Review: BBC3’s Thirteen (all five episodes)

Thirteen 1
Jodie Comer as Ivy Moxam. Picture: BBC

Spoiler alert: this is a review of Thirteen in its entirety. All five episodes are currently available to UK viewers via the BBC iPlayer.

As piece of gripping, moving and entertaining drama, Thirteen absolutely delivered. A cracking pace, a tonne of twists and a brilliant central performance from Jodie Comer made it a treat to watch despite its dark subject matter.

I was happy to suspend disbelief about much of what happened – after all, many real-life cases of kidnapped young women escaping their captors are stranger than fiction – but there was one baffling aspect I couldn’t get past: the fact that the police officers working on a Natascha Kampusch-style case appeared never to have heard of Stockholm Syndrome*.

The first episode had me all but shouting at the screen as the police reacted with cynicism to the claims of a pale, frail, otherworldly young woman that she was Ivy Moxam, the grown-up version of the 13-year-old who had vanished 13 years earlier. But of course the viewer is privy to information these characters are not, and it’s probably fair to say that in real life anyone claiming to be a high-profile missing person would be treated with extreme caution, both for their own protection and to avoid unnecessary suffering to those desperately hoping – against decreasing odds – for news of a loved one.

Once it was established that Ivy was, indeed, who she said she was, there was no straightforward family reunion. In fact, poor Ivy merely faced a different type of captivity (with her mother fretting and fussing over her every move), a different type of deception (about the state of her parents’ relationship), and a different type of pressure to please a man (this time DI Carne, who flattered himself that he established a better bond with her than his female colleague, apparently not twigging that she’d been in all-male company for more than a decade and this was therefore no compliment to his skills).

The early scenes between Ivy and her former sweetheart Tim were awkward, joyful and incredibly touching – it was impossible not to feel for Tim as he lied by omission about the fact that he was married, having long since given up hope that Ivy would be found safe and well. Ivy’s focus on reconnecting with Tim – rather than her parents and sister – was perhaps partly what fueled the speculation of DS Merchant that she wasn’t telling the full story about her years in captivity and her relationship to her captor Mark White. But the insinuations of the female detective were so outrageous that it was impossible to believe they wouldn’t have gone unchallenged by either DI Carne or the Met officers drafted in to babysit them.

Ultimately, I don’t think the drama would really have suffered if all the characters had brushed up on cases like that of Elizabeth Smart, who was taken out and about with her captor many times before managing to raise the alarm. Presumably she wasn’t given a cynical grilling about that by the police who returned her to her family, or charged with perverting the course of justice for failing to report the crimes of others.

Of course, the reason Ivy’s honesty was so important to the police was that she was barely home for five minutes before her captor had kidnapped another girl – one who, it eventually transpired, he intended to use as bait to lure back his original “Alison”. That this plan actually succeeded required many more leaps of faith on the part of the viewer, particularly when White was revealed to be living in a semi-detached house on a ordinary suburban street. That might have been possible first time around, but with his MO established and the numberplate of his car known to police, it wasn’t really clear why a crude illustration by young Phoebe was so vital to cracking the case.

Of course, the need to interview Phoebe gave DI Carne – injured after White rammed into his police car – an excuse to come hobbling back into the police station to reclaim ownership of a case that, to be fair, he hadn’t done a brilliant job on to date. It clearly didn’t take much for him to hoodwink the psychologist into joining him for an extra-curricular grilling of Phoebe; she merely reserved the right to wear a disapproving frown for the duration of his chat-and-draw session with the traumatised tween.

Ultimately I’m glad it was Ivy herself, rather than the bumbling police or her flapping family members, who engineered her second release. Emboldened by confirmation of her mother’s unconditional love, she was able to break White’s spell – although the brief glimpses of their life together were enough to establish how cleverly he had manipulated her into thinking she no longer had any place in the outside world. The awful truth about her pregnancy was all the more horrifying for being dropped into their conversation so casually.

* Incidentally, Natascha Kampusch has denied claims she suffered from Stockholm Syndrome, saying this label does not capture the complexities of her relationship with her abductor and captor.

Notes

For a drama set in Bristol, it’s a teensy bit odd that we barely heard a Bristolian accent until the villain of the piece opened his mouth.

It wouldn’t have hurt for Yazz to be just a tiny bit likeable. Even her dodgy fashion sense was grating on me by the end.

Speaking of which, did DI Merchant own any full-length trousers? Her capri pant and sandals look did not scream “serious detective”.

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