Just in time for Halloween, The Living and the Dead wallows in a cornucopia of gothic tropes. Set in the countryside on the cusp of the 20th century, the series abounds in creaky stairs and doors, foggy marshlands, haunted woods, and cryptic words painted in blood on walls. Shadows are robust, and everyone from the handmaiden to the veteran farmer has a secret, as the past hangs over the protagonists’ farm like the plentiful fog. Mothers are on the constant verge of gasping, and fathers hang staidly in the background, muttering about dark changes coming. The perfectly manicured and autumnal scenery elegantly contrasts with the foreboding shtick, suggesting a natural paradise perverted by avarice.
Series creator Ashley Pharoah utilizes this setting as a representation of a larger society stirred by the anxieties of modernization, which unearth a legacy of classist atrocity. When Nathan and Charlotte Appleby (Colin Morgan and Charlotte Spencer) inherit a Somerset estate, the young London couple commences in refining its long-held practices and are subsequently met with great, tragic controversy. Nathan is a man of science, a psychologist looking to nostalgically enter the family business of harvesting crops, though he’s really concerned with exploring his grief over his dead son with a prior wife. Charlotte, however, plunges into the property’s working infrastructure, installing herself as manager and seeking to convince the railroad to lay track nearby to increase trade. The structure of the couple’s relationship quickly becomes apparent: Nathan is a dreamer while Charlotte is a pragmatic doer, though she lacks her husband’s empathy.
Which is to say that two traditional ghost-story heroes have been plopped into The Living and the Dead: the man of science shaken by his brush with the uncanny, and the woman of stolid work ethic potentially undone by the repressive shackles of patriarchy. It’s a shame that Morgan and Spencer play their roles purely according to type: Nathan is handsomely tortured with perfect diction, and Charlotte is a workaholic whose smugness masks a deep yearning to please. There’s little sense of specificity or eccentricity to the inner dimensions of this couple, little impression that a deeply emotional primordial-ness is ignited within them as their farm is plagued by one haunting after another. When they weep, they do so grandly, melodramatically, and dully. When they lie in bed, they revel in impersonal harlequin gestures.
This superficiality becomes a pronounced problem near the end of the season, when Nathan is falling apart, wracked by blossoming bitterness and insanity. Morgan doesn’t exhibit the range or inventiveness necessary to investing such scenes with gravity; he dutifully recites his lines and contorts himself, but one doesn’t feel Nathan’s estrangement as one does, say, the characters’ mounting existential turmoil in such similarly themed films as Jack Clayton’s The Innocents and Marcin Wrona’s Demon.
With the protagonists’ interior evolution amounting to little more than window dressing, there’s no pervading direction in which the series can go, leaving the audience with an episodic collection of occasionally creepy, sometimes luridly poetic, yet barely distinguishable hauntings. The Living and the Dead quickly settles into a groove in which a supporting character is tortured by a spirit who represents a link to the farm’s forbidden past, while Nathan tries to rally support within a community that doesn’t believe in the supernatural, with tragedy either occurring or being barely averted.
A modern metaphysical twist ends the season on a terrifically cruel punchline, but it springs out of nowhere, offering too little too late, casting light on implications of generational cruelty that might have been developed more fruitfully if introduced from the beginning. The Living and the Dead offers the pleasure of derivative yet confidently sustained atmosphere, conjuring up every nook and cranny that one’s mind turns to when considering the form of the English ghost story, but it’s self-consciously square.