Nothing has really changed by the end of “A Day in the Death,” but at least Owen (Burn Gorman)—still dead—has found a reason to hope. “A Day in the Death” is the circuitous story of Owen’s journey from despair, and the two strangers he meets along the way. It all feels comfortably familiar, but the performances elevate it above cliché, most of the time.
We open with a montage, “I’m Dr. Owen Harper, and this is my life.” It’s a nicely-constructed clip show of Owen’s greatest hits, plus a few images we haven’t seen before. Most striking: Owen underwater, completely relaxed. Suddenly he opens his eyes and realizes he should be drowning, but he’s not. The image of Gorman screaming underwater is intense, accompanied as it is by the voice over, “Three days ago I died. They think I’m fine, but they’re wrong.”
We come out of the montage into Cardiff’s night, with Owen approaching a young woman sitting on the edge of a roof. “So, ready to jump?” he asks. We’ll later learn this woman’s name is Maggie (surname also Harper, reinforcing the similarity between the two characters); Christine Bottomley does a fantastic job with what could have been a dishrag role, giving Maggie an edge and an intelligence we don’t expect to see in the typical roof jumper. She’s not happy to see Owen there. “Get off my roof,” she demands. Owen ignores her.
He’s not there to stop her, he says. He scoffs that she thinks she’s got problems; they’re nothing compared to his. Maggie starts to tell him off but he shuts her up by opening up his shirt, and you can still see the nasty open wound left by the bullet that killed him. Maggie fearlessly pokes her finger into Owen’s chest in a credible Doubting Thomas moment. “What the hell are you?” she asks. Dead, Owen answers, then riffs that he’s like Jesus without the beard, from whence he quickly gets lost in a tangent. Maggie cuts him off by asking why he’s there if he’s already dead; it’s not as if he can die twice. “Are you an expert?” Owen asks. She doesn’t miss a beat and replies, “Are you an idiot?” Owen ruefully agrees that he is an idiot. A dead idiot.
Then we get to see how Owen ended up on this rooftop. It begins with Jack (John Barrowman) relieving him of duty. Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd), nicely underplayed here, quietly collects his gun and his security pass as Jack explains that Martha (Freema Agyeman) will be taking over as Torchwood’s medical officer, and running tests on Owen to figure out what he is. Owen rails against Jack’s high-handedness, but it doesn’t do any good. And he gets no satisfaction whatsoever when Jack makes him the new coffee boy after he asks what he’s supposed to do now.
We don’t often get to see Ianto and Owen together; their personalities and job functions are so different that there’s not a lot of reason for them to interact apart from the team as a whole. Owen’s barista training does not go well, mainly because Owen’s attitude is piss-poor. He rants at Ianto, sure that the other man is enjoying how low he’s fallen. Ianto’s not like that at all, and how Owen could ever think that Ianto was the vindictive type is beyond me. Owen rattles off the list of how everyone has someone, except for him, noting that Ianto’s shagging Jack. It’s difficult to pin down the source of Ianto’s discomfort with that description; his expression says a lot more than his, “It’s not like that.” It’s hard to believe that I ever detested Ianto, especially when he gives Owen his “buck up"speech, noting that he’s seen Owen save so many lives, and asking if he is really going to let this beat him.
We don’t get to hear Owen’s answer, as the scene shifts to Owen and Martha, mid-test. Martha cheerily reports that Owen is 100% human and 100% Owen. There is no sign of muscle degeneration or cell decay. There’s a bit of ridiculousness mentioned, something like if Owen keeps working out he won’t lose muscle mass, but why should that be so when he can neither grow nor decay? This is one of the little blips that this episode gets wrong, and because it gets so much else right, it really stands out. Owen is non-plussed when Gwen (Eve Myles) calls down over the intercom to ask Martha to a meeting in a boardroom, but he seems resigned to his new role by joking with Martha about her favorite (really horrid sounding) coffee drink.
Up in the board room, the whole team is assembled while Gwen runs down the issue of the day: one Henry John Parker (brilliantly played by Richard Briers), eccentric recluse, and collector of alien artifacts. He’s added something new recently, or some old acquisition has become newly active, because Toshiko (Naoko Mori) is getting bizarre, fluctuating energy readings from his home. Owen arrives with coffee and hands everyone a mug, then sits himself down. Somehow or other they get into a discussion about TinTin, and I have to agree with Owen, I always thought he was a bit weird, although not as weird as Owen speculates. Jack looks pointedly at Owen and brings everyone back on topic.
We bounce back up to the rooftop, and Maggie asks Owen if he’s some kind of “suicide geek” after he spouts some death statistics. Owen denies the accusation, labeling himself a brilliant doctor.
Back to The Hub, where Martha is insisting that she doesn’t want Owen’s job, that she’s helping because Gwen (note, not Jack) asked her to. Throughout this conversation, Owen is tossing a scalpel around, and Martha chastises him for being careless. She notes he’s cut his hand open, but he doesn’t bleed. He just has another gaping wound. Martha starts to sew it up, reminding him that it won’t heal, so he’ll have to replace the stitches from time to time. Here is another example of failure to think things through. If Owen can’t heal, why would you make more holes in his skin by using stitches to close a neatly sliced wound? Is there no superglue in Cardiff? It would make a lot more sense for this particular application. Stoic, Owen takes the needle from Martha and finishes stitching himself up, noting he has to get used to doing things for himself. Is it an upside or a downside that he doesn’t need anesthesia? He’s numb.
Maggie remarks that Owen rejected Martha’s help, and Owen calls her a pain. She tells him her husband died, that they have nothing in common. Owen’s still reaching for something, it’s impossible to say what at this point, “You don’t know the half of it.”
Owen’s arguing with Jack again, asking for something to do. Jack cites rules and regulations for the reasons he can’t do that. Owen says he’ll just go home then, but what should he do then? Jack, unhelpfully, tells him to chill and watch some tv; Owen reminds Jack that he’s “permanently chilled.” He notes that injustice in Jack living forever, but him dying forever. But Owen gives chilling a try anyway, and that gives us the second delightful Owen montage of the episode.
He zones in front of To Buy or Not To Buy, a particularly obnoxious-looking reality show, but eventually walks over to his iPod and cranks up some weird, bouncy electronic music. Grabbing a huge trashbag, he purges everything from his fridge, cupboards, and medicine cabinet—again, a bit of a lapse. He may not sweat or need to shave, but he’ll still get grubby and need to wash, won’t he? It’s sad to watch Owen throwing out a bowl of beautiful fruit, a loaf of bread, everything to do with sustenance. We get seven different extended shots of Owen with the long stare, and just as his eyes begin to close, the doorbell rings.
It’s Toshiko, and she’s brought Jubilee pizza (I think 90% of all Torchwood calories are from Jubilee). She barely acknowledges that Owen might be in some kind of less-than-optimal state, and starts right in: “Do you mind if I eat, I’m starved.” She goes on an extended babble, but Owen doesn’t hear a word.
Maggie comments to Owen that they sound like an old married couple. She admits to Owen that it’s her anniversary, and we get to hear her story, finally. Actually, we get to see her story, which is infinitely more compelling. She narrates a few brief scenes, but they’re more than enough to explain why she’s up on that roof. She says, “My perfect day,” with such bitterness, and we see her in a wedding dress splattered with blood, staggering down an empty highway. She had been married for less than an hour when the accident happened. Owen asks why did she wait so long, and here, Maggie’s reply is heartbreaking: “I believed them. They said it would get better. Do you think it will?”
Back in Owen’s flat, Toshiko’s never-ending one-sided conversation continues until Owen snaps at her, “Why are you here, Tosh?” She says she wants to help him, but Owen wonders how could she possibly do that? Now Owen becomes cruel, and taunts Toshiko that he is now perfect for her, this is the date they had arranged. Tosh, stung, cries out, “What’s wrong with you?” “I’m broken!” he roars, further tormenting her, “Maybe you want someone as twisted and screwed up as you are, ” he holds up his hand and breaks his own fingers. Shocked by his own violence, he turns and runs right out of the apartment. He keeps running down the street, and right off the end of a pier. The underwater shot of Owen fades to murk.
When Owen hauls himself up to the boardwalk, Jack is there, waiting. “Thirty-six minutes,” he says. Owen asks if he was watching. Jack’s best line of the episode: “Skinny guy in tight jeans runs into water? I was taking pictures.” Jack walks away, asking “How long is all this going to go on for, Owen?”
The rest of the team is in the boardroom; the energy spikes at Parker’s mansion are getting dangerously bigger. They pull up schematics of his compound and review the security systems; it’s clearly going to be a Mission:Impossible job to get in there and get out with whatever it is that’s producing the energy surges. Owen walks in, toweling off, just in time to hear them discuss the body heat sensors in every room. This is a job tailor-made for a man who’s dead, and he volunteers instantly. Jack nods to Ianto, who hands Owen back his gun and his security pass; I love that Ianto had them so handy. Now that it’s settled that Owen will be going in, everyone gets to work. There’s an awkward moment when Toshiko approaches Owen. She doesn’t look at him, just holds out his keys and says, “I turned your telly off.”
Maggie, wondering where all this is leading, frets that she doesn’t care about anything, she just wants to jump. Owen rushes her to the edge but she fights him, she’s too scared to go over. It’s a nice moment.
Martha gives Owen the Death Becomes Her speech. Owen, for his part, replies that he understands he’s made of glass, getting into a whole ’nother superhero mythos. Martha reminds him to take care; Jack tosses him a white cloth.
It turns out that it’s easy to get a security guard away if you call saying you’re from the hospital and his wife has just been admitted. Gwen lies with such authority. Owen sneaks around and over to the generator, and is caught just as he’s about to short it. He freaks out the security guard by disrupting the power flow using his own body—again, why is frying OK for him? Just because he can’t decay, does that mean he won’t burn? It’s this same little thing, over and over. Even the fact that the cloth that Jack threw him at the last minute was a TinTin shirt—a nice little detail—highlights that they can get these small things right. Why can’t they be as thorough and consistent with the central issue?
Owen gets into the house, and doesn’t trip the heat sensors, just as expected. “I’m literally too cool for school,” he muses to himself. He faces down yet another security guard, noting the guy is really not going to shoot him, and besides, he’s already dead. By now, Owen’s seeing that there are some advantages to this already-dead business, and he starts getting into it. “I’m Dr. Owen Harper, and I’m having one helluva day.” The team, far removed, all stand around looking concerned. There’s nothing they can do but listen in.
Owen finds the room with the artifacts as a driving, repetitive theme starts on the soundtrack. Parker lies in his bed, hooked up to an array of monitors and other equipment. Is he conscious? “Yessss?” he asks, then takes Owen to task: “You’re a very violent doctor. You’re Torchwood, aren’t you?” I’m willing to give this rich old man a pass on his knowledge of Torchwood. He’s into alien artifacts, and the one thing that money reliably buys is information. Parker’s fond of Toshiko, and wishes she had come instead. He calls out so she can hear him through Owen’s headgear, “You’ve got very lovely legs, you should show them off more.”
Owen wants to know what’s wrong with Parker, and he reels off his list: three heart attacks, failed bypass operation. But now he’s feeling fine because of his newest alien gizmo, something he’s named “the pulse.” Owen asks if he knows what it is, but Parker doesn’t, really. He tells Owen that it’s keeping him alive, but that’s just what he believes. Owen analyzes the artifact and finds that while it is producing massive amounts of energy, none of it is going into Parker. It is in fact Parker’s hope that’s keeping him going, and that sets the conversation on entirely different road.
Parker tells Owen he doesn’t know what dying feels like, but Owen disagrees. Parker is terrified of the darkness he knows is on the other side, there’s nothing there, “I’ll be in the dark, all alone,” he wails. Owen asks the obvious question, “What’s the difference between that and now?” The question provokes a crisis in Parker, who delivers a monologue we sense was a long time in coming. He lists his life’s accomplishments, but look where he is now, alone, lying in his own piss. What he wants more than anything is a good steak, medium rare, with black pepper sauce, but he’s fed through a tube. He decides he might as well be dead, and surrenders the artifact to Owen.
Parker expected to die when he gave up the Pulse, but he didn’t. Now he struggles against his feeling of abandonment, of being stuck where he doesn’t want to be. Owen promises to help him, and Parker begs him to tell all about Torchwood. Parker needs to know that this isn’t all there is. He jokes with Owen, then, telling him, “If you come back, I won’t tell the Japanese girl you’re still holding my hand.” It’s a moment of levity before Parker’s final cardiac arrest. Owen tries to revive him, beginning CPR, but he can’t do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation because he doesn’t breathe. Parker dies while Owen is consumed by frustration, and I’m wondering why a guy as rich as Parker doesn’t have a team of round-the-clock medical staff. Obviously that would’ve complicated Owen’s entire b&e scheme, but still. Is it realistic that a man so obsessed with hanging onto life wouldn’t give himself every advantage that money could buy? It’s these little things that can take us out of the story.
Toshiko frantically calls Owen, telling him that the energy levels are increasing, and there’s nothing they can do. It seems as if the thing, whatever it is, is going to explode, and Owen wraps himself around it, hoping that maybe his body can be something of a shield. They all exchange brief goodbyes, Owen saving Tosh for last. She doesn’t say anything, and Owen demands, “Tosh, answer me!” before he continues with just one word, but very sincere, “Sorry.” Tosh, for her part, repeats what she’s been saying to him all along, “I love you.” Maybe this time he’ll believe it?
The artifact begins to glow and fills the screen with pretty, pretty lights. What happened? Owen has a charming speech to Maggie here, about how most of the time, we assume the worst; it seems as if everything’s going to shit, but then sometimes, it doesn’t. “It sang to me,” Owen says, explaining how the machine was a reply to the messages NASA sent out in the 1970s.
Whatever the artifact did or didn’t do, it was enough to convince the rest of the team that Owen’s OK, and that Martha could go. They all stand around, sending her off. She kisses Jack full on the lips, joking, “Well, everyone else has had a go,” and Jack sweetly tells her she can come back anytime. “Maybe I will, sometime,” she replies, and then walks away with her luggage. Then we’re at the Hub, and Toshiko and Owen are sitting quite intimately together. She asks him to promise that he’ll share it with her, when things are bad. I think Owen does believe her, now; he replies that he’s scared that when he closes his eyes, he’ll get trapped in the darkness.
Then Owen’s walking through the night streets, and a snapshot falls from the roof. “I came here to help,” he tells Maggie, and he hands her the photo. “What do I do now?” she asks him. He tells her she has a choice; but if there’s even a tiny glimmer of light, don’t you think it’s worth taking a chance? From out of nowhere, he pulls out the artifact and holds it aloft, and ribbons of light extend over Cardiff’s skyline as he repeats, “This is my life.”
There’s a sense, at the end here, that Owen is all better now, but he’s not—unless some deleted scene told us how the alien artifact jumpstarted Owen back to life. But that obviously didn’t happen, because he’s still dead, up on that roof with Maggie. He’s just OK with being dead now, and can even say, with a straight face, things like, “This is my life.” In less capable hands, this episode would’ve been a complete bore, but I believed Gorman in every scene, and his supporting cast here was superb. The lapses I noted kept this episode from being top-tier for me, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I do hope we can get off the death kick for a while. It’s getting dreadfully repetitious. They can’t have run out of ideas already, right?