Last Act: Part 1 or Unraveling the Mystery of Tennison

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Spoiler Alert!

The concluding season of Prime Suspect opens with Tennison waking on the couch, the telephone beneath her. On the coffee table, an ashtray spilling butts, en empty tumbler, and a near empty whiskey bottle. She is clearly confused. In the bathroom, the toilet seat is up, indicating a man had been there, and the bed appears as though someone/s had tossed about it. She reaches to her forehead to find it red, raised, and bruised. She has no memory of one of her DCIs calling her the night before. She’s blacked out. She pours herself a glass of vodka, and swallows it in great gulps before readying herself for work. The first mystery is what happened that night, the second is Tennison herself, and the third is a pregnant teen found mired in the muck of the moors. All of them break my heart.

Tennison is a mess. An honest and true, lonely mess in the deep and complex throes of alcoholism. Her beloved father is dying of cancer and a 14-year-old girl has been murdered. One of the murdered girl’s friends is someone Tennison takes an interest in, and it is clear she sees something of herself–willful, self-directed, smart–in Penelope. In the pouring rain she spots the girl walking with friends and offers a ride, although she has just downed a bottle of wine with her packaged lunch sandwich in the car. She tells the girl she was 17 when she entered the force, against her father’s wishes, and then she nearly kills them both by swerving into oncoming traffic. The girl knows, as do we the viewers, that she is drunk. Later in the interview rooms the alcohol she professes to smell on the suspect is actually her own.

Tennison is unmoored, and the only thing that tethers her to herself is the case, which she “has a feel for.” Her superior, outraged by her behavior requests she take paid time until her retirement, which looms large and only one month off. It is clear she has been mandated to  attend AA, and has had infractions previously based on her drinking. She promises she will retire immediately after she catches the killer, even if it is that very night.

For the first time in the show’s history, I do not trust Tennison or her judgement. She overlooks a key piece of evidence that is so blatant I’m not really sure what to make of it. At the victim’s funeral, Penelope reads this moving sonnet, “Do Not Stand By My Grave and Weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye:
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

Tennison is greatly moved, and we know she is thinking of her father, and perhaps herself. All of the small deaths we endure. All of the immense deaths we must learn to shoulder. After the funeral, she offers Penelope a ride, and promises in essence that she will never drive drunk again, and then she takes her to a museum where they stand before “The Strawberry Girl”an oil on canvas painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

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“What does the future hold for her?” Tennyson asks her young friend. She paints a picture with her words, creating the customer who is coming to buy strawberries, but Penelope sees only fear on the child’s face. And I, I fear for Tennison too, who confesses to a teenager she is lonely and allows her to take her arm as they descend the stairs, and texts her good-night with kisses attached with tiny xxx on their flip phone screens.

This episode of course is all about youth, what the young have that only the aging realize they have–the youth themselves are too wrapped up in their cell phones and sexual escapades and youth to appreciate it. This nostalgia is not befitting Tennison, although I did love the scene where she put an old record, in her father’s house, and dances as only drunk, young girls dance. It evoked in me such longing, and perhaps that is what Tennison is filled with. She’s not on her game, because the outside world, the other facets of her life are converging to make her work nearly impossible. Interestingly enough, help comes from the most unexpected of sources, but one who helps her acknowledge and navigate her addiction and recovery. As viewer’s though, we are clear-eyed, and for the first time I found myself judging Jane because I do not fully understand her motivations. She’s as lost to me as she is to herself. And I fear for her because what waits her in retirement? What awaits her when the one thing she’s good at is gone?

One more episode to go. Last night, I turned over in my head who I think did it and why. And I ruminated about Tennison’s fate because for once, I want to zoom in and help her, protect her–from herself. But this is her journey and all I do is watch and hope that in her retirement, she’ll open up a kick ass private detective agency.

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