With the sixth episode of its debut season, Torchwood’s identity crisis continues. Its premise collapses under mere moments of scrutiny, there’s no cool technology or special effects, and my favorite character does something rather loathsome. But don’t let all that put you off: “Countrycide” fires on all cylinders, featuring brilliant camera work and believable character development. Now, whether or not you will like it depends on your tolerance for on-screen blood and guts.
The pre-credit teaser sets up the episode when we see a woman driving alone and at night, through the Welsh country. She has just reached the limit of her cellphone’s range when she notices what looks like a body stretched across the road. Since she’s a character in the story and obviously has never seen a single horror movie, she makes two fatal errors. First, she stops the car and gets out to investigate. Second, she leaves the car running. I can see the logic in that, I suppose: the light from the headlamps was useful in illuminating the thing in the road, which turns out to be something made to look like a body—a decoy, bait for a trap. That suspicion is confirmed when the woman runs back to her car only to find the keys gone. Throughout this scene, we see figures dash past the camera, out of focus. We know there’s someone—or something—else there with the woman, and this is confirmed when the car is attacked.
Needless to say, she doesn’t make it.
Post-credits, Team Torchwood is driving the same road, investigating a spate of recent disappearances in the area. Owen (Burn Gorman) is in a right state at being dragged out of the city: “What’s that smell?” he asks. Gwen (Eve Myles), enjoying his discomfort, replies, “That would be grass.” Owen snaps back: “It’s disgusting.” The team exposits what they’re doing there, and Owen pulls the SUV off into a grassy field to get some lunch from a canteen truck. Jack (John Barrowman) instructs them to set up camp there, provoking general moans and groans; everyone hauls duffles and rucksacks out of the SUV and starts pitching tents.
Camaraderie is at an all-time high when Gwen teasingly asks the others who was the last person each snogged. Tosh (Naoko Mori) pathetically admits it was Owen, on Christmas Eve: “I had mistletoe.” Jack tosses off the question with a joke about non-humans, and Owen mortifies Gwen by referring to their mini-make-out session in the autopsy room in “Cyberwoman.” Gwen would get all shirty with Owen but doesn’t have the opportunity, because Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) brings everyone right down by reminding them about his dead girlfriend Lisa. Now Gwen is subdued and ashamed of her thoughtlessness. Owen rescues her by noting their need for firewood. Gwen accompanies Owen more to scold him about bringing up that kiss than to be a help, but Owen throws her attitude back in her face: Gwen has been avoiding him, and he knows they’d be great together. This is just the first of many fantastic scenes between these two, antagonistic passion bristling between them. We never do get to see what comes of it, though, because Gwen spots someone watching them through the trees. In a classic bit, the two plan their response speaking into each other’s mouths, maintaining their embrace until they suddenly peel away, guns drawn.
The shadowy figure has disappeared, but left something behind: a body, stripped down to its skeleton. Another decoy, in fact, which the team learns as they hear their SUV being driven off while they examine the remains. Fortunately, Ianto is able to track the vehicle, and the team takes off cross-country to retrieve it in the nearby village, and that’s when things get really weird. Torchwood then morphs into its own version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, only in this case it would be Welsh Village Blunt Instrument Massacre. There is no point in complaining that it’s derivative; that’s not the point. The point is, it’s masterfully put together, and each character gets moments of illumination.
Take, for example, the visuals. Wide, gorgeous shots of the rugged country with dark gray clouds scudding by high overhead are spectacular, and the constant soft wailing of the wind sets everyone’s nerves on edge. The sparse and stick-like woods feel claustrophobic by comparison. The village, with its fieldstone structures and pre-war furniture, is already creepy because it appears completely deserted. Other small details contribute, such as the small prey hung upside and swinging in that constant wind outside many of the buildings. Fear keeps ratcheting up with every new body that’s discovered, skewed point-of-view shot or glimpse of an indistinct threatening figure.
The team makes the obvious mistake of splitting up. Jack sends Tosh and Ianto to retrieve the SUV while he explores the pub/inn with Owen and Gwen. Interspersed with the team’s movements are point-of-view shots, through windows and around corners; whatever’s happening here, there’s more than one perpetrator, and the team is under close watch. The pacing here is excellent, and once they all realize they are in a horror story, everyone smartens up quite a bit.
There’s a lot going on: Gwen gets a gutful of shotgun pellet, Ianto and Tosh are captured; Jack, Gwen, Owen and a young man try to barricade themselves in the pub and fail. I found myself liking Ianto much more in this episode, and had a lot of sympathy for the clean-up guy who obviously hasn’t spent much time in the field. Tosh, too, showed unexpected competency and not a whiff of panic. “There’s not a cell I can’t get out of,” she flatly states, and you believe her when she says it. She does manage to escape, which of course results in the requisite chase scene, but here, it works, particularly the cross-cutting with Gwen and Owen’s situation.
As nightmare piles upon nightmare, the relationships among the team members come to the fore. In this respect, “Countrycide” is superior to the average slasher pic, because the typical film has only one smart, brave person, and Torchwood has five. Bravery and brains manifest in different ways, but one thing I enjoyed was seeing how completely every member of this team trusts each other. Moments of intimacy large—Owen performing field surgery on Gwen—and small—Jack’s “Be careful!” admonition to Gwen, or Ianto’s meaningful look at Tosh just prior to him head-butting his captor—make this episode the first which makes good use of the entire team.
The best thing about this episode is how long they string out exactly what’s happening in the village. All of Torchwood is convinced that some particularly carnivorous alien has slipped through the rift, and it’s well past the mid-way mark when we find out that everything that’s happened has been at the hands of humans. All of the odd-angle shots and fast-moving shapes at the edge of the scene contribute to the impression that there’s something alien here; the terrified humans that the team meets solidifies it. They are forced to face what’s really happening here when one of their captors refers to the young man as “meat.”
Which brings me to the worst thing about this episode: the explanation. We’re supposed to believe that this “harvesting” takes place every ten years, with the remote village—yes, the entire village—participating in rounding up strays and loners just driving through, people not likely to be missed, and butchering them for their later consumption? Two responses: Ick, and huh? Seventeen people had gone missing in that area, and they really expected it to go unnoticed? Also: the entire village is in on this business, and is OK with it? The whole “this is our village, it’s what we do” rationale works for every single one? Granted, it’s not a big village, and we can always, Deliverance-style, blame inbreeding, I suppose, but come on! It doesn’t make any sense at all.
But that’s OK with me. As horror-fantasies go, this is borderline superb in its execution, and the two endings are worthy pay-offs. After Jack has saved everyone and the appropriate (as opposed to in-on-it) authorities have been called, Gwen rails at the leader, a fantastic performance by Owen Teale, wanting to understand how he could do such things, and why. He says he’ll tell her if he can whisper it, and a more chilling statement I cannot recall: “Because it made me happy,” he says, and Gwen’s look of disbelief, revulsion, and horror mirrors our own. The man’s loopy grin as he’s escorted to a police car does nothing to diminish Gwen’s reaction, and there’s a great moment when both Owen’s and Jack’s expressions reveal their concern for her.
In the epilogue, Gwen voice-overs that she used to have a good job, how she expected to have kids one day with Rhys, and move up to desk sergeant, before Torchwood came along. We see her sitting, shell-shocked, next to Rhys, watching tv; he glances at her, worried, but thinks better of speaking. Gwen needs to process the day’s events, but she’s unable to say a word. How can she possibly tell Rhys about what had happened to her, and in that village? How could she destroy his innocent view of humanity?
We see her walking, and realize that it’s not a voice-over after all; she’s with Owen, in his apartment, wearing nothing but a button-down shirt, telling him what she can’t tell Rhys: all of these things are changing her, changing the way she sees the world, and she can’t share them with anyone. Owen, behind her, says quite tenderly, “You can, now,” and they embrace. The whole business lasts less than two minutes, but Myles and Gorman, stellar throughout the episode, completely blew me away in this scene. Gwen is in so much pain she doesn’t know what to do, and Owen, in spite of all the banter, on top of all the fantastic chemistry, loves her and can scarcely believe she’s there with him. There’s moment when he closes his eyes and leans in, smelling her hair, that’s just beautiful. He understands how fragile she is, holding her gently, but because this is also about sex, he’s not afraid to respond to her passionately. He knows Gwen needs to stop thinking.
Is humanity’s capacity for monstrous behavior Torchwood’s recurrent theme? It’s too soon to tell, and I would take comfort in the fact that serial killers are few and far between, and, as far as I know, there are no known cases of cyclically cannibalistic remote villages. But there are far too many atrocities on the books for me to brush this off as absurd; there may not be murderous villages, but there have certainly been plenty of murderous governments and terrorist organizations. Frankly, I don’t want to be beaten over the head with this every episode; no one likes to be told he’s a monster, and this is the kind of thing that will eventually keep viewers away. It works just fine, here, particularly as the plot device which propels Gwen into Owen’s arms. I’ll be happy if they leave it at that, for a while.
Gwen’s relationship with Owen came as a surprise; we were conditioned from the beginning to expect Gwen to fall for Jack, but he’s too scary. Gwen knows more about him than anyone else at Torchwood, and that’s enough to keep her out of his bed. Sparks fly between her and Owen, though, and while I normally would be upset that the writers would have serious, conscientious, former-police-constable Gwen embark on an affair, it made perfect sense in the context of this episode. I’m not saying it was right, I’m just saying it works here. I admit, I like Rhys, and I don’t want Gwen to treat him badly. But I also admit that Gwen’s relationship with Rhys was doomed the moment she went to work for Torchwood. It seems the only ones who didn’t realize that were Rhys and Gwen.
Without veering into banality here, for long-term relationships to be successful, the partners need to grow together. Nothing is static in life, and a relationship in a steady-state is just treading water until it dies. In her voice-over, Gwen described the growth arc she expected to share with Rhys, the typical marriage-kids-career stuff. Joining Torchwood put her on a wildly different path, and is forcing her to see the world in ways she wasn’t quite prepared for—much akin to what we experience in the Real World that first year out of school. Experience forces us to grow up. Perversely, I find it’s to Gwen’s credit that she didn’t dump her shattering experience on Rhys; he didn’t sign up for it, and he doesn’t deserve it. At the same time, though, Gwen realizes that she can’t continue to play in the kiddie pool much longer. She’s a grown-up now, with grown-up relationships to explore, and grown-up work to do. I’ll be watching.