Collateral is an intimate drama fascinated by individuals and sceptical of institutions

Carrie Mulligan as DI Kip Glaspie (BBC Two)

What’s interesting about Collateral, of course, is that it’s very pointedly not a whodunnit. It spends very little time dwelling on questions of the murder’s identity, revealing this roughly halfway through the second episode; instead, Collateral unfolds from both directions, focused on questions of how and why rather than who. At each turn, the show avoids leaning into any simplistic formulae – it’s consistently something more interesting.

In that sense, it refuses easy categorisation. Describing it as a “high octane thriller”, as marketing has been wont to do, is perhaps something of a misrepresentation of what this story really is. David Hare put it best, as one would expect of the writer of the piece, noting that he was “much more interested in exploring how the death of one individual, who has lived out of the sight of respectable society, resonates and reaches into various interconnecting lives”. Much as it’s very pointedly not a whodunnit, it’s not even necessarily a crime drama; it’s quite illuminating that two major characters – detective Kip Glaspie (Carrie Mulligan) and Karen Mars (Billie Piper) – never cross paths, indicating just how wide the scope of this series is beyond the initial murder.

Said interconnecting lives are realised by a particularly strong cast, a group of actors elevating the material at every turn. You can see what attracted, for example, Carey Mulligan to the drama, a now rare television role from an Oscar-nominated actress; Collateral is very much a character focused piece. As a female lead, Mulligan’s role is interesting – she’s pregnant, but that’s rarely remarked upon, and her husband has only a handful of lines throughout the piece. It’s a very conscious rejection of a lot of the hallmarks of the genre, something that can be seen across many of the characters in the drama; archetypes are subverted, and familiar shapes resisted.

Hence it can be understood why it’s called Collateral – it’s alluding to the idea of ‘collateral damage’, of the unintended consequences that impact each character. The series plays out like an example of the butterfly effect, a sprawling, spiralling chain of events all growing out from a single incident. Taken together, it’s illustrative of Collateral’s specific fascination with individuals above all else.

John Simm as Labour MP David Mars (BBC Two)

Inherent to Collateral is a deep scepticism of institutions. It depicts a church that stifles its members, a Labour party that fails to stand for its principles, an army rife with abuse, and an immigration system that’s cruel and callous to those that move within it. These ideas are made explicit through Collateral’s at times wonderfully plain and direct dialogue; a character remarks that “If you left an institution without bitterness it meant you’d beaten it; if you were bitter, the institution had won”.

That can be read, of course, as another example of Collateral’s fascination with individuals – it’s about how they’re left behind and pulled apart by these institutions, by the wider hierarchy that they represent. As part of the consideration of each institution, there’s a moment of horror and of hypocrisy grounded in these establishments. The emotional climax of the second episode, with its unadorned presentation of footage of two characters crossing the channel, is a resounding moment. Though a relatively simple moment – a detective alone, watching the footage – it’s raw and visceral, its simplicity serving to highlight the profound personal pain of the moment. These moments of horror and hypocrisy show what Collateral does best; drawing focus to the intimate and contextualising the damage these institutions cause in the case of a single person.

Yet it also becomes about how people move within larger power structures, and how they exercise personal power within said structures. The structures aren’t torn down, and there are few victories to be had – institutions don’t change or reform overnight. But there are certain achievements to be celebrated, as a child is born with assured citizenship, or a politician able to hold firm to their principles. A space is carved out to let these small victories flourish, and on a small scale, people can “outwit the system”.

Collateral doesn’t end with a neat conclusion, of course; for a programme that had focused so keenly on unfolding consequences, it couldn’t have. It manages, though, to have a lasting impact beyond the roll of the credits – ultimately, Collateral is an intelligent and thought-provoking character piece, a drama that’s genuinely compelling and engaging at every turn.

Related:

Hard Sun never quite moved beyond a police procedural, and suffered as a result

Trauma was a haunting meditation on destructive grief

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