Disbelief is the first sign of life we see from kidnapping escapee Ivy (My Mad Fat Diary’s Jodie Comer). Locked in a cellar for half of her 26 years, Ivy doesn’t accept that she’s free until she lands on the street. The flower she accidentally steps on might be the only one she’s felt against her skin in more than a dozen years. She calls the cops, who turn her disbelief back against her: Is she really who she says she is? Why don’t the details about her abduction line up? Does she really have no idea as to the whereabouts of her former captor, who snatches another little girl shortly after Ivy’s flight?
Unfortunately, disbelief is also the reaction that the miniseries Thirteen (BBC America) most inspires. With the second of its five installments airing tonight, the Bristol-set drama can’t decide whether it’s more important to be a portrait of high-pressure recovery, with detectives Merchant and Carne (Valene Kane and Richard Rankin) demanding answers Ivy can’t or isn’t willing to provide, or a twist-packed mystery that prizes red herrings over nuanced characterization.
In the end, neither mode develops satisfyingly; the two story lines cripple one another. The teasing questions about which crimes Ivy might have committed during her confinement prevent us from getting to know her better and thus investing in her recuperation. And if we don’t get a sense of who she is as a person, we can’t be too shocked by what she might or might not have done, because we don’t know what she’s capable of or what her motivations are. Add to the list of narrative blunders the over-the-top disinterest of the female detective on the case. When her partner (in both senses of the word) reminds Merchant that “Ivy’s still a victim in all this” despite her stubborn silence in the search for the missing 10-year-old, the detective’s jaw drops in incredulity, as if Carne had just come out to her as a clown fetishist.
Thirteen is all the more disappointing given how confidently and sensitively it begins. Upon Ivy's arrival at the police station, she is stripped, interrogated, photographed, examined, and fingerprinted down to her pinky in a rightly infuriating example of how victims are often more scrutinized than their perpetrators. Once back home, she’s hardly the perfect victim — and understandably so. Lost between early adolescence and a lifetime’s worth of fear and pain, Ivy struggles to reconnect with her affianced little sister (Katherine Rose Morley) and strains against her mother’s (Natasha Little) constant hovering. “I’m not a child anymore. I’ve had sex,” Ivy snaps, meaning to wound her mother with her own rape so the older woman would retreat. Credibly, there’s a part of her that misses captivity — at least she didn’t feel so alone before. She forms needy attachments to the youngish, kind-eyed Carne and her now-married childhood boyfriend Tim (Aneurin Barnard), endangering both of their relationships.
But there’s too much contrived conflict and too many narrative arcs that fail to pay off. Anything related to romance fails to sustain interest — and that’s basically all of the B plots: Tim and Carne's pitying flirtations with Ivy; her divorced parents’ decision to get back together for their returned daughter’s sake; her sister’s troubled engagement to her boorish, selfish fiancé (Joe Layton); and the strain in the two detectives’ relationship as they diverge on how trustworthy their recalcitrant victim/possible Stockholm Syndrome–suffering accomplice is.
Despite the intentional opacity of Comer's character in many scenes, she is fantastic, delivering an intensely physical performance that illustrates how often trauma manifests in the body. The show best utilizes her — and its sharper, quieter observations — in more intimate scenes, as Ivy caresses the mysterious scars on her knees, crams cake batter into her mouth with her hands like she used to as a child, or talks about boyfriends with her sister over candy. Thirteen’s sweetness is convincing; its turmoils are not.