BBC Two’s The North Water
Ep. 5: “To Live is to Suffer”
Directed & Written
by Andrew Haigh
* For a recap & review of Ep. 4, click here.
Sumner’s been taken in at a missionary cabin, where a priest (Peter Mullan) and a woman called Anna (Nive Nielsen) look after him, nursing him back to health and even spoon feeding him when he’s too weak to feed himself. He’s in a bad way after being out on the ice so long, but he’s in good hands at least. He can barely eat before the pain returns and necessitates him lying down again.
After some time, Sumner’s upright at the table and the priest tells him of angekoks and Indigenous mythology about bears. The priest has quite the colonial view of the Innu. He’s been bribing the local people with gifts to ingratiate himself, so he might pontificate to them about Jesus. He rattles on about the “childlike” Natives. He believes, like so many other white men, that he’s making the Innu “self aware” and raising them up out of supposed savagery. Sumner doesn’t care much, he’s only calling for laudanum; there’s none, unfortunately.
Eventually the priest and Anna discover bodies from Sumner’s former ship, including the two dead Innu hunters. Sumner explains what happened, mentioning Drax is the one who killed the Innu. He doesn’t make mention of the ring he gave the men. The priest believes Drax could be dead, though Henry probably got shelter from one of the tribes up north, the only way to get out of there. He finally asks the surgeon’s name after all this time, wondering about his history. Sumner is, as usual, not quite what you’d call talkative about himself. “I see nothing worth learning,” he says when the priest asks if he feels he was reborn in the belly of the bear, sure that the only reason for rebirth would be to learn more about existence. Y’know, just in case the nihilism of The North Water wasn’t obvious enough for you, Sumner reassures us about the dreadfulness of being alive.
The Innu believe Sumner has “magical powers” because of his circumstances with the bear. They want the surgeon to go on a hunt with them, thinking he’ll draw animals with those powers. Sumner’s glad to go, especially if it means getting part of the eventual catch. He’s not interested in any of the priest’s ideas about trying to ‘civilise’ the Innu, only wanting to help those who’ve helped him, probably wanting to figuratively make up for what happened to the hunters back at the crew’s camp. So off Sumner goes with the Innu, searching for seals, and they do some serious hunting. At night, the surgeon wrestles with his own thoughts; by day, he gets to know the Innu and their culture, in spite of the language barrier. A couple of the Innu present Sumner with gifts; a pendant, and a knife with a handle carved into a polar bear head.
We get more of the priest and his colonialist discourse once Sumner comes back to the cabin. He thinks the Innu are “closer to the animal world,” that they’re brutish people, whereas Sumner thinks maybe white folk have moved too far away from it. Sumner likewise thinks that the Innu don’t want to force change upon nature, while he’s been out there on a whaling trip as the British Empire forces their many changes on nature. During the night, the priest is in pain, moaning from his bed, and Sumner tries to help with his medical skills, checking the old man to find an abscess in the priest’s gut. He’s never performed the procedure necessary to fix it, but he’s got to try, and the priest is quite ready to put his fate in the hands of the Lord. Thus starts a painful surgery. Sumner manages to get at the abscess, though it’s a bloody and nasty procedure. After that it’s just a matter of the priest resting. Sumner talks with the bedridden priest about the mistakes he’s made, weeping with guilt. He talks about starting over again, after this journey’s finished.
Five months pass.
Sumner has finally returned to shore, safe and sound. He’s back in time for May Day, watching all the costumes in the streets pass him by. He goes to see Mr. Baxter, surprised to see him home in one piece. Baxter sits with the surgeon to have a drink and discuss things. Sumner wants to move on with his life, he doesn’t want to be the sole survivor of the The Volunteer thrust into the media’s eye. Baxter acts like he doesn’t know anything about the mission to sink the ship, nor the “great heathen” Mr. Drax and his character. He offers a connection in London and “a nice plump whore.” He just wants to make sure Sumner doesn’t know anything incriminating, and that the young surgeon won’t go around talking too much. Yet Sumner won’t give up on finding Drax.
Plus, ole Henry’s hiding away upstairs, kept out of the public eye by Baxter himself.
So they’ve got to make sure Sumner doesn’t survive much longer.
Although Baxter’s also planning to double cross Drax once the job’s done, too. Hoo, boy!
Baxter’s man Stevens (Lee Knight) takes Sumner up to see Baxter that night. Only the surgeon is a lot harder to kill than anyone expected. Drax kills Stevens as Sumner gets away, figuring out that Baxter intended to turn on him. Now it’s a cat-and-mouse game between the two former shipmates with Drax hunting Sumner through a dark building. Henry taunts the surgeon for a fight. Soon, the two men wind up face-to-face. Drax chokes Sumner as they wrestle with each other, the latter eventually pulling his knife and putting it to the former’s neck, sinking the blade into Henry’s neck; a beautiful, bloody piece of imagery as Drax figuratively becomes the polar bear, as Sumner saw it in a vision on the ice, stabbed with the bear knife. Sumner’s been rejecting the colonialism of the British Empire—or trying to, anyway—this whole series and this killing is one way for him to buy back a piece of his soul, by ending one colonialist monster’s reign.
Yet the deed isn’t fully done. Sumner can’t sit with the knowledge of what Baxter did and intended to do. He goes to see Mr. Baxter at home later in the evening. Perfect imagery again with a polar bear stuffed and standing in the foyer, as the surgeon attempts to rid the world of another colonialist animal. Sumner’s taken up to see Baxter, immediately drawing his weapon on the old man. Baxter tries making it out like Drax was out of control. He believes himself “an honest man.” Yet Sumner knows the difference, he knows about everything Baxter was trying to do with The Volunteer, he knows he was meant to die tonight. Again, Baxter gets colonialist, bringing up Sumner’s Irish heritage and that it might go bad for the surgeon if someone finds Drax dead by his hand, using his bourgeois power to threaten the younger man. What a nasty piece of work. He wants to pay Sumner off, offering very little money. The surgeon asks for all the money in the old man’s safe instead. He gets the money and then he shoots Baxter in the head before leaving the house.
Skip to one year later in Berlin.
Sumner’s dressed well, living a new life. He visits a zoo, where he sees a frail polar bear in a cage.
He’s no longer scared of such things; they’ve got nothing on men themselves.
A stunning series, full of unforgettable imagery and several stellar performances.
Jack O’Connell is one of his generation’s best. Mark my words.