Gwyneth Hughes (writer), Brian Percival (director)
Joanna Froggatt, Alun Armstrong, Jonas Armstrong (cast)
Serial killers intrigue me. Female serial killers in particular intrigue me because THE PATRIARCHY. Okay, let me break that down: patriarchal gender essentialism posits that women’s “naturally nurturing natures” prevent them from mass murder, or even murder at all in most cases, except maybe in the case of protecting one’s young. Hence, the befuddling why of serial killing, the pleasure of killing for the sake of it, seems particularly antithetical to women’s “naturally nurturing nature.”
However, this very oppression could lead some women to kill for reasons other than protecting their young. Dark Angel highlights how the sheer banality of working class white women’s lives in Victorian England creates a backdrop for a woman like Mary Anne Cotton, a real life Victorian female serial killer. At the same time, balancing this modern contemporary feminist critique with the Victorian setting results in a muddled message.
Dark Angel is a two-part series that first premiered in 2016 in the United Kingdom as a part of ITV Studios mini-series on the most notorious murder cases in contemporary British history. Based on Scottish criminologist David Wilson’s book Mary Ann Cotton: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer, the two-part series focuses on Mary Anne Cotton, Britain’s first female serial killer (or at least the first to get caught). PBS Masterpiece Theatre premiered the series in its entirety this past Sunday, and you can currently watch the series online for free until June 4, 2017.
The real life Mary Anne Cotton reportedly killed around 21 people during the mid-to-late 1800s in North East England and collected on their life insurance. Her weapon of choice was arsenic poisoning, which at the time was all too easily disguised as cholera, typhoid, or one of many gastric illnesses. Though often labeled a “Black Widow” for killing her husbands and lovers for profit, Cotton also reportedly killed several children, including her own, further defying cultural expectations of women. Apprehended in 1873, Cotton was later hung the same year. (For a comparison of the show and the real life woman, RadioTimes has a quick overview.)
Knowing all this, Dark Angel doesn’t spend long in setting up the story. The show begins from Cotton’s imprisonment before quickly flashing back to her first marriage. From there, the crucial points of the plot quickly fall into place. She caused a scandal getting pregnant before marriage. She’s lost four children already. She learns about this newfangled thing called life insurance. She loses another baby. She easily obtains arsenic to kill bed bugs. She finds a lover (Jonas Armstrong) who gives her what is probably her first orgasm, and so on. From then on, the audience is quickly swept through Cotton’s next series of husbands and life insurance collections. Throughout, Cotton grows increasingly flippant and unsentimental. Murdering her only female friend in order to marry her friend’s brother, and then kill him. On the one hand, this lightning fast pacing highlights Cotton’s swift progression into serial killing and the commonality of death in Victorian England. However, this pacing does little in the way of character development.
The pacing finally slows towards the second half of the show when Cotton ends up in the same town as her long time lover, and there’s finally some space to breath and connect with the characters. I say “connect,” not sympathize, because Dark Angel does a successful job of crafting Cotton as an anti-heroine — she’s not easy to sympathize with, but we do get an understanding of her motivations. However, this connection has more to do with Froggatt’s acting (which is helped by her far more sympathetic role as Anna Bates on Downton Abbey) as the writing does little more than the usual serial killer pop psychologizing: sociopathy, traumatic death of father, wants pretty fabrics for her dressmaking, etc.
There’s nothing really subtle about the show, but then there’s nothing really subtle about Cotton. The one-dimensional male characters are easily taken by Cotton’s flirting and Froggatt’s lovely blue eyes. Like many a male anti-hero, she feels entitled to a more comfortable life as a means to justifying her murdering, and she even has the arrogance to assume “they’ll not hang a mother.” While this is something I can get on board with in terms of equal representation in our fictional media, Dark Angel’s take on gender still feels muddled.
Every time Cotton attempts to turn over a new leaf, something out of her control happens like a punishment for her prior wrongdoing, and to gain back control, she resorts to her former methods of caretaking with arsenic-laced tea in ways that feel too close to a sensational Victorian morality tale. Perhaps, Dark Angel is attempting to actually say there’s nothing really all that extraordinary about a female serial killer in the overall scheme of serial killers, but that doesn’t really make for much in the way of entertainment.