“They Keep Killing Suzie” is the kind of episode that Torchwood does well: an exploration of the human character, unfolding in unexpected ways in a unique context. It could be seen as a return to form, if Torchwood had established one yet. There are no aliens in this week’s episode, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any monsters; whether they are monsters by nature or nurture is the question of the day.
When the team arrives to investigate a series of gruesome murders, they’re met by a Detective Swanson (Yasmin Bannerman) with a chip on her shoulder so big it’s spoiling her attractive features. She and her staff have no patience for Torchwood with their “special ops” mystique, and from her attitude we glean that Torchwood isn’t as secret an organization as we’ve been led to believe. This may be another manifestation of a poorly managed first season, but a good bit of the character interactions hang on this point; if Swanson’s entire staff is aware enough of Torchwood to detest them, our team has been doing a poor job of keeping a low profile.
The murder scene reveals why Swanson & company are particularly peeved with Torchwood. It’s called out by name, with foot-high letters spelling “TORCHWOOD” rendered in the victims’ blood. The team reacts with a mixture of dismay and nonchalance, with some banter about how many people they’ve managed to piss off; at that, Swanson goes completely off the rails. She launches into a “It was only a matter of time” harangue, detailing how they swan around with such high-handed arrogance, and ends up with “As far as I’m concerned, you did it.”
You don’t often see that level of hyperbole and blame-shifting in police professionals, because usually they know it’s bilge, and that psychos will use whatever excuse is most convenient to justify their behaviors. Still, the entire team wonders if the detective isn’t right when, via DNA evidence left at the murder site, analysis reveals that the murderer had an unknown compound, “B67” in his blood. Owen (Burn Gorman) identifies it immediately as RetCon, the amnesia drug that Torchwood uses to keep its secrets secret, a system obviously in need of overhaul. When Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) declares that 2,008 people have been dosed with RetCon, they have the decency to pause for a moment to contemplate just how horrible things could get if the drug causes violent psychosis.
Gwen (Eve Myles), a RetCon survivor herself, pushes hard for aggressive action. We’re back to the Gwen of strong convictions so markedly absent in “Greeks Bearing Gifts”; she convinces Jack (John Barrowman) that what’s happening here is serious enough to get the Resurrection Gauntlet, aka the Glove, out of cold storage so they can question the victims.
Jack tries the Glove, but fails. Owen won’t even have a go, having tried it before with no success. Ianto also declines, and Tosh is off monitoring equipment. Gwen insists that she make the attempt, in spite of Jack’s concern (wordlessly mirrored by Owen); they can’t help but remember what happened to Suzie the last time someone was allowed to use the Glove. Gwen insists; Jack relents, and gives her the Glove with some words of advice. Pushing Daisies this isn’t. The first victim, Alex Arwen (Daniel Llewelyn-Williams) is no help at all, and Gwen’s inexperience with the Glove gives them only about half a minute. The next victim (a brief but terrific performance by Gary Pillai) is a bit more helpful, giving them three important names: Pilgrim, Max, and inevitably, Suzie, Jack’s former second-in-command who committed suicide in “Everything Changes” (after Gwen discovered she was murdering people so she could develop her skills with the Glove).
A search of the victim’s home turns up a hand-written flyer for Pilgrim, a religious support group. Suzie’s former co-workers dismiss the idea that Suzie could ever have belonged to such a group, but Gwen asks them pointedly how they could know such a thing. Until Gwen showed up, none of them ever showed any interest in one another, and they acknowledge that they never really knew Suzie at all. They take a field trip to a storage locker to go through her things, and Gwen learns that when she dies, all of her things will be similarly preserved, as will her body in Torchwood’s morgue. She has never considered these things before, and now it’s way too late to get out.
When Tosh (Naoko Mori) discovers a Pilgrim flyer among Suzie’s things, that decides it for Jack: it’s time to talk to Suzie (Indira Varma). Resurrecting her successfully involves some business with the knife she had created (Ianto, tasked with coming up with cool names for things, dubs it the “Life Knife”), and Jack sort-of has to kill her again by stabbing her in the heart before Gwen can resurrect her.
Typically, a resurrected victim would only survive for a minute or two, but Suzie’s a different case altogether; she not only doesn’t die, it seems she can’t die. Once Suzie is alive again, the episode becomes a study of three characters, principally Suzie, in contrast to Gwen, with a decent supporting performance from Jack.
In “Everything Changes,” we all (Team Torchwood included) assumed that Suzie was seduced and corrupted by the power of the Glove, that it was the desire to master the Glove for good that led her to murder. Turns out that Suzie was brilliant but psychotic; the resurrected Suzie does little but whine and complain. The team is still operating on the principal that Suzie was a decent person that derailed at the end of her life, but that’s a very bad assumption.
Gwen, sucked in by Suzie’s request to see her dying father, takes her off on an unauthorized field trip just as Owen discovers that Suzie has created a link, via the Glove, by which she’s drawing life energy from Gwen: Suzie’s only still alive because she’s stealing life from Gwen, and Gwen doesn’t know it yet. Of course the first thing Jack and Owen do is call for Gwen, but she’s already gone; they’d follow her except that the power cuts out and everything goes dark. Ianto thought Jack initiated the lockdown, and they realize it must have something to do with Suzie.
Now, most of the team realizes what Suzie is, but Gwen doesn’t until her slow decline suddenly crescendos to a blinding headache and bleeding skull. Suzie explains that Gwen’s being shot in the head, slowly, and that it will hurt a lot; as Suzie heals, Gwen takes on Suzie’s mortal wound. Gwen’s struggling to understand what’s happening when Suzie wakes her father only to remove his breathing tube; she doesn’t want to see him to say goodbye, she wants to kill him. Suzie helps the failing Gwen out of the hospital so they can make a run for it. Suzie’s father dies, alone.
Back at Torchwood, the team has figured out that Suzie triggered the lockdown, but not how, until they remember the prisoner they’d brought in earlier, the murderer with the RetCon in his system. They find him in his cell, chanting lines from Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death” over and over. Jack realizes it’s a verbal key that, repeated dozens of times, would trigger the lockdown, and most importantly, Suzie set the entire thing up. She conditioned Max, using RetCon and who knows what else, with psychological triggers: if he didn’t see Suzie for three months, she must go on a killing spree and be sure to call out Torchwood. Max’s involvement would lead them back to Suzie, and they would be forced to resurrect her. Once Suzie was resurrected, she could signal Max to recite the poem over and over, trigger the lockdown, and enable her escape. Suzie knew the Glove better than anyone, she knew she could survive indefinitely if she could make a strong enough connection with the wearer of the Glove. With Gwen Cooper reviving her, Suzie hit the jackpot. She was a completely twisted bitch, and the Pilgrim members that Max murdered were really Suzie’s murders by proxy.
The team is dumbfounded to realize how Suzie played them all, and they know that she’s playing Gwen at this very moment. They’re helpless, though, unable to get out or even call out, until Ianto thinks to use the water tower as an antenna. Who do they call? Detective Swanson.
As Gwen slowly dies, Jack suffers the laughter of Swanson’s staff as she puts him on the speaker and makes him repeat, for all to hear, that they’re locked in to their own facility and need some help. All the detectives have a good laugh until Jack tells them that one of his team is in danger, and then Swanson gets serious. She gets her hands on the same copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson that had been found among Suzie’s things, and they try reading out various lines from poems to reverse the lockdown. Nothing works until Tosh suggest a numerical key, and the ISBN number does the trick. Jack and Owen take off after Gwen and Suzie, Owen estimating that Gwen has little time left.
Tosh tracks the girls to the hospital, but Jack and Owen don’t catch up to them until they’re at a dock; Suzie wants to get on the ferry and just keeps running. Gwen succumbs, finally, and Suzie gives her a quick kiss and takes off, but Jack follows her; Owen cradles the lifeless Gwen, quietly devastated. Suzie can’t believe that Jack would kill her, but Jack has no problems shooting her. The only problem is she doesn’t die no matter how many times he shoots. Finally, Jack realizes it’s the Glove that’s keeping her alive, and in a neat little scene, Tosh calls Ianto to get her a weapon; he tosses it to her, and she obliterates the Glove. In that moment, Suzie dies for the last time, and Gwen returns. With the connection broken, she apparently gets all her life’s energy back.
Interspersed with all this action is a fair amount of philosophical discussion, and stark speculation about life after death. Suzie, quite contradictorily, says there’s nothing, much like the young man she revived in the opening scenes of “Everything Changes.” But in that nothing she apparently retained an awareness of self, so that’s not exactly nothing. And later, she claims “there’s something out there, and it’s moving,” to Gwen, quite fearfully, but she later declares with vicious glee that it was coming for Jack. To Suzie, “life is all,” because she knows there’s nothing else out there—although there apparently is something else out there, she’s just too afraid to find out what it is. She dismisses Gwen’s afterlife ideas as “never having left primary school,” but I think Gwen’s vision, wherein our relatives and friends are waiting for us, is a very common one.
At any rate, Suzie is revealed here as weak and flawed, in spite of her brilliance. It wasn’t the Glove that turned her, although the Glove enabled her to set her immortality plan in motion. She obsesses throughout the episode with how others saw her, and denigrates herself as bad, but she reveals her true feelings with an outburst when she realizes that it was Gwen using the Glove: “Gwen bloody Cooper!” Suzie thought Gwen was an idiot, and never wavered from that position no matter how much she’d later say what a good person Gwen was, and how much better at everything Gwen was than Suzie ever was—so much crazy-talk, none of it sincere. Suzie detests Gwen, and is happy to use her. A healthy person wouldn’t dream of implementing such a wretched scheme. For someone for whom “life is all,” Suzie has a very cavalier attitude towards the value of other people’s lives.
Then we have Gwen, for whom it is so important to do the right thing, to make things right whenever she can. In her naïveté, in her accepting that her co-workers’ trust in Suzie is not fundamentally displaced, Gwen both reaches out and trusts Suzie, trying to help her achieve some peace before she dies again for the last time. But Gwen’s not blinded by her “be nice” attitude: she’s perceptive about relationships in a way that no one else at Torchwood is. Gwen points out that no one at Torchwood really knows anyone else, and so why should they be surprised to find out that Suzie was psychotic? No one argues with her, as there is nothing to argue about.
Finally, Captain Jack is called upon once again to make the decisions that are supposed to be hard, but how can anyone think it would be hard to kill Suzie (again), knowing what they now know about her? She was dead, she should stay dead, end of story. Even Suzie’s attempt to claim some last bit of Gwen as reason for keeping her alive was lame; Gwen wasn’t a murderous crazy woman. Aside from that, Jack has Death Issues. He has been dead so many times, and so many times he has not stayed dead. And he doesn’t remember anything about being dead, either, and that idea bothers him, just as the idea of something coming for him in the dark, once he really dies, bothers him. I like the facility with which Barrowman’s features fall; he’s perky one second, flat-eyed and dismayed the next. My advice for Barrowman is to stop trying so hard, because we can always tell; just relax into the role and go with it. His best scenes are the quieter ones, as he tends to over-emote in the angry and excited ones. It’s possible to like Jack’s character even if he’s a cold-hearted bastard, because he’s our cold-hearted bastard, and this week, he saves Gwen.
Much to my relief, Ianto’s character is rehabilitated this week as well, and he is back to the smooth competence he displayed earlier in the season. He also seems to have finally moved on from the Lisa debacle, and I have to believe all that business between him and Jack about the stopwatch is some kind of proposition, about which I do not wish to speculate further. Tosh is a bit player this week, although she has a great line about not being able to look the resurrected Suzie in the eye, so horrified is Tosh at Suzie’s murder spree. Owen, too, has a much reduced role, and although he is still solicitous of Gwen, it is not obvious that their affair continues.
The entire team manages to bust Suzie’s chops for her crimes, and the answer to her “Haven’t I suffered enough?” is always No. It’s not just that Suzie was willing to murder for her own trivial purposes, it’s that they all trusted her, and she betrayed them. The first betrayal came with the murders, but the second betrayal was worse, since they all believed that she was turned by the Glove. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” indeed: the second betrayal revealed Torchwood’s unwillingness to believe the evidence of its own eyes, and thus they were taken in by a killer. Three innocent people died at the hand of an unwitting accomplice, an old man was murdered in his bed, and Gwen was dead for a few seconds, all because Torchwood failed to see the snake in its midst. Once they knew that Suzie was out murdering people, why didn’t they thoroughly investigate her life and figure out what other illegal or questionable things she was doing? What possible excuse could there be for thinking everything would be OK, now that Suzie’s dead?
Perhaps Swanson was more right than she knew, blaming the three victims’ deaths on Torchwood. But having survived this crisis, the team should draw closer together—and not just Jack and Ianto, whatever it is they’re doing with that stopwatch.