Prime Suspect: Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison = Bloody Brilliant. And That’s No Bollocks.

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In 1991, I was 16 years old. My mother and I would gather on Sunday nights to watch PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery. I lived for Mystery, in the same way I lived for Murphy Brown and Northern Exposure. Looking back, as a 40 year-old, I can see why I loved all three shows at a time when we literally had three channels on our antennae television: powerful, righteous, multifaceted female characters. My all time favorite was DCI Tennison, a whiskey swilling, cigarette smoking, brilliant woman who was dedicated to solving the crime by following her gut. Her intuition. Not her superiors.

I just finished the fifth season, having watched her ascent up the proverbial career ladder in the preceding seasons, in quick succession, and I understand completely why as a teenager I wanted to be her. She’s interestingly beautiful, smart and compelling, and rebellious. She was also often alone, and while she slept with married men, even getting pregnant and having an abortion, I understood why she chose the men she did, and why she made the choices she did. They were all connected to her job, and truly her job was her life. And it was a rich and meaningful and important life. And I never judged Jane because I felt I understood her.

I felt the same way this time around, and I was thinking that perhaps this was the first female character on television that illustrated, for me anyway, that I should trust my gut and follow my intuition. Every 16 year old girl needs to be told that. My favorite moments in the series are when we see her internal landscape play over her wonderful features, and we see that beneath her controlled veneer of fine suits, expertly applied lip liner, her heart is too large, too open. Her convictions are not abstract ideas but beliefs–law, order, and justice–she has woven a life around, is willing to uproot for again and again. This happens when she reaches out to a victim, a coworker in crisis, and as she prepares to enter the interview room. These shots are my favorite because it’s just me and Jane, outside the door, as she smooths her collar, straightens her jacket, composes herself and sets her jaw. Her weapons are her keen intellect, her composure, and her ability to ask bladed questions that cut to the truth.

And yet, at the close of Season 4, I found myself wondering about her back story, her family, her parents, and in Season 5, she visits her father in the assisted living facility. She goes to him, lost, unsure of what to do, and he tells her a story. There is a moment in the telling that she moves to reach out to him, pulls back, presses her fist into the palm of her other hand. He gives her what she is looking for though through story, through words. It’s a sublime scene, and she finds her footing, and her way, and when she has followed her instinct and gutted the case to the end, it is clear, in the way she sits in a garden chair, just what it has cost her.

Tennison is not perfect, in fact she can be downright prickly and even misguided in her judgements, and she claims that, but she bloody tries– so bloody hard. At 16, 17, and 18, I had no idea the insight this fictional character was providing me on bureaucratic systems–how to work within and outside of the lines. How to stay true to oneself even when trust in oneself faltered. Mirren is brilliant, just absolutely divine as Tennison, and I wish I could call up weary, exonerated Tennison on her 10 lb. flip phone and take her our for smokes and whisky, even though I gave cigs up years ago, even though I’ve never been a fan of whiskey. I have only one season left, and honestly, I feel a bit sad. I don’t remember how it all ends. It’s been too long. If I could write the ending, well, I wouldn’t write one would I? She’d still be at it, and better than ever.

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