Dying Like a Beast in The Beast Must Die
5 min read

Dying Like a Beast in The Beast Must Die

Dying Like a Beast in The Beast Must Die

I can't say I'm interested in The Beast Must Die (2021), but I am haunted by it, so here we go. It isn't a boring show, God knows. It's a frequently brilliant show, with a cast determined to tear it up (anchored by Cush Jumbo – who makes the screen around her breathe, even as she's stilled by panic – and Jared Harris, who delivers a riveting performance as a trash bag in a little pink polo). No, it just self-owns, and for this reason: it's about a mediocre white man who vampirically sucks the energy and strength from a remarkable Black woman, and this is also true on a metafictional level.

The Beast Must Die is based on a 1938 mystery novel by UK poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis. One wants Cecil Day-Lewis to be a good writer of mystery novels. Surely a poet would bring a uniquely angular prose style to the field? But no; he's a cut-rate Sayers, and bear in mind that Sayers is the cut-rate Sayers. With the restless intellect that kept her from writing in the same subgenre twice, she did posterity the favor of writing two or three masterpieces, and also several shockingly weak books about smug people breaking codes. I've only read one of Day-Lewis' mysteries, and it's not The Beast Must Die. I am nonetheless confident, from the kind of mediocre it was, that he didn't share Sayers' propensity for getting bored with the sound of her own voice.

The series is a revenge noir about a teacher, Frances Cairns, whose son is killed in a hit-and-run. She suspects local developer George Rattery, possibly because Day-Lewis wasn't as subtle at naming people as he was at naming books (and he wasn't subtle at naming books). With malice aforethought, Frances insinuates herself into George's life – mentoring his young but already embittered sister-in-law, teaching his son to sail, and hinting to the viciously narcissistic George that she'd like to fuck him, to which he reacts with an unexpected undercurrent of awestruck vulnerability, like a man looking at Michelangelo's David for the first time. Does George want Frances to kill him, or just to peg him? Is Frances right about the killer's identity? Will the weight of her trauma overwhelm her before she makes good her escape from a literary story into a mystery story? Because that's her problem, at its heart. The realism of grief has seized her by the face, and it never stops barking orders and abuse any more than George does. Her search for revenge, her determination to first implicate George and then kill him, is pure genre escapism.

What's good about The Beast Must Die, then, is the interplay between Frances and George. She's better than him in every way – smarter, quicker, superior morally – and yet he keeps wrong-footing her because he's such a ruinous person, corrosive and leaden. He can exhaust her with a touch. He says awful things and makes them charming; he says charming things and makes them awful; he's the turd in everybody's pool.

Harris doesn't seem interested in making George complex. He's not complex, and arguing for his complexity would mitigate his shittiness. But he does play him in a complex way – with insight, decency, and a certain Frances-like determination to hunt the man down. I mentioned in my previous Harris essays that he's particularly expert at controlling the flow of emotion in and out of his face. George lets little emotion loose; his face is a more realistic and detailed mask than that of Harris' Lane Pryce (the ghost that haunts Mad Men), but it's a mask nonetheless. Instead, Harris conveys George's wretched rage with every movement of his thrusting and violent body, which becomes paradoxically more vulnerable the more exaggerated its motions. The shifting power dynamics play out across both actors' frames: Harris, embodied and faceless, and Jumbo, face raw, body protected by loose clothing and a respectful camera. As a two-hander, it's magnificent, and you can tell that this clumsy, crushing parade of mistrust can only come from two actors who trust each other.

The problem with all this is that the story's not about Frances and George. Or rather, it decides late in the series that it's not about Frances and George, but has in fact been a cop show all along, and that the main character – defined not as the one who gets the most time and sympathy, nor the one who drives the story, but the one whose perspective the story is actually from – is Nigel Strangeways. Strangeways here is not Day-Lewis' gentleman detective; he's a young cop with old ideas about shoe leather and brutality, which the show remarkably chooses not to interrogate. Nigel is explicitly placed in opposition to a model of policing that's focused on empathy and service. He rises from tertiary importance in the first 80% of the show to primary importance at the end – it becomes a show about Nigel, in contrast to Frances and George, who are retroactively turned into cases for him to solve. They become figures to be placed in his cabinet of curiosities.

Nigel, like Frances and George, has PTSD. His trauma is presented as a serious problem that's central to his journey; we see him struggling, raging, drinking, acting out; we also see him in therapy. It's not that the show elides Frances' and George's own trauma, but neither character is given any leeway for the ways it's led them to act, as Nigel is. Nobody ever stops this guy from working as a cop, no matter how inappropriately he screams and fucks his way through his day.

The reason for this is, frankly, misogyny. Nigel's trauma, which stems from violence, is framed as interesting, and its effects forgivable: somehow everyone knows that this fire tornado isn't really him. Frances' trauma, which stems from the loss of a child, is framed as painful and sad, but not as inherently interesting – interesting merely because of its effects. It's also presented as emphatically not a reason to forgive her for her murderous intent, for which various characters critique her at length.

George's trauma stems from childhood sexual abuse. It's seen as the least interesting trauma of all, barely mentioned, and per the writing is in no way an explanation for his dangerous and self-destructive acts. In a series that divides up traumas by gender, being an abused man is "feminine" trauma, and it doesn't even have the grace to be appropriately attached to a woman, as Frances' is. (Harris is, as usual, completely up to play the more interesting aspects of this, and to hint at ways that George is fleeing from it because of his own misogyny; I do reiterate that nothing here is his or Jumbo's fault, except that they elevate the material above its natural level so that the final crash is harder.)

Of course, trauma neither excuses bad acts nor consistently causes them, but this is a series about the connections between trauma and bad acts, and it's worth pointing out the differences in how it treats a cop witnessing violence, a teacher losing her child, and a rich man having a history of abuse before he was a man. The first one is a struggle; the second is a tragedy; the third makes you a beast.

The Beast Must Die is one of those stories that are interesting because of their colliding cultural anxieties, and also because they get out of the actors' way and let them excel completely by accident. It's because the series is not interested in George's trauma that Harris can lay in so many layers of ugliness, can gently explain George without forgiving him, can even make that process funny. It's because it underplays Frances' trauma that Jumbo has so much room to portray it cascading catastrophically down her body. Because the writing is unsophisticated, the acting gets to be sophisticated – which still doesn't result in a good five hours of television, but does result in a couple of performances that are rich and worth watching, even as they take place in an aesthetic vacuum.