If each of Tana French’s novels connects its central crime to a larger theme — for instance, the emotional effects of the global 2008 recession in Ireland in Broken Harbor, or high school as a staging ground for lifetimes of sexual harassment and assault in The Witch Elm — In the Woods is obsessed with the waves that ripple outward when a child is a victim of horrific violence. The best bits of the series so far, and many of the finest portions of French’s novel, are tight shots of the Devlin family wading through their grief, and broader sketches of the bizarre media circuses that often surround child murders. The murder of Katy Devlin is an event akin to American horrors like the deaths of JonBenet Ramsey or Caylee Anthony; it’s a phenomenon that keeps necks craning and TVs turned up to impossible volumes. And the intrigue of In the Woods is watching how profoundly a family can fall apart in the midst of such an event.
For American audiences, the wake at the Devlins’ house might look like something straight out of the 1950s: the family huddled around Katy’s gleaming casket, staring dimly at one another and then off into space, all in their own living room. The scene is meant to appear as surreal to us as it might feel to them. There’s Rosalind, the only seemingly sane member of the family, attempting some small gestures of politeness toward Simone, whom we discover has paid for most of the endeavor. Simone herself, awkwardly perched on a chair, wants to mourn the child she adored and supported, but faces bolts of jealousy from Margaret, who has finally stirred from the zombified state she is almost always in. Jonathan can barely contain his contempt for his wife, whose claims that Katy’s casket is lined in the wrong fabric — she wants pink silk instead of the blue velvet Simone chose — are as upsetting as they are unsettling: After all, Margaret may be grief-stricken, but has confused her twin daughters for one another in a way that suggests more than a little emotional negligence. And then there’s Jessica herself, a carbon copy of her dead sister on the outside, but emotionally inaccessible.
It’s a shame that the standard deviations of crime stories mean that we need to turn away from the Devlins to pursue the man in the blue tracksuit and other nefarious-seeming characters, because this is where the meat of the story lies — especially considering the detectives’ own inclinations that someone inside the Devlin house is Katy’s killer. Each Devlin breaks down at some point this episode — Rosalind nearly throws her body in Katy’s grave, Jonathan can’t keep himself upright in their living room, and Margaret screams over the coffin — and each moment reveals something new about the family dynamics. Jonathan is far more affected than he’s seemed, Margaret has truly been operating in a haze, perhaps for years, and Rosalind has played little mother to the twins for so long that she either wants to revel in some attention of her own, or she’s potentially about to fall victim to the same mania that’s gripped her mother since her birth.
The emotional wreckage from 1985 is still on display, too. Jamie’s mother stands clasping Margaret at the funeral, and reminds her that the two now share a common bond as the parents of dead children. But Jamie’s mom Alicia hovers in a kind of moral gray zone in the story — sure, she’s lost her daughter and endured the most shattering pain imaginable, but she also essentially drove Adam’s family from town. Desperate to know Jamie’s whereabouts, she hounded them, screaming for answers that a stunned, amnesiac Adam can’t provide. Adam may have survived whatever fate befell Jamie and Peter, but his life, and the lives of his parents, are rent in two.
Of course, the mystery of where Jamie and Peter are, and what monster carried them off, must be connected to Katy’s murder. Or at least the show puts so much weight behind the potential link that if we discover they are simply two random crimes that share a setting, the whole thing will feel for naught. We see young Jonathan and Sandra and their pals leaning against that altar, taunting Adam and Peter and Jamie. We learn that Shane Morris (current whereabouts unknown) was so unhinged by the police interrogation in 1985 that he smashed his face against a bathroom sink and required seven stitches, just to cut it short. After Rob and Cassie question Jonathan about his connection to the old case, he slips upstairs and whispers to his wife, “They asked about the three kids,” as if the two of them might harbor some secret information.
Now that the case has been laid out, there’s something that isn’t making it through in this translation onto the screen. Perhaps that’s because the novel is narrated by Rob and is very much his story, whereas here we flip from the detectives to the Devlins to the bedeviled billboard defacer and a whole cadre of unwholesome fellows. It’s simply too many threads to invest in. When Dr. Hanley is caught spinning naked over the altar, pouring ruby red wine down his pale body and worshipping, well … something, the whole bit feels like a sloppy red herring. He goes from suspect to diddler in under five minutes. The same with the Move the Motorway storyline — in French’s novel, it’s a commentary on corporate greed and the changing face of the Irish countryside, but here, so far at least, there’s not much weight behind it except some gray-suited men making villainous faces into the camera.
It’s hard not to feel like Jessica’s tale is another red herring — it’s so perfect, so pat, a cardboard-cutout villain who told Katy she was pretty one day and then offered to show her kittens. The story doesn’t add up with what we know about Katy’s death, especially how she left the house in the middle of the night of her own volition. Would a girl her age really sneak out to the woods to meet a strange man with … kittens? Jessica doesn’t say the man was wearing a tracksuit, but she does call them “running clothes,” a possible tie to Damian Donnelly’s mystery man. But still, we’re meant to make the connection.
But episode three’s biggest flaw — and a worrying sign for the whole series — is how profoundly it mangles the introduction of the plot of The Likeness, French’s next novel, which is set well after the action of In the Woods. Why, of all things, would the two plots be layered on top of one another? The storylines of both novels were already set upon flimsy premises — that Rob would coincidentally be assigned a child-murder case in the town he was abducted from, and that Dublin police would discover a dead young woman who could be Cassie’s identical twin. The stories only hang together because of French’s talent for making the barely believable, well, believable. And yet, in Dublin Murders, the writers have made the audacious move of not only conducting the plots on parallel tracks, but also connecting the stories. The Mallin Davis development exec who we learn was calling and harassing Jonathan Devlin is also cruising around town with Lexie, Cassie’s lookalike, who turns up dead. If French asks us to suspend disbelief when beginning her novels, the series is asking that we toss plausibility out the window.
Pretty soon the two novels will just be heaped on top of each other. Dublin Murders has already introduced us to The Likeness’ setting (the students’ house that Sam and Quigley knock at), the crime (“Lexie’s” death, her side bloodied), and the knot at its center (Cassie once used the dead lookalike’s name as her cover, and now she’ll have to investigate her death). It’s far, far, far too much for one series to handle with grace.
I’m worried about Rob and Cassie, and you should be, too.