BBC Two’s The North Water
Ep. 2: “We Men Are Wretched Things”
Directed & Written
by Andrew Haigh
* For a recap of Ep. 1, click here.
* For a recap of Ep. 3, click here.
Sumner’s found out on the ice eventually by Mr. Jones, though the surgeon is barely alive after falling through the ice. The crew get him back to the boat, near frozen to death. They get him down below and try to warm him up, covering him in whale fat and wrapping him in blankets. Sumner comes to, thirsty and disoriented, but alive. This makes Captain Brownlee decide that the surgeon ought not to go out on the ice. It doesn’t thrill Cavendish, probably because it’ll be harder to kill the surgeon on board than out there. Drax thinks it also goes to show how tough Sumner is, despite what they might’ve thought of him before. Nevertheless, there are plenty more dangers to face out in the middle of the ocean on a ship with a crew populated by greasy bastards.
We see another brief glimpse into Patrick’s past. He remembers India, the boy he met. He talked to the boy about his parents and Ireland. His parents were sent to “a typhoid hospital” and he was left alone for days; they never came back. So he was taken in by the surgeon William Harper (David Prosho). Sumner promised the little Indian boy he’d be safe. Then he wakes, seeing Cavendish as a fellow Redcoat, bursting in to kill the boy. Otto thinks that Sumner died on the ice, yet Patrick doesn’t believe in any of the potential spiritual aspects of what happened to him.
The regular daily business of the ship goes on while Sumner does his best as the surgeon. He tries to see the ship’s crew as merely bodies, not as people with morals to judge. He simply seeks to be “a medical man.” One evening, Patrick gets a visit in his quarters from a cabin boy called Joseph Hannah (Stephen McMillan), who’s got stomach issues. He asks the kid about symptoms, though the young man’s not inclined to say much. The kid has to strip down and be checked for piles. Not a fun day at the office, for either of them. Turns out that the kid’s been raped. Sumner tries to get the truth from Joseph about who did it to him. However, the kid won’t say. I guess judging the moral character of the crew will be harder from here.
Patrick goes to speak with Cpt. Brownlee about the rape. The captain wonders if that’s what really happened, so the surgeon explains what he found, including “signs of venereal disease.” They clearly want to figure out who assaulted the young man, so Joseph’s called into the captain’s quarters, followed by Cavendish—who, frankly, was properly the perpetrator. They ask Joseph to tell him about how he was “ill used” by a member of the crew. The kid won’t say anything because he’s frightened, especially with Cavendish looming over his shoulder. Cpt. Brownlee can’t do anything without someone to blame, whereas Sumner thinks it was probably Cavendish. This is already haunting the surgeon, who retires to his quarters for a drink of laudanum.
Later, Patrick receives a visit from Drax with a wound that needs tending to, and the latter starts asking about Joseph. Henry basically talks shit about the kid; he, too, could be a culprit in the rape, for all we know. We’ve seen that Drax is an animal on two legs. He starts asking Sumner about the surgeon’s ambitions and reason for becoming a surgeon in the first place. Ooh, he is creepy. Let’s hope Patrick doesn’t get too many visits from Drax in the middle of the night.
On continues the ship’s journey, for better or worse.
One day it’s “all hands on deck” when there’s a whale seen in the nearby waters. This gets Drax’s blood pumping, ready for murder on the high seas. Off go the harpooners in boat to get in close to the whale. Then begins Drax’s purpose as he starts readying the first harpoon, sinking it into the whale. This first one keeps the boat tied to the whale and pulls them along. When the whale breaches the surface they reel themselves in closer to attack and kill it. Drax does the final job spearing the whale’s heart as the whale shoots up a spray of blood from its blow hole. The harpooners revel in the bloodshed. It isn’t simply about gathering resources, if about that at all for them; it’s about the violence. A dangerous combination of violent masculinity and empire.
The crew go about cutting up the whale and getting all its goods dissected, from the meat itself to the tail and all its blubber. Cavendish talks about the death behind all the material goods that will come out of the whale and pour into bourgeois society; a very Moby Dick-esque musing. The crew of the ship spends all day and night carving up the meat of the whale, extracting the blubber, and all the other toil that comes along with the job. After that, they get drinking and celebrating below deck. Sumner’s ingratiated himself further to the by helping with the dirty job on deck, yet he still feels isolated from the crew. He also continues his self-destructive trend of self medicating.
Sumner wakes up the next morning and notices the scratch in his mirror before heading up top. He’s there when they discover a horrifying sight after cracking open a barrel for water. Inside the barrel is young Joseph, who was murdered and stuff inside the barrel. Patrick looks over the corpse to find a cause of death, determining the cabin boy was strangled to death. So, who did it? The crew are angry, as is Cpt. Brownlee. Somebody must’ve seen something, no? Sumner also notices that Joseph is missing a tooth. Hmm.
Is this the work of Cavendish? Drax? Both? Or, could it be somebody else?
“An Irishman is a labourer at heart; that is his calling.”
Cavendish comes to Cpt. Brownlee saying that rumours claim McKendrick was with another man. So this pins him as a sodomite, meaning he must’ve been the one to rape Joseph. The captain, Cavendish, and Sumner sit down to have a talk with McKendrick. They ask if he’s “not fond of women,” if he’s married, so on. Cpt. Brownlee accuses McKendrick of being gay, who says he’s “red–blooded” like the rest of the crew. An ugly instance of homophobia here, though unsurprising for the era. McKendrick denies killing Joseph, but Cpt. Brownlee and Cavendish appear set in their ways. He says he isn’t into boys, considering that BEING GAY HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH MOLESTING KIDS. Such were the times, even if those arguments are still used to this day by right-wing and conservative creeps who hate queer people. The 19th century is when sexuality was being defined, and named in all its forms, which meant that it was also being oppressed and repressed alike. It takes Sumner to suggest doing a physical examination on McKendrick, to see if there are any signs of venereal disease which would match what was found on Joseph. No evidence to suggest McKendrick did anything to the boy. This doesn’t satisfy Cavendish; methinks he doth protest too much. Also doesn’t stop them from putting a gay man in irons for simply being gay, nor from coming up with some kind of proof to condemn him further.
It’s naturally Drax who says he saw McKendrick attempting to kiss Jonathan. Sumner doubts the story. But it’s enough for Cavendish. Henry recounts the bullshit story to Cpt. Brownlee, then they’re ready to condemn McKendrick for crimes the man did not commit. McKendrick continues to deny the nonsense. He also talks of the “unnatural crimes” that Drax has committed before, such as cannibalism. This makes Drax angry, more excitable than we’ve seen him before. The truth hurts, I’d imagine. A truly disgusting show of abusive power here. On top of it all, Sumner’s seen as a troublemaker. Good lord.
The ugliness of this journey has only but begun. Sumner’s dozing off to laudanum dreams when he hears something outside his door. He goes out to find the crew passed out drunk and sleeping. He has a vision of Joseph, pleading with Drax. Then he wakes up.
Great second episode. Very dark, though extremely realistic, in many ways.