Élise and Erika make Season 2 of “The Tunnel” worth watching

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When a reader suggested someone at AfterEllen review The Tunnel, I was intrigued—a show about terrorism and international law enforcement that included a romance between two women seems like exactly my sort of thing. And indeed it is exactly my sort of thing…which is why the show is so frustrating for me.

I don’t want to give too much away, especially because the love affair relevant to our interests here doesn’t come into play until the second half of Season 2.  So here are the broad strokes:

The Tunnel stars Stephen Dillane as Karl Roebuck, an affable, deeply empathetic British cop who works side by side with Clémence Poésy as Élise Wasserman, a preternaturally focused French cop who is often oblivious to—or simply unconcerned with—the niceties of social interaction. (If you’re starting to wonder if this is the British/French version of The Bridge, you are entirely correct.)

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In the first season, they’re brought together by the investigation of a corpse found precisely on the French/British border in the undersea tunnel that connects the two countries. (Americans often call it the Chunnel.) As more episodes of violence pile up, it becomes clear they’re dealing with a terrorist who hates almost every aspect of current European society—child labor, sex trafficking, xenophobia, racism, shadowy law enforcement operations that never see the light of day and never have to pay for their missteps and injustices. In the second season, a plane goes down in the Channel between the two countries; as Karl and Élise reunite to investigate, what seems at first like terrorism turns out to be the operation of an international criminal syndicate with deep ties to old Nazi networks, stretching from Russia to Chile.

There’s a great deal to recommend the show. First of all, it’s a joint British-French production (airing on Sky Atlantic, Canal+, and PBS), and the collaboration shows. Some characters speak French; others speak English. Language barriers are an actual factor, and the French is a solid presence, not a quick drabble here and there as a show of authenticity. Given American productions’ usual tendencies of throwing in a line here or there in whatever other language might be relevant and then having everyone speak English all the time, it’s refreshing. (Yes, the French is subtitled for those of us watching in English. I assume the reverse is true on Canal+.) The show’s first season is particularly interesting in the context of Brexit: there’s a constant push-me-pull-you between the necessity of transnational cooperation and the problems that sometimes come with that openness.

tumblr_oddfmy4Wkw1vfhc5uo3_500The eponymous tunnel. (Via griffxtrn)

Poésy and Dillane are both very good in their roles. There’s no sense of settling into their characters; they feel like people who have existed for a long time before the pilot. (Poésy is perhaps more compelling, since her neurotypical character, refreshingly free (mostly) of too many “magic weirdo” clichés, is naturally a bit more unusual; but Dillane at times delivers more subtlety in Karl’s charming, flawed skin.) Indeed, the Odd Couple interplay between the two is perhaps the show’s chief strength. Their differences emerge mostly not over mundane, petty differences in manners and friendliness but rather in the details of their work—clashing over how to approach interviewing a traumatized witness, for example. Over time they become close comrades, even friends. This is all the more satisfying because Élise never fundamentally changes in this process; she doesn’t suddenly open up to reveal a different, more comfortable core. She simply comes to respect, then like, then value Karl, without ever losing her spiky edges, and Karl comes to appreciate some of her quirks (some he just has to accept) while learning to have great respect for her as an officer. It’s gratifying to watch.

Unfortunately, here is where we get into some trouble. The show is perhaps best described as being unable to make up its mind. It wants to be a subtle, thoughtful thriller meditating on issues of the moment, but too often can’t resist the obvious move or the cheap play. (I described it to my roommate earlier as “a mediocre show having a wonderful dream about being great.”) In one Season 2 episode, “Kumbaya” appears first as a joke at an interfaith retreat, then as an elegy after terrible violence; in the second instance, I just started laughing.

A more solid example: we learn in Season 1 that Karl has a hard time keeping it zipped, but come to find out it’s because he’s “not bad; just weak.” Specifically, he has a weakness for women in distress who come to him for comfort. Why they would seek comfort specifically in sleeping with him, and why the comfort of his wife Laura (the criminally underused Angel Coulby) is not as important as their momentary relief, is hard to imagine except as a matter of the sort of tired male fantasy we’re all more than used to. (“Our hero only engages in serial adultery because he’s just so kind.”)

tumblr_ocw15sp2fB1rbmke1o5_r2_250Not pictured: me actually yelling out loud, “NO! DON’T DO IT! DON’T BE THIS SHOW!” (Via cestpasfaux24601)

The Tunnel does very well in the first season conveying some truths about terrorism: that this form of violence is structured around performative and symbolic value, and that terrorists are often partially motivated by some aspect of their personal history. Yet it tips too far toward mixing the personal with the political. It’s unable to resist tying its villain’s motivations to Karl’s past, so at the end when he tells Élise he wants to make sure the press doesn’t reduce all that’s happened to some personal spat, the show seems to be using him as a mouthpiece to insist on something it knows, deep down, it has failed to convey. By the time the convoluted plot has concluded, the terrorist’s ideology has been so lost in the fray his acts seem to be without any meaning further than a scream of petulant rage. This would be a not unreasonable statement about terrorism’s underlying motivations in some cases—see Four Lions for a much better execution of the same idea—except that the show clearly wanted to confront its audience with their complicity in some of the social issues this villain calls out. So which is it? Does he have a point, or not?

Whereas the first season opened with the appearance of an ordinary crime and spun it out into terrorism, the second opened with what looked like terrorism and broke it down into simpler criminality and geopolitics. Here similar issues prevail. The Tunnel wants to insist that xenophobia is villainous and diversity ought to be valued, yet Season 2 has all its threats come from networks of foreigners exploiting the openness of the EU (and the willingness of powerful locals to play by these cynical, international rules). It wallows so deeply in moral ambiguity that at times it’s hard to understand what anyone is fighting for, yet offers the clearest-cut villains of the contemporary world—Nazis—as its bad guys. The initial seeming-terrorist, again, has no real ideology, just resentment; this would again be fine if anyone involved seemed to believe in anything. (Note: It’s not that I object to nihilism or existentialism in my television. I love The Fall, for example. But The Tunnel’s particular messiness seems to somehow make ideas dissolve into either soup, or terribly clunky statements about why racism and rape are bad.)

I could go on about this sort of indecision—at a certain point, making your ideas multifaceted descends into making them incoherent—but let me deal with the reason I’m writing this at all. In Season 2, the investigation involves a suspect named Eryka Klein (Laura De Boer).

"Forgotten" Premiere - The 69th Venice Film FestivalI know. I know.  (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Eryka seems like a perfect person—a human rights activist, cultured, multilingual, worldly—and also terribly suspicious. Eventually, she is removed from suspicion, and Élise, who has been “trying out” the concept of having a boyfriend rather than a friend with benefits, is drawn to her. They bond quite sweetly over certain traumatic aspects of their past, and eventually they become lovers.

This development is great for a few reasons. It gives the show an excuse to explore a different side of Élise without compromising her character; it lets it dwell on her personal life they way it did on Karl’s in season 1 (that kind of balance is important to me—I’m looking at you, Elementary). It lets us spend more time with Eryka, who is a wonderfully quiet, graceful presence. And I mean…they look great together.

tumblr_oaug7vvftn1qfhb5no5_400I promise they do actually kiss onscreen. In fact…
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Via adecogz)

tumblr_o9yb2pKE2w1tcxi8io2_500…they do a lot more. You’re welcome. (Via andplusone)

(Note: the following paragraph contains spoilers.)

But then, because, as I said, this show can’t help itself, it turns out Eryka is helping the bad guys. In fact, she works with Nazis and murderers and torturers because she finds them “less hypocritical” than the U.S. and countries like Britain and France. (Given her particular backstory, this is rather difficult to swallow.) So she breaks Élise’s heart and swans off, only to come around and save her life in the end. Now, I’m not immune to the notion of classic tragic romantic narratives being applied to romances between women. But the show goes ahead and has Élise voice the most negative possible subtext: that falling for Eryka caused her to betray herself, her colleagues, her investigation and her profession. (“And your gender,” Karl quips, infuriatingly.)

The show insists that Élise is still worthy of trust and still a good cop, but it doesn’t go down terribly well that her greatest failing was The Temptation Of Woman. (I suppose this is something she and Karl can bond over, though it’s hardly the same thing in each case.) I do appreciate that the season’s last story moment is a deeply romantic moment of Élise in a hospital bed missing Eryka, hearing her voice reciting some beautiful lines of Neruda: “I will bring you happy flowers…I want to do for you what spring does for the cherry trees.” (I say this is the last story moment because it’s followed by a literally incomprehensible shot of Élise’s face superimposed on the opening of the Tunnel itself, which I can explain only as an exercise in visual drama without symbolic or subtextual meaning at all.) I recognize that your mileage may vary on this, and if you’re interested in this kind of narrative, then I encourage you to have at it. I was disappointed, though.

[Spoilers over!]

In the end, The Tunnel isn’t bad by any means. But I think if it were more resigned to what it is, it might be better. Too often the shocks don’t quite shock, and the delicate balance between showing why international connection is good and why it’s dangerous breaks down into an inability to say anything about the subject at all. Worse, the moments that are clear moral or political statements tend to descend into exploitation. Scenes depicting racism and xenophobia turn into torture and terror porn filled with racist dialogue. (Don’t even start me on the interfaith retreat in season 2; I’d go on for pages more.) Scenes condemning sex trafficking become lurid rape vignettes. If the show would settle down and focus more closely on its characters and their story, it would evade many of these pitfalls.

Its strengths are its characters and its actors, and indeed many of the supporting players could probably do a lot with more varied material. (Élise’s captain, Olivier [Thibault de Montalembert] and Karl’s eternally put-upon Laura are obvious standouts here.) But if you’re looking for a decent procedural with a warm friendship at its center and a compelling, if at times frustrating female romance to one side, you could do worse than The Tunnel.

Season 2 of The Tunnel is available on PBS.

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