Harper Watched: The Five

Harper Watched is an ongoing series where I review entertainment media I watched-- from TV to Film to Theater. Today I'm talking about 2016 British Crime Drama Series, The Five.

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I love a good mystery. If you love a good mystery, you also might love The Five. It's a British mystery drama packed into a very taut 10 episodes that's available on Netflix. It came up in my recommendations one day, because I consume tons of crime / murder content, and it seemed interesting. I'm a big fan of British mystery shows like Broadchurch-- beautifully shot, well-written, and told in season-long format rather than the episodic or making-it-up-as-we-go-hoping-we'll-get-another-season approach that is more common in American programming. When you get a full season to unravel a mystery, you really have time to be taken for some twists and turns! If you're like me, you'll be fascinated by this show. Let's get into it.

But first, a content warning. This show contains murder, violence, sexual assault, and crimes against children. It also contains drug abuse and sex work. If any of those things are difficult for you, please watch (and read) with care.

The Plot

20 years ago, five kids went into the woods to play. Slade, Danny, Pru, and Mark are about 15 year old, and all best friends. The fifth child was Mark's younger brother, Jesse, just 5 years old. The big kids wanted to go do their own thing and Jesse was upset and didn't want to go-- so they told him to walk back home alone. He went missing.

In the present (2015 in the show), everyone has grown up, but no one has forgotten. Slade runs a shelter for runaway children. Danny, son of the detective who worked the original missing persons case, is now a detective himself. Pru went off to America but is back in town having become doctor and gotten married. And Mark is now a solicitor (which is basically a type of lawyer that does everything but plead cases in open court-- I googled that) who also specializes in tracking down missing persons. It's obvious that every one of those kids is marked by being the last people confirmed to see Jesse alive. 

A pedophile confessed to Jesse's murder long ago, but there are questions as to whether or not he actually did it, especially since no one ever found a body. Jesse and Mark's mother is convinced he's still alive somewhere, while others try to accept that he's gone.

One day Danny is called in to work on the murder of a woman, and after forensics processes the scene, something weird comes back from the lab. A fairly new bandaid ("plaster") found at the scene of the murder matches the DNA of a child that went missing 20 years ago. 

Is Jesse Wells alive? And if so, is he a murderer? As they continue to dig, the story only gets more confusing. Lies are found out, people are murdered, and everyone's lives change.

Getting down to business

For me the most important thing with a mystery is good writing and storycraft. Mysteries are all about balancing tension and pay-off, and too many shows and films are great at the first part of the equation and flub the pay-off. This is not one of those. Harlan Coben, the show's creator, is a bestselling crime mystery writer, and I think having written books is a huge advantage to the TV mystery format, since you can't have a good book without good writing. 

The show weaves past and present together very well, while also smartly stitching together multiple cases into a cohesive, overarching story. Every reveal is built on well, and explained beautifully. In addition, each twist and turn feels real and organic. You get to live in each surprise, follow each lead and discover another totally plausible possibility as to what happened that day in 1995. Each episode will take your breath away.

The Five is also just absolutely beautiful. Stills of the show are so deeply steeped in the mood of whatever is happening. Combine that with great sound design and soundtrack and you've got a show that's a feast for the brain on a sensory level as well as a cognitive one.

Overall the show is about coping as best we can with whatever awful, impossible-to-understand things happen. Things are so complicated, it's sometimes hard to know what's real or imagined, truth or lie-- but we all have a responsibility to try to find a way to right our wrongs and live in whatever truths reveal themselves. Not a bad way to tell a mystery.

This is one of the best mystery shows I've ever seen, managing to be a fantastic balance between tension and pay-off, believable and improbable, revealing and obscuring. It also has a good balance of interpersonal drama that feels relevant rather than distracting, without getting over the top. If you appreciate solid construction as taut as perhaps Stranger Things (minus the supernatural / scifi / fantasy elements-- this series is fully grounded in reality) you will probably like The Five. Well-written and well-executed, this is something I really recommend to any crime/mystery lover.

And that's all I'll tell you since I don't want to spoil it.

Harper's Rating: 5/5

Pros:

  • Great writing, expertly woven story
  • Amazing tension to pay-off balance
  • Visually strong, beautiful
  • I really liked the soundtrack

Cons:

  • The content itself is heavy. Not really a con, just be aware of what you're getting into! 

Harlan Coben is also the creator of Safe, a Netflix Original mystery series. Have any of you watched it yet, and would you recommend? Let me know!