Undercover: Some impressions

A still of a Black man wearing dark-coloured jogging clothes with a flourescent yellow strip along the zipI couldn’t write a full review of Undercover, the six-part TV series about a police spy (Nick, played by Adrian Lester, right) who fell in love with and married the woman he was meant to be spying on (Maya, played by Sophie Okonedo, below left), as I tend to forget large chunks of the plot over the six weeks (or seven, as the final episode was delayed by a week), although others who watched the series and commented on it on Twitter couldn’t see the point of certain characters, for example, either. I watched it intently as a relative of mine had a minor role in it (as one of the cops in episodes 2 and 3) and believe that despite the strong acting, it had a weak plotline which fell to pieces in the final episode. It’s also problematic in how it handles issues of race.

The plot is based on the recent stories of undercover cops who formed relationships with activist women, who in at least one case bore the spy’s child. One of them turned out to be Bob Lambert, who later resurfaced as an academic and bridge-builder with the Muslim community until his past was exposed. Nick (a pseudonym borrowed from the identity of a dead child, something that has happened in real life) is sent undercover to infiltrate a Black civil rights protest group shortly after a man called Michael Antwi is beaten to death in a police cell. It appears that the police put him in a cell with a known racist who then killed him; however, it later transpires that in fact the police pulled him off and then killed him themselves. Nick encounters Maya, a young lawyer who is helping Antwi’s family, and forms a relationship with her. However, he falls in love with her and marries her, leaves the police behind and appears to start a new life as a writer (although strangely there is no evidence of him doing any writing, let alone publishing any). Years later, Maya is made Director of Public Prosecutions while also representing a man who is on Death Row for murdering the mayor of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and he suffers a botched execution. However, Nick’s police colleagues reappear and ultimately he can no longer hide his past from his wife. It ultimately turns out that Michael Antwi was a drug ‘mule’ and in fact murdered the politician whom Maya’s client was convicted of killing.

So, here are my impressions:

(1) The murder of Michael Antwi reminded me of a number of other murders with obvious racial angles, in particular Zahid Mubarak, who was murdered in Feltham young offenders’ institution by a violent racist the prison staff had knowingly placed in his cell. That part of the story also had parallels with the murder of Blair Peach at an anti-racism demo in Southall, west London. Zahid Mubarak had been locked up for committing a crime but was close to being released, and obviously had a right to be protected from violence that was entirely predictable and there have been suggestions that they were put in a cell together so that staff could watch the confrontation. However, in this drama it turns out that Antwi was a criminal and supposedly “deserved” to be murdered, and even Maya is supposed to just accept this (just after discovering that her husband was a police spy, no less). Frankly, to make a story out of two well-known stories of lethal racial injustice and turn it against the victim is at best cheap, and at worst racist. And I checked: the author (whose father was a cop who served in Northern Ireland) is white.

Picture of Maya Coppina (Sophie Okonedo), a light-skinned Black woman wearing a dark-coloured suit jacket with her hair tied behind her head in a bob, standing with her back to a front door on a London suburban street.(2) Like most people commenting on social media, the last episode was by far the weakest and included some downright ridiculous scenes. I was particularly unimpressed by Maya’s arguments at the Supreme Court, which consisted of very basic arguments against the death penalty (and lethal injection in particular) that you could get from any anti-death-penalty pamphlet. The American South is notorious for assigning inexperienced or downright incompetent lawyers to poor (and particularly Black) defendants in capital cases, and she struck me as precisely that type. We don’t see what arguments actually got Rudy off, except for the bit where he refused to name the real killer (a real court would have rejected his appeal in these circumstances). The assistance of Clive Stafford Smith, a real lawyer (also British) who has defended capital cases in the South is credited; where was he when these scenes were written? And it was curious, to say the least, that Maya was still able to travel to the USA to work on a capital case while she was DPP (or that she got that job despite having always been a defence barrister, or the fact that the authorities would have known about her past).

(3) A lot was left unexplained in that weak last episode. We see Dan, Nick and Maya’s learning disabled son, kindle a relationship with a white girl named Lola, whom he meets twice in a park and then invites back to his room for a “wrestle”. Nick tells Maya, in his farewell letter, that Lola is “not all she seems”, but we never learn what he means. We learn that Antwi in fact killed the mayor of Baton Rouge, but we do not learn why, or why Rudy had not named him sooner (given that he was dead) rather than spend 20 years on death row, or why the British police would have Antwi murdered in a police station rather than co-operate with the American authorities and have him extradited.

It rather looked like they were trying to leave a lot of ends loose for there to be a second series. Frankly, I think they shouldn’t always reprise drama serials for second or third series; much like film sequels, they don’t really live up to the original (Broadchurch was the worst recent example, but Happy Valley’s second series was not a patch on the first either). If a series is conceived as a self-contained story, why does it even need a second series? It is not like a sit-com where each episode is a story and you can always write more stories. This last episode seemed to use coincidences to quickly tie up the threads towards the end, and the connection is just not plausible. How likely is it that a lawyer had two cases that she dedicated much of her life to, and it turns out that one of her clients actually committed the murder the other was convicted of?

But my biggest complaint is that this drama isn’t true to life, and it’s untrue to life in a mean and reactionary way. Others have already noted that in real life, the police spies who formed relationships with women they were spying on disappeared and moved on to other police work, but it also takes real stories of racial injustice, uses them as a plot device and distorts them so that the victim in fact deserves his fate. Despite the fact that the drama contained multiple rounded Black characters (pretty rare in British TV drama), this story does not do justice to the issue of intimate police spying or of racial injustice and violence by the police. I don’t think it merits a second series on those grounds alone.

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