Black Earth Rising episode 2 review: A deadly twist adds intrigue to improving drama

But the show has a long way to go before it earns 'must watch' status.

Christopher Hooton
Tuesday 18 September 2018 15:46 BST
The relationship between barrister Michael Ennis (John Goodman) and Kate Ashby now holds promise
The relationship between barrister Michael Ennis (John Goodman) and Kate Ashby now holds promise (BBC)

Landing a “series regular” part in a TV show certainly doesn’t have the job security it used to. It was only last week we saw the BBC’s new flagship series Bodyguard (spoilers ahead) kill off a central character just four episodes in, and now the Beeb’s second biggest autumn show, Black Earth Rising, has staged a similar shock twist after just two.

While I thought the suicide bombing in Bodyguard was a misstep, the surprise bullet to the back of the head for Eve Ashby (Olivier Award winning actor Harriet Walter) won Black Earth Rising my full attention after its pilot largely failed to.

The barrister’s arguments with daughter Kate (Michaela Coel) in episode one may as well have played out on Twitter, given their futility. The pair talked past each other, neither conceding an inch. The reason for this infuriating dynamic becomes clear with Eve’s death, however, Kate having to come to terms with the fact her last moments with her mother were taken up by bilious political disagreement.

Black Earth Rising is the latest series from Hugo Blick, who seems to enjoy mining specific moments in history for his shows. The Honourable Woman (2014) starred Maggie Gyllenhaal as an Anglo-Jewish businesswoman trying to connect the West Bank with optical fibre cables, and for this show Blick’s protagonist is a Tutsi refugee who escaped the Rwandan genocide and was raised by upper class white parents in London.

The mass slaughter by the Hutu government in 1994 is not your typical backdrop for a TV drama, and hasn’t held the spotlight on the world stage the way tragedies with much smaller death tolls have. That the number of Rwandans killed in the genocide is roughly between 500,000 and a million says it all.

So it’s good to see a series dive right into the tragic event and comb through its details as finely as so many criminal dramas have the fictional murders of singular white children. For all the worthiness of the subject matter however, Black Earth Rising is lacking in too many crucial areas.

Coel has great presence and commands every shot she’s in, but her protagonist’s depression feels cartoonish and tacked on as a character trait. Her intensely emotional response to the case at hand – the trial of a Rwandan liberator turned mercenary – is entirely understandable given her past, but compromises her position as a legal investigator. “Do you realise how offensive that remark is?” she tells an interviewee this week while on the verge of tears. It sounds more like an activist confronting an enemy than a lawyer on professional business.

Black Earth Rising isn’t especially well acted – particularly when it comes to the supporting cast – the editing is skittish and Blick seems obsessed with having the camera slowly circle characters – once you start noticing this you won’t be able to stop.

Still, episode two is certainly an improvement on the first one, and there are no subplot howlers to rival the pilot’s, when a UN worker wound up dead thanks to a rather hamfisted riff on the whole “white people can’t differentiate between black people” thing. Kate’s unlikely partnership with John Goodman’s American barrister has promise now the pair are doggedly trying to unravel the conspiracy that led to Eve’s death, but the show has a long way to go before it earns words like “engrossing” or “must-watch”.

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