In the opening scene of Thirteen, a moody and suspenseful mini-series from BBC America, there’s an extended shot of a red door of a suburban England home. As the camera closes in on the door, skin-crawling, pulsing music grows louder and louder. A simple door never seemed so terrifying. (Okay, except maybe that other one.)
Thirteen‘s premise centers on a larger-than-life event — the unexpected return of Ivy Moxam, who was kidnapped 13 years ago at age 13 — but the premiere episode is all about finding anxiety and fear in small, ordinary moments. A closed office door. An unsolicited touch to the shoulder.
We first see Ivy, gaunt and dressed in a thin gown, as she exits that creepy red door and steps out into the street in a daze. Adrenaline soon kicks in, and she’s running to find help. She calls the police, but they don’t turn out to be as helpful as she might have hoped. She’s poked and prodded; swabbed and stripped. She’s met with the skeptical questions of two detectives, Carne and Merchant, who are trying to figure out if “Ivy” is really who she says she is. (They’ve had a few fake-out Ivys show up over the years.) Although the detectives’ demeanors are gentle, the bluntness of their inquiries have a bristling effect on Ivy.
Jodie Comer plays Ivy as a silent and brittle escapee; there are no dramatic outbursts. Even when she’s eventually reunited with her parents, who break down in joyful tears when they see her, she’s mostly a deer in headlights, still absorbing the shock of her release. Ivy’s younger sister, Emma, stands off to the side decidedly opting out of a family reunion hug. She later confesses to her fiancé that she thinks it’s another Ivy imposter. While the show could have drawn out the “Ivy identity” subplot for at least a few episodes, it thankfully cuts off that idea pretty quickly, when DNA test results come back confirming it is, in fact, Ivy.
With Ivy’s identity confirmed, the detectives move on to the pressing issue of what happened to her captor, the man who lives behind that red door. Ivy doesn’t give them much to go on, except that his name is Leonard and he had a fondness for fish. Not only is Ivy light on detail, but some of those details start to contradict the evidence found at her captor’s home. (She never left the cellar but her clothes are upstairs? She never went out but she has a passport photo?) Merchant’s antennae are up, but Carne is more accepting of Ivy’s inconsistencies. Actual police procedural plot aside, Thirteen is fairly fascinating as a commentary on victim blaming and disbelief and how narratives and evidence can conflict with basic human decency.
Ivy insists she be allowed to go home, and her mother, Christina, goes to painstaking lengths to keep everything in the house as it was when Ivy was taken, even so far as to keep Robin Hood Prince of Thieves cued up. (Wait, was 13 years ago 2003, or 1993?) She even convinces her estranged husband, Angus, to leave his “bit” and move back home, so that their separation doesn’t harm Ivy’s readjustment. Ivy herself is a bit developmentally frozen in time, no doubt due to her treatment. In one scene, Ivy huffs when her mom not-so-casually leaves Ivy’s bedroom door open when Ivy has a boy in her room, just like any 13-year-old would.
The boy in question is Tim, who she invites over to her home without telling her parents. Tim and Ivy were sweethearts at the time of her kidnapping and she’s eager to reconnect with him. She even asks Emma to help her put on makeup before he arrives. There’s a depressing innocence in this request — you get a glimpse of the moments of girlhood that have been taken from her. Tim, who’s now married, is understandably thrown by Ivy’s return. When he surreptitiously takes off his wedding ring while talking to her, it’s unclear whether it’s because he wants to protect Ivy from the crushing truth or keep his options open.
During their reunion, Ivy strains for some normalcy — Does he still skate? How’s the gang? — but she’s operating on old data. Again, it's a small moment that truly brings home the cruelty of what’s been taken from her more than any sort of scene the series could have shown of her actual captivity. When he reaches out to touch her, she flinches and runs and hides in the bathroom. Ivy eventually escapes out of the bathroom window and runs away, which sends her family and police into a tizzy. While the police at this point have identified her captor as Mark White, he’s still on the lam, which means Ivy’s not safe. But Ivy’s escape is short-lived. Tim finds her at an old favorite haunt and escorts her home.
I’m more interested in watching Ivy navigate her post-kidnapping life in a quiet moment with Tim, or as she tries join her family for dinner, than watching the police’s investigation into Mark White’s whereabouts. Although the detective scenes are well-acted enough, they lack a sense of dramatic urgency and energy. It may be an intentional slow build, so I’ll see where this arc goes over the course of the next few episodes. Eventually, Carne and Merchant piece together that White was employed at Ivy’s school at the time of her kidnapping and bring in the headmaster of her school in for an interview. He denies any knowledge, but there might a be a bigger mystery there at play.
After the emotional ordeal of the initial release and Ivy’s mini-escape, the Moxam family send the police away so they can have a family dinner. Christina’s made a casserole, but Ivy can’t bring herself to eat yet. Turns out, she wouldn’t have been able to eat anyway. The detectives arrive and inform the Moxam family that they need to bring Ivy back to the station. White has taken another girl.
- Overall, this is a compelling start to the mini-series. Visually and tonally, the first episode reminded me a lot of another BBC program, The Fall, which, like this series, managed to evoke a sense of dread even when there wasn’t much happening in terms of plot momentum onscreen. (And yes, another series Thirteen will inevitably be compared to on some level is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I had to stop myself from humming the theme song, as Ivy exited the red door, but I got over it. Sort of.)
- “Like a present?” Ivy to her counselor, who offers her a pink sweater. Her confusion and clear joy over this small gesture was heartbreaking.
- Gorgeous cinematography throughout.
- “You had to earn the right to a spoon … I never did.” I loved that Comer added just the smallest sense of pride to that last line.