Love/Hate’s central character is not Nidge – it’s Death
The superb crime drama has never been afraid to kill off its characters, but has it become too trigger-happy?
Curtains: Silvia Napoleoni as Denise and Susan Loughnane as Debbie in Love/Hate
Spoiler alert! This column discusses crucial plot details from the entire series of Love/Hate so far
Keith Duffy popped up in Love/Hate last week, muscling into the drama and your interior monologue. (“I hope the bombmaker’s son will be okay . . . Aido’s girlfriend is walking into trouble there . . . Bloody hell, there’s Keith Duffy! That’s a bit odd. Why hasn’t Aido recognised him?”) Presumably, given the tightness of the writing, that scene will lead somewhere. Otherwise, it felt so incongruous they might as well have cast Eamon Dunphy in the role.
In an episode in which Nidge tried to assassinate a hangover from his past, Duffy’s appearance was also a flashback of sorts to the earliest critiques about the show’s pretty-boy predilections and dramatic softness. They each got trotted out again in the recent run-up to the airing of the first series in the UK, but this time as an encouragement for viewers to hang in there for Love/Hate’s acceleration to brilliance through seasons two and three.
Look back at the opening minutes of the first episode of Love/Hate and those criticisms still stand. Even as Stuart Carolan’s script immediately put bullet holes in the supposed pretty-boy banter between brothers Robbie and Darren, there was a slow-motion death, overcooked reaction shots and a stodginess to the acting that was matched by its direction.
It has flourished wonderfully since, but one element introduced in those embryonic scenes has remained consistent. It opened with death, and has rarely paused for breath since.
By my reckoning – and including Nidge’s ma but excluding the swan, dog and cat – the show isn’t far off an average of a death an episode. (I can recall 19 in 21 episodes, but I am open to correction.) Love/Hate is an ensemble piece in which Nidge has become central, but death is the closest it comes to a lead character.
Hugs and laughter
Being a gangland drama, Love/Hate was never going to end each episode on hugs and freeze-framed laughter, but Carolan has been quite prolific in his killing-off of characters. This fourth series is particularly darkened by those bloodstains. The once irrepressibly cheeky Nidge finally smiled again last weekend, and it carried the shock of a flashbulb in the dark. He was, in all fairness, trying to kill someone at the time.
For the most part, death has been an effective tool for Carolan. It was in becoming an assassin to pay off a debt that Darren’s fallen-angel story arc so fully turned hellwards. Robert Sheehan’s character killed six people during the second and third series – again, I’m using a top-of-the-head assassination abacus – yet the skill of the writing allowed the murderer’s death to be the most poignant yet.
It was Darren’s killing of John Boy, played by Aidan Gillen, at the end of the second season that remains the most dramatically expert, a wonderful double-crossing not just of the gang boss but of viewers’ expectations. It also killed off the established star name of the show, meaning that from there on in all bets were off.
But when anyone can die the trick is not to let loose. There has been a growing sense through this fourth series that death has been a little convenient, a cliff over which to push characters who have run out of road.
Debbie had effectively been wound down as a character this series, so it was a heroin OD for her. Dano and the Continuity IRA thread had been stretched a little far, so it was both barrels for him. You could even say the same of Darren last series, when he had been cornered and hunted to a point at which there was little option but to kill him off. The true surprise was not his death but the identity of his killer.
It’s why there’s a sense of inevitability about brain-damaged Tommy’s fate on Sunday night. Although well-acted, Killian Scott’s character hasn’t done much since he pulled his pants down in public some episodes ago. Since then there has been a lot of sleep. Yet his storyline was a reminder of how much more dramatically meaningful the lingering effects of violence can be compared with the sudden dispatching of a character.
Killing off characters can be brave, surprising, useful and necessary, but when death becomes an inevitability the trick is to make sure it doesn’t kill off the tension.