get really complicated.

I knew who the murderer was in episode 2. Rather, I knew who a murderer was. There were the old murders and the new murders. And there was a murder by someone else – maybe Marcella. There were murders made to look like suicides that might have been related to Marcella’s case or Marcella’s private life, but maybe not. The minute you think you have things figured out, some complexity is introduced.

There was a huge cast. Many of the cast were handsome white guys in their 20s or 30s and I had trouble telling them apart and keeping them straight as characters. Secondary crimes and characters got thrown into the story and took up time from the investigative team. All those crimes plus the mental schisms in Marcella added complications and confusion to me as a viewer trying to sort it all out.

Most mysteries have false leads, red herrings. Marcella carried it to the max.As a noir mystery, all those characters and false trails and confusion were part of the draw. They were part of what kept me coming back episode after episode to see where the story was going. What made it compelling also made it annoying. Most mysteries have false leads, red herrings. Marcella carried it to the max. As a viewer, I found it both frustrating and fascinating.

The last episode ends with a cliffhanger. There is hope for a second season. I would definitely watch it. I would rewatch season 1 first to try to get some of the details straight before starting a second season. I almost rewatched season 1 before writing this review. I thought it would help me figure out all the confusing parts so the review would be more accurate. Then I decided that my first impressions, my confusion, were part of what Marcella felt. We see the story mostly with Marcella. She’s not sure about everything that happened. She solved some of it, but not all of it. I’m not sure the viewers are meant to figure it out, either.

If you love dark mysteries with plenty of plot twists, this is the series for you: well acted, beautifully photographed, a great score.

If you want a straight, linear whodunit, you may find Marcella aggravating.

Have you watched it? What was your reaction?

6 thoughts on “Review: Marcella”

  1. I usually like stories with obscure plots, hidden meanings, but the cliffhanger season ending—not so much! One hopes that all is resolved in the next season, and if there isn’t one, it’s frustrating and takes away from your impression about the series. Good review. I may look for this one in Netflix!

  2. I was drawn in too and HATE Cliffhangers at end of a SEASON. And like you, what is the deal with the blackouts where she is bleeding or covered in “black” something. And – honestly – the relationship with Jason has fallen appart yet they have some “fairly graphic” sex. Seems SEX is requisite nowadays with mysteries. Loved the acting and directing but – there is a Season 2, I’ll check reviews first to see if there is as much non-resolution as this season BEFORE I set aside 8 1/2 hours to watch it.

    1. Cliffhangers are such a time-honored technique to keep viewers coming back. They are everywhere. It must drive you crazy constantly.

      I thought the sex was a bit off, too. She knew he was cheating on her.

      1. Little ones are fine but all those blackouts she had in the FIRST episode are NEVER explained! I review lots of PBS British mysteries and most leave a small cliffhanger at the end. But there have been series where the show has NOT been renewed and that is REALLY frustrating.!

        1. Have you watched Happy Valley? When series 1 ended, it felt over. Series 2 didn’t seem to need the cliffhanger to get going. But the end of series 2 does have a smallish cliffhanger.

          I thought the bloody moment in the bathtub came after she dragged Grace’s body away from her kitchen on the night when that cab driver saw her putting a body in her trunk. But if that is correct, the order of things is not chronological.

Share your comments