Netflix’s Collateral Review: A Smart, Binge-Worthy Procedural

Carey Mulligan in Collateral Netflix

Because Netflix thinks content should be delivered like water through a firehose, as opposed to a steady drip, staying up-to-date with all of the services’ various offerings is a challenge second only to actually watching them and maintaining some semblance of a personal life. Case in point: Netflix delivered unto its subscribers three high-profile series last week, Jessica Jones, Love, and Collateral. While the release of a Marvel Netflix series and the final season of one of television’s most enjoyable romantic comedies in a long time is sure to get people bingeing, Collateral should not be overlooked. Not only is the UK import binge-worthy, but given the talent involved, the first-rate execution of the material, and the fact that it clocks in with a brisk runtime, the series is a welcome change of pace from shows that try to stretch 90 minutes of story into 13 hours of television.

The series is more than just a competent and compelling procedural. Collateral is also filled with strong ideas positioned front and center. Hailing from writer David Hare (The Hours, The Reader) and with each episode directed by SJ Clarkson, who has directed episodes of, oddly enough, Jessica Jones and Marvel’s The Defenders, the series is a post-Brexit thriller about broken systems and the systemic abuse prevalent in many institutions. But the series is also a solid police procedural with a whip-smart lead in Mulligan’s DI Kip Glaspie, who is tasked with investigating the seemingly random murder of a immigrant pizza deliveryman when every clue points to it being a far more systematic act of violence.

Related: Love Season 3 Review: Netflix’s Modern Romance Delivers A Satisfying Final Season

What unfolds, then, is part thriller, part procedural, and part political commentary, all wrapped in a smartly written package and adorned with fully realized characters and strong performances.

Carey Mulligan Turns Self-Awareness Into A Superpower

As a pregnant, ultra-competent cop, Kip Glaspie is bound to elicit comparisons to a certain Minnesota police chief. And just like Marge Gunderson in Fargo, Kip’s pregnancy is remanded mostly to the periphery of the story. Like her background as an athlete — more specifically, a pole vaulter whose legacy is an embarrassing and painful video that lives on forever on the internet — Kip’s status as a mother-to-be is another way Collateral illustrates its approach to the complexities and multitudes of not only its central story, but also the individuals orbiting that center.

As written by Hare and performed by Mulligan, Kip is an extremely self-aware character; so much so that she seems at times to be fully aware she’s a character in a cop show. Hare and Mulligan aren’t trying to be arch or meta with Kip’s self-awareness, but rather that quality underlines her skill as an investigator and marks her ability to anticipate when she’s veering toward police clichés, making it possible to then steer out of the skid by thinking differently from those around her.

That skill is put to clever use when Kip is berated by her boss, DSU Jack Haley (Ben Miles), for overstepping her bounds with regard to a justifiably tight-lipped Iraqi immigrant. It’s a familiar scene in police dramas: The cop bends or breaks the rules in an effort to solve the case and is given a verbal lashing by her superior. With Mulligan in the driver’s seat, however, the scene plays out as though Kip is on the verge of looking directly into the camera and saying, “Can you believe this guy?” It takes real skill to take a performance to the edge of winking at the audience without actually doing so and still maintain a level of intensity and sincerity needed to keep the police story from plunging into caricature.

Not Your Average Murder Mystery

Billie Piper in Collatera Netflix

Collateral begins with the murder of a young refugee while he’s delivering a pizza from maybe the sketchiest pizza joint in all of London. Soon, it’s discovered the crime, the victim, the perpetrator, and all the various individuals swept up in the crime’s aftermath are not as they seem, transforming the series’ central mystery from a whodunnit to a less conventional and more expansive whydunnit, one that repeatedly narrows its scope to explore various failures of institutions and systems.

In the midst of all that, Hare works with certain conventions of the police procedural in ways that are both familiar and unexpected. One of the most interesting is the choice to not only reveal the killer’s identity in the first episode, but to expand the storyline so that the point of view of the perpetrator becomes one of several threads integral to the story. In essence, the inciting incident kicks off a number of storylines that include Billie Piper as a drug-addled single mother who's connected to John Simm’s embattled Labor MP, as well as Nicola Walker as a lesbian vicar living with Kae Alexander’s character, young Vietnamese student living in the country illegally, and who is also a potential witness to the central murder.

Because the killer is revealed so early, Collateral is expands well beyond the central investigation and all the typical trappings of your average murder mystery. The result affords the series the freedom to explore its characters'  beliefs, and predicaments, as they pertain to the ideas of institutional shortcomings, racial discrimination, sexual assault, and more. Hare has written Collateral in such a way that the series essentially becomes a vehicle for the examination of those ideas, one that’s camouflaged itself as a by-the-numbers police procedural.

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