Channel 4’s Electric Dreams
Season 1, Episode 3: “The Commuter”
Directed by Tom Harper
Written by Jack Thorne
* For a recap & review of the previous episode, “Impossible Planet” – click here
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “Crazy Diamond” – click here
Ed Jacobson (Timothy Spall) works at a train station. He’s a simple man. Doesn’t mind finishing a teabag out of the trash, dusting it off to make a cup. He’s a helpful, gentlemanly-type of fella who does what he can for the people. Also a bit of a nebbish lad. He’s got to deal with a woman named Linda (Tuppence Middleton) – she smokes when she’s told she can’t, she wants to go to a place that doesn’t exist: “Macon Heights.” He still gets through it with a smile on his face. Except all of a sudden, the woman is gone. He passes a ticket to nobody.
He walks away feeling strange, obviously. He tells his friend and co-worker Bob Paine (Rudi Dharmalingam) about it. Ed wonders about Macon Heights, if he’s ever heard of it before. He feels like he has, though can’t quite put a finger on it. He heads home to a bit of a lower class neighbourhood, trash on the streets, loud music pumping from one of the houses. Even worse, he gets back to the house and police are there. He’s got a younger lad at home, Sam (Anthony Boyle), who seems to “scare people“; there’s mention of a young girl. It’s obvious he and his wife Mary (Rebecca Manley) have trouble with Sam, almost as if it’s expected.
At the station, Bob and Ed ask Linda about Macon Heights, they’re curious about it. She doesn’t have much to say about it. Like any other place, I suppose. They show her the computer screen with the map of the train’s lines. And when they turn around, she’s gone. Again.
The Jacobsons go to see Dr. Simpson (Ann Akin) with Sam. She tells them they have to prepare for his “psychotic episodes” to soon deteriorate his condition even worse. Alone together, Ed and Mary talk about whether their son frightens them; he says that now and then, yes, but she says no. She says that their son reminds her of him: “The true you. Not the one with the fake smile spread across your face.” She says his fakeness is scarier than their son’s psychosis.
What changed Ed? His life seems like a giant routine. Only now it’s been disrupted slightly, by Linda’s appearance, the mention of Macon Heights. So, he decides to hop on the train and go looking for himself.
Out of nowhere, the man sitting across from Ed opens the door and leaps into a field, as do a bunch of others. This is where Macon Heights is meant to be. Everybody walks off through a barren field out over the horizon. As they do, a city is visible not far ahead. Ed finds a beautiful little town, not unlike any other. He goes on into a restaurant, orders a tea. The waitress brings a compliment bit of apple cake. It’s a nice place, indeed.
“I think you‘ll find a lot of things divine ‘round here.”
The town is different, though. Very unlike the modern day. People are still friendly, a man and a woman are just engaged and they run through the streets pronouncing their love, someone waves and says hello to Ed as he passes. Sitting on a bench, Ed watches children play, and Linda shows up, remarking this would seem a weird thing in another place. Not here. She tells him he’s unhappy, he isn’t used to happiness, so this is why Macon Heights feels unreal to him.
Just after seven in the evening, the train comes around. All the visitors run and climb their way back onto the train, people helping them back inside. They go back to the rest of the world, back to their various stops at the stations. Ed finds himself back to his life again, the routine, the sort of crushing realness that exists for him. But slowly, he begins believing it wasn’t altogether unreal in Macon Heights.
At home, Mary seems pretty happy. Things have changed. They no longer have a child, it’s just the two of them. This appears to be a life without Sam, without having to worry about him so much. Even the world itself seems a little friendlier than before similar to Macon Heights. Then on the platform, Ed sees Sam going onto a train but can’t catch up with him.
This gets Ed interested in Macon Heights more than he was already. He tracks down Martine Jenkins (Anne Reid), to find further information. “It‘s a town that almost existed,” she explains. As if epitomising hope; the ideal town “that stays ideal.” He finds out more about Linda, daughter of the man who tried building Macon Heights; she found him dead in the woods after they took away the contract and gave it someone else.
Ed goes back to that place again, the restaurant. He basks in that place’s energy, its perfection. Yet it’s uncanny, and unsettling. He sees all the same things, experiencing it as if in a loop. Not unlike his own routine. Just another way of avoiding the real world, real life, struggle, adversity, all the things that make it real.
“What could‘ve been doesn‘t exist. There‘s only what is, and that‘s you and me.”
One night Ed hears jazz music, like the stuff Sam would listen to, and he winds up in the attic. Videotapes are everywhere, showing the life of their little boy growing up, the good and the bad. In a way, he realises finally the loss of his son, despite the troubles. Losing Sam is losing a piece of himself.
When he gets back to Macon Heights, everything’s fucked up. People stare at him in the restaurant. One man’s face looks half shot off. He needs to find Linda, he wants to get his life back. The residents there want their ideal home back, but he’s tainted it with the truth. Trauma’s leaked into Macon Heights, the horrors of some peoples lives coming back to them.
He finally tracks down Linda. They talk about reality, the brutality of it. Ed argues against Linda’s pessimism, that he and Sam did experience joy, that it’s worth seeing the boy grow into a man. He can’t agree with erasing Sam, despite her believing they’re better off without him, with a new life.
When he leaves Macon Heights and goes home, he finds things as they were, but that it isn’t a desperate, hopeless situation. He can make a change, if he wants it to happen. Linda sees a hopeless world, whereas now, juxtaposed with the unreality of the fake ideal qualities in Macon Heights, Ed can change himself rather than wish for Sam and everything else to change. Seeing his boy again makes him smile, a genuine smile, for the first time in who knows how long.
Such a fantastic episode. Surreal, creepy, beautiful in ways. Lots of impressive writing in this one, plus Timothy Spall is a treasure.
“Crazy Diamond” comes up next.