‘Thirteen’ Forces You to Confront Your Own Lazy Habits of Thought

Marnie Dickens' BBC mini-series, Thirteen, forgoes simple solutions and easy payoffs in favor of ambiguity and complexity.

The opening of Thirteen, a five-part television mini-series from the BBC, sets you up to expect a woman in peril story with a happy ending. A disheveled young woman (Jodie Comer) exits an ordinary-looking home and runs, barefoot, to a pay phone. Dialing the emergency number, she identifies herself as “Ivy Moxam” and begs for help. As we soon learn, someone by that name was kidnapped 13 years ago, at the age of 13 (hence the series title).

Lest you think that this is going to be the shortest mini-series on record, let me assure you that things get complicated very quickly. First, is the young woman really Ivy? The police have already dealt with several Ivy imposters and are suspicious that this young woman may be just another misguided attention seeker. Even her own family is not sure. While Ivy’s mother Christina (Natasha Little) immediately accepts her as her long-lost daughter, her sister Emma (Katherine Rose Morley) does not. DNA evidence soon settles the issue (yes, she’s really Ivy), leaving the rest of the series to follow Ivy as she adjusts to life in freedom, and the police as they try to crack the case and track down the kidnapper.

Christina thinks the best way to help Ivy adjust is to pretend that life in the outside world hasn’t changed in 13 years, so she restores Ivy’s childhood bedroom, digs up an old videotape she thinks will be familiar, and convinces her estranged husband Angus (Stuart Graham) to move back home and pretend they are still the family unit Ivy remembers from her pre-abduction days. Another part of this deception involves getting Ivy’s then-boyfriend Tim (Aneurin Barnard) to pretend that he’s still interested in her, while omitting to mention that he’s now married and runs a bar with his wife, Yazz (Kemi-Bo Jacobs).

Meanwhile, the police assigned to the case, DI Elliott Carne (Richard Rankin) and DS Lisa Merchant (Valene Kane) set about trying to find the kidnapper. They have what would seem to be a big head start, because they know where Ivy was held (it’s the same house we see here running from at the start of the film). Unfortunately, the kidnapper has assiduously scrubbed it of all traces of himself (One wonders: Has he done this before?), leaving them few clues to go on. What they do find sometimes contradicts what Ivy has told them, deepening their distrust of her version of events and of Ivy herself.

Thirteen can be frustrating to watch because it plays by its own rules without ever letting you know just what those rules are. Series creator Marnie Dickens avoids offering up the simple solutions and easy payoffs typical of a genre series, foregoing well-known tropes in favor of ambiguity and complexity. To begin with, Ivy is not an entirely sympathetic victim, and she’s not above manipulating others to get what she wants.

Similarly, Christina seems to truly love her daughter and wants to help her adjust to normal life, but she’s also a control freak and can really get on your nerves. Yazz and Angus, asked to play along in a charade of uncertain benefit and with no designated end point, become irritated at having to place their own lives on hold. The police want to crack the case, particularly after the stakes are raised when another girl is taken by the kidnapper, but they make unwise decisions and allow inappropriate feelings to interfere with their work.

Did you notice how many negative judgments I passed in the previous paragraph? One of the great things about this series is that it forces you to confront your own lazy habits of thought, like judging characters in circumstances about which you know nothing. Those habits are only too easy to practice in real life as well. Consider how many times a victim of sexual violence has been tried in the court of public opinion, based on nothing but assumptions about how someone “should” behave in such circumstances. She can’t be telling the truth about being assaulted, because she didn’t seem upset enough, didn’t try hard enough to resist, didn’t go immediately to the police… rather than sympathizing with a traumatized person, often our first instinct is to judge them.

I find many things to admire about Thirteen, but I also have some criticisms. One is that the series employs a sort of mix and match approach to story telling. For example, every episode ends with a cliffhanger, an odd choice for a series that in so many other ways seeks to avoid conventional structure and plotting. It also seems to be confused about whether it wants to be a conventional police procedural or an indie psychological drama, and the juxtapositions of the two styles are sometimes irritating rather than enlightening. The cinematography by David Rom and Simon Archer is totally professional, but offers up the same blue and green palette seen in any number of other “gritty” series, while not creating much of a sense of place (the series was shot in Bristol). Finally, the end of the fifth episode leaves a lot of loose ends, and since no further seasons are planned, you might wonder why you want to invest your time in a show that doesn’t really come to a conclusion.

There are no extras included with the DVD version of Thirteen.

RATING 5 / 10
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