BBC Two’s The North Water
Ep. 1: “Behold the Man”
Directed & Written
by Andrew Haigh
* For a recap & review of Ep. 2, click here.
We start off with an Arthur Schopenhauer quote about men, then a lot of grunting as a man finishes on top of a woman. Good lord. This is our introduction to Henry Drax (Colin Farrell), a rough looking man. He’s a harpooner in England, circa 1859. He goes straight from getting laid to have a rum; or, at least he tries to get a drink, and even loses his knife attempting to trade. Henry’s obviously an alcoholic, further trying to trade his dirty boots for a drop of liquor. Eventually a man buys Henry a drink just to shut his mouth. After that he’s off to get ready to ship out for a berth at sea.
We then meet Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell), a disgraced surgeon from the army. He was shot in India during one of the attacks by the British that made up the Anglo-Indian Wars, now he’s also preparing to ship off. He meets Captain Arthur Brownlee (Stephen Graham) and they get to know each other a little. He tells the captain about his time in the army. They get a bit serious, too. Brownlee wants to know more about why Sumner quit the army and came home from India. Sumner explains his uncle died and left him a dairy farm. He could easily buy a nice house and start a quiet practice. But he has “legal complications,” counter-claimants to the uncle’s estate. That means Sumner is no better off than he was before. Then he wound up in the whaling industry. Brownlee says the men on his ship have “very little use for science,” suggestive of the folklore-ish nature of a life at sea. Quite a different lifestyle for Sumner, surely. On top of everything, Sumner’s also an Irishman among Englishmen, a historically tense position in which to find oneself. He’s already a bit above the ship’s crew in terms of social class, by virtue of his profession, so it’ll be interesting to see exactly how he gets on with the other men aboard the ship. Moreover, the series has a compelling angle here with the advancement of medicine, as we see Sumner check the medicine chest, wondering if the last doctor aboard was a “fucking druid.”
Sumner goes into the city to the apothecary, looking for supplies to stock up. He’s not getting exactly what he wants, as the shopkeeper knows Mr. Baxter (Tom Courtenay), the man in charge of the ship’s finances. Another worm in the apple. This leaves Sumner at a disadvantage, only getting what someone else deems necessary; not quite able to stock his supplies as necessary, resting on the economics of his employers and not on what’s needed to keep the ship’s crew healthy. Probably a bad thing considering Drax, a wildly unhealthy man, is going to be aboard. If the rest of the crew are half as bad it’ll be a medical shitshow. He and Sumner nearly cross paths, when he leaves the pub and the latter stops in for a rum at the same time. We get a glimpse into Sumner’s inner world as he sits for a drink and writes in his diary. He’s a haunted man. Is he haunted by his own actions? Is he haunted by witnessing the ravages of colonialism via the British Empire? Regardless, he’s self medicating, not only with booze but with some of his ship’s supplies. He gets kicked out of the pub for being fucked up, too. Meanwhile, Drax is in the street getting coin off the man who bought him a drink, by way of violence.
The next day, Cpt. Brownlee and Baxter talk about the “gaggle of shitheads” they have for a crew. Brownlee wants to prove himself to people. But Baxter also tells him that he can’t mess up. There is much riding on this mission. Baxter’s bringing him the real mission: sink their ship, The Volunteer, for “twelve–thousand pounds.” Part of the bigger picture. Baxter wants to use the insurance money so he can become an industrialist and leave behind the brutality—probably more so the economic side—of the whaling industry.
And so, The Volunteer sets sail.
Sumner’s reading Homer when Mr. Cavendish (Sam Spruell) drops in to see him. Cavendish invites Sumner for a drink at their next dock. In the meantime, Patrick can’t quite keep away from the laudanum. When they get to Lerwick in the Shetland Islands, Sumner meets Drax and some of the other crew members before they head in to land. The men are largely concerned with “wet pussy” and booze. Sumner sticks to booze, not wishing to contract “the clap” before their berth. He also hears from Mr. Jones (Kieran Urquhart) about a ship called The Percival which Brownlee once captained; a disaster. There are already questions about how Cpt. Brownlee managed to score another ship after such an incident. Cavendish seems to know more than he lets on, as well. Before any more talk can happen we witness Drax’s penchant for violence again, as he starts a racket with several men and Cavendish has to jump in to help him fight. Even Sumner tries to lend a hand, getting knocked unconscious on the pub floor. This takes him back mentally to India, where he gets wounded while fleeing gunfire. He met a young Indian boy, bribing him with a ring to get water. Definitely more to this story to come…
“I’m not impressed by bloodshed.”
After the night in Lerwick, Sumner’s carted back to the ship and put to bed by Drax and Cavendish. The two men take the time to look through the surgeon’s belongings, coming across army discharge papers. They find Sumner was court martialed, though they can’t tell for what, and they further discover the ring we saw Sumner bribe to boy with in India—hmm, a bad omen. They’re sure it’s “stolen Hindu loot” and believe there’s a lot more to Sumner than the surgeon has let on so far. They also start to conspire about potentially doing away with Sumner, so they can auction off his belongings, should there be more treasures. Goddamn. This berth at sea was treacherous before they ever left England, and it’s only getting worse. Sumner probably thought the worst of it all would be the sea sickness, but he’s got another thing coming.
The next day, Sumner meets Otto (Roland Moller), a harpooner aboard The Volunteer. He asks about when the whales will turn up; Otto explains that whales are “timid fish.” He’s got no clue about Cavendish and Drax plotting, either. That doesn’t mean he’s any less nervous being on the ship. Right about that time, some of the harpooners get into a boat and hit the ice, hunting seals. We see the brutality of Drax out there, murdering seals in the old, cruel way; some people will take offence to this, but I’m Canadian (and a Newfoundlander), I support the modern seal hunt (especially considering what it means economically and culturally to Indigenous peoples, who use all of the seal instead of what we see Drax & company doing here for pelts), and seals are simply not bludgeoned to death horrifically like we see here nowadays (so if you eat burgers and you hate the seal hunt, you are a hypocrite).
The point here is, we witness how much Drax enjoys killing, whether human or animal. A one-man massacre.
Cpt. Brownlee’s sending more men out tomorrow, including Sumner, who agrees to “join the hunt.” Could be a perfect way for Cavendish and Drax to get rid of the surgeon and steal his belongings. Also could be easy, if Sumner’s hopped up on laudanum. The next day, Sumner heads out on the ice with the harpooners, trying his hand at killing animals. He seems to have no trouble, quickly putting an end to a seal while the others watch approvingly. He’s not as adept at skinning the seals yet, but he does his best. All the while he doesn’t understand he’s also being hunted by members of his own crew, though it’s not exactly obvious, either. When he has to cross a break in the ice with his pelts, he falls in, clawing to pull himself out of the water. In his struggle, he sees the Indian boy again, a dream-like figure coming out of the mist with a bloody hole in his stomach.
Then Sumner slips beneath the water’s surface, but he’s fighting to survive.
A great start to The North Water. Reminds me of The Terror’s first season, without the overt horror elements.
It’ll be exciting to watch this progress. Lots of themes here, from colonialism to toxic masculinity. Let’s go!