Imagine reading two detective stories at once. Sure, you could do it, but there’d be a tangle in your brain, right? Characters might start creeping out of one novel and into the other, where they don’t belong. All those loose ends that novelists intentionally scatter would multiply to the point of incomprehension. By the time you got to the big reveals, would you even be enjoying the intricacies of each plot? It isn’t an ideal reading scenario.
Tana French’s In the Woods was the first of her novels and the first of hers that I read. It intrigued me enough that I followed her work and bought her follow-up, The Likeness, the day it went on sale. The Likeness is a special creature, based on a premise just unbelievable enough that you read the entire thing with a tilt of the head — the idea that a murder-squad detective would coincidentally look exactly like a murder victim, down to the size of their waists and the density of their eyebrows — but pulled together so brilliantly and so loaded with insight that you abandon any skepticism by the end. It’s a different animal entirely from its predecessor; The Likeness is huddled together and intimate, essentially a locked-room mystery, whereas In the Woods is lonely and howling, a great big wilderness of a novel. Setting is deeply important in both, and the mystical, shadowy woods couldn’t be any less like the grand but comfortable students’ home that Cassie moves into as she takes on Lexie’s identity.
So what are these two novels doing smashed together for no good reason? Series creator Sarah Phelps could easily have gotten far more mileage out of Dublin Murders by allotting each novel its own mini-season. Textual originalists would have been pleased, the plotlines would be far easier and more fulfilling, and we wouldn’t lose out on the single most fulfilling aspect of In the Woods — the slow demise of Cassie and Rob’s exceptionally close relationship.
Instead, this episode sends Rob and Cassie in two different directions (after, ahem, a night spent in bed together). There goes Cassie, pretending to be Lexie again, or rather, pretending to be a woman who was pretending to be a character that Cassie created (or hallucinated) in childhood and then used as her undercover identity, at the same time providing some backstory on her. Meanwhile Rob is stuck in what now feels like a B-plot, despite the fact that it involves several dead children, possibly some evil fairies, and a very ’90s Bad Guy With a Ponytail.
All we really learn about the Knocknaree case in this episode is that Carl Mills and the ponytail guy we’ve been seeing glimpses of for the past few episodes are one and the same, and that the scruffy He Rises fellow is most likely Shane Waters. Oh, and after Carl lets slip in his office interrogation that he watches “shaved” women in pornos, Rob takes that to mean that he’s into little girls. Sure, Carl is hiding something — those clandestine meetings with Shane and Jonathan don’t indicate a clear conscience on anyone’s part — but aside from violently poor taste in hairstyles, it’s hard to know what to pin on him. Could he have killed Katy? There is no easy connection to her case. Could his gang have killed Jamie and Peter and tortured Adam? It certainly appears that way, especially since Rob now remembers Shane subtly mouthing “Run” at him while Carl, Jonathan, and Sandra toyed with them in the woods. “Did you think we were going to lead normal lives?” aren’t the words of an innocent man.
Really, this episode belongs to the new mystery at hand — the dead Lexie imposter — but before we hop into that it’s crucial to understand just how bizarrely the show mixes up the novel’s chronology. The Likeness begins six months after the end of In the Woods: Cassie and Rob have already had the falling out we witnessed in the series’ very first scene, and Cassie is plagued by a depression that won’t lift. Deciding to play at Lexie isn’t some spur-of-the-moment flail because she’s had an exceptionally bad day. It’s the only reprieve she can find from being herself.
In an effort to ground Cassie a bit more, the show has elaborated on her backstory, turning “Lexie” into a childhood doppelgänger/imaginary friend who showed up at the scene of her family’s deadly car crash (from which Cassie climbs out entirely, unbelievably, unharmed) and then helped Cassie wreak havoc. I hate to speak ill of children, but these shoehorned scenes aren’t helped by the fact that the set of twins brought in to play Cassie and Lexie demonstrate entirely blank expressions and absolutely zero emotion. (When Cassie calls out for her parents outside the flipped over car, Lexie bluntly pronounces, “They’re dead,” and Cassie doesn’t gesture with so much as a shrug of her shoulders.) For a show so obsessed with childhood traumas, this was a massive swing and miss.
Flashbacks also reveal how Cassie came to take “Lexie” as her cover. The hard-talking Frank Mackey (who will later become the main detective of the third French novel, Faithful Place) smarmily sucked her in when she was only a regular Garda, and dangled the prospect of a coveted spot on the Murder Squad if Cassie could get in the good graces of Vincent Johnstone, a drug kingpin and all-around Bad Guy. Cassie pulls Lexie out of her mind, fully formed in childhood, a version of herself who can easily pretend to be a college student and sleep with a high-ranking dealer for a year in an effort to weasel her way into his organization.
We know that eventually this all went wrong, that Cassie took a knife to the heart and barely survived. Turns out this dead body, this other “Lexie,” died in that exact way, less lucky than Cassie when it comes to crucial millimeters. So who is she? Why is this lookalike pretending to be a made-up identity? Cooper the coroner swabs Cassie’s cheek and runs a basic DNA test — the two women aren’t related. And somehow, though her magical powers of intuition,Cassie gazed into Vincent Johnstone’s imprisoned eyes and determined that, despite the similarities in how Lexie died, he wasn’t responsible.
So Mackey comes up with a “how could anything go wrong” plan: Cassie will resume her old cover, move into the group house Lexie shares with Daniel, Rafe, Abigail, and Justin, and hopefully learn why her lookalike was shanked in the heart and left to bleed out — with a 12-week-old fetus inside her. (I’m assuming this means she’ll soon be getting some ill-advised bangs and a nose ring.)
But like all French’s novels, Dublin Murders is out to break down its detectives into little puddles of emotionally destroyed mush. Rob and Cassie are both victims of horrific childhood trauma, neither sees themselves as particularly close to anyone but each other. Two cases like Knocknaree and Lexie have them swinging wildly off their axes, so it’s no surprise they end up in bed together, feeding off each other. What is a surprise is what a raging dick Rob turns into the next morning, sneaking out before Cassie wakes, and reminding her that he’s a misery vampire — “Crying girls make me hard.”
All of this is “last straw” territory for Cassie. The ghost of her childhood doppelgänger has shown up dead, her defunct emotional compass led her to blow up her relationship with Sam, and now her closest friend in the world has needled at the sore spot he knows exists inside her: “You can tell yourself Lexie did it.” So Cassie runs away, back inside terrain that isn’t exactly safe, but is familiar. “I’ll be Lexie for you,” she tells Frank. If Lexie can get away with all the nasty behavior Cassie knows she can’t, then why not?