Iceland: rocks, dead grass, snows beyond snow. Director John Hillcoat capitalizes on a vivid, evocative setting in “Crocodile,” summoning a frostbitten grimness from forbidding territory. In the narrow paths that wind around glaciers and precipices overlooking icy waters, there’s nothing but death.
At least that’s the bloody lesson for a pair of lovelorn wastrels, Mia (Andrea Riseborough) and Rob (Andrew Gower), who mow down a stranger while driving tipsy on an abandoned stretch. When they realize they can get away scot-free by dumping the body over a conveniently located cliff, they do so with some trepidation. She seems to feel a touch guiltier about it than he does — as Search Party taught us, never trust anyone who knows what to do after accidentally killing someone — but they do indeed make a clean getaway. Nothing stays buried forever, though, if not in a literal crevasse then in the deeper trenches of memory.
After the episode squares away its dark place-setting, “Crocodile” pivots into a two-pronged procedural in the vein of last season’s “Hated in the Nation.” As in that sordid mystery of automated trolling and robotic bees, the futurism element takes a backseat to the pleasures of watching an investigation come together. That inquest doesn’t concern the boozy vehicular manslaughter from the first scene, however. It doesn’t even concern the next murder, when Mia is visited by Rob years later and ends his life to prevent him from going public with their secret. No, our intrepid detective is a mild-mannered insurance claims adjuster named Shazia (Kiran Sonia Sawar) and the big mystery concerns a malfunctioning pizza-delivery vehicle.
Shazia doesn’t cut an especially imposing figure. There’s something Marge Gunderson-ish in the courteous competence with which she goes about a degrading job (and in her dynamic with her husband, a kind and supportive man who wishes his wife would take it a little easier on herself). Shazia is no beat cop, but she’s got a nose for malfeasance, having parlayed those instincts into a career confirming the legitimacy of claims to insurance money. She’s determined, but far from hard-boiled as she goes through her due diligence in this episode, presumably because she doesn’t have to be. She’s just looking into the circumstances surrounding a driverless car that struck a pedestrian to calculate the sum he’s entitled to. She thinks it’s a routine job. She doesn’t know she’s chasing a murder.
In the 15 years separating the accident and Mia’s precarious present, she’s come a long way. The camera rejoins her in a domestic tableau far removed from that wild-living, manslaughtering joyride. She’s trying her best to be a dutiful mother and wife while pursuing excellence as an architecture expert, traveling to speak at an elite conference when her past rears its ugly head. Unfortunately for Mia, it is an iron-clad rule of scripted fiction that when a bad person promises their child that they’ll be at the tot’s big performance and/or game and/or karate demonstration, the parent will disappoint the child. That Mia does indeed make it to her kid’s show does not stop her from failing. A graver comeuppance awaits her there.
Unfortunately, “Crocodile” doesn’t put forth anything particularly thoughtful or radical, even in terms of the chosen theme of memory. The added element of Shazia’s memory reader provides a clever wrinkle for the usual procedural, but its moral and theoretical foundations haven’t changed much. Mia transgresses, and like any cornered criminal running out of options, she transgresses further to cover her ass. She gets found out and faces justice, case closed. But while the episode moves through a familiar series of law-and-order beats, it does so with a little more ingenuity than most.
For one, Brooker’s structuring grants us the pleasure of watching the disparate halves of this story dovetail into one chilling confrontation. For the first couple of scenes with Shazia, her significance to Mia’s amoral spiral isn’t made clear. Only when Mia catches a glimpse of the pizza truck incident — moments after forging a far more damning memory when killing her accomplice — does the episode’s bigger game plan come into focus. From that moment on, the outcome is inevitable. Shazia methodically goes from witness to witness, piecing together a fractured vantage of the moment in question, and we know where her path leads long before she does.
Even so, that doesn’t make Shazia and Mia’s long-awaited meeting any less bloodcurdling. With a dramatic tension redolent of a techno-Hitchcock, the interrogation inches by second by second, Mia practically breaking a sweat as she desperately tries not to think of the one thing she can’t not think about. There’s a creepy, Minority Report-ish poetry to the idea of a forcibly extracted confession from a criminal’s unwilling brain. Aside from that, though, the thrills are of an uncomplicated sort. As Mia frantically tries to protect herself through further bloodshed, the walls close in on her, and all we can do is savor her discomfort.
“Crocodile” does that annoying Black Mirror thing where it adds a dash of sadism for no reason, playing it cutely ironic that Mia never had to kill an innocent baby after all … because the boy was born blind. This needlessly cruel touch adds a sour note to the just desserts she gets a couple of minutes later, though Riseborough acts her way through it dauntlessly. She owns the final moments, nailing the world-weariness that concludes any good procedural. In Mia’s tears, in her shaking facial expression, in her total surrender to her consequences, she laments. Without a word, she telegraphs a wellspring of regret for all the wasted life. She never wanted this. As the passenger, the original accident wasn’t even her fault, strictly speaking. But sometimes life pushes us from one undesirable situation to the next, leaving us with a Hobson’s choice: own your wrongdoing, or throw the dice and make everything much worse on the off chance you can evade trouble. Mia made a bad bet, then kept doubling down, all the way into a frozen hell.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions
• I cannot for the life of me figure out why this episode has been titled “Crocodile.” There are no actual crocodiles to speak of, no instances of crocodile tears being cried. Unless that’s to imply Mia’s tears in the final shots are phony? If anyone’s got a better read, please pipe up.
• Andrea Riseborough’s character is named Mia Nolan. Emma Stone’s character in La La Land was named Mia Dolan. Coincidence? I think not!
• I initially balked at the police extracting the incriminating recollection from the puny brain of a guinea pig, but a quick Google confirmed that the little critters do indeed possess a decent long-term memory bank.
This recap has been corrected to show that “Crocodile” spans 15 years of time, not three.