Netflix's Messy Marcella

The new crime drama feels familiar, but its sometimes hard-to-root-for protagonist might hold your interest

Everything old is new again in Marcella. The Netflix crime series from Hans Rosenfeldt, creator of Swedish hit Bron/Broen (which was later adapted into the short-lived FX series The Bridge), has a premise that feels like a mash-up of the last decade of woman-centered drama programming. Marcella is a detective on the hunt for a serial killer, as on The Fall. She’s a housewife who reenters the workplace, à la The Good Wife. She’s an investigator struggling to keep her mental health status a secret, like Carrie Mathison on Homeland. Where each of those shows had to forge uncharted territory in some fashion, the challenge for Marcella comes from trying to keep its predictable structure unpredictable.

The first scene finds its titular character, played by Pushing Daisies alumna Anna Friel, alone in a dirty bathtub with blood ominously smeared on her temple. A start like this inevitably prompts some questions: Is this the start of the story? Are we in a flashback or a flash-forward? Is she injured? If she’s not injured, whose blood is that? But the scene lingers long enough that the petty logic of the details start to stick out. Girl, do you not see how grimy that water is? Girl, why wouldn’t you take a shower when you had that much dirt on your body? Girl, if this is your bathroom, why did you decorate it like the torture chamber in Saw? Girl, why would you smear your bloody hands all over the walls when you were about to jump in the bathtub anyway?

At first, questioning Marcella’s basic sense of judgment feels like a way of critiquing the overfamiliarity of yet another serial killer detective drama. But as the show progresses, it becomes clear that Marcella’s instability extends even beyond the normal boundaries of antihero detective dramas. Bathing in blood and grime is just the tip of the iceberg — Marcella is a damn mess. The rest of the series might obey the tired logic of genre clichés, but the sweet illogic of Marcella's white-hot craziness keeps the ship afloat.

It’s hard to root for Marcella. She obsesses about her husband’s affair, lashing out about his betrayal even after the circumstances have changed. She overshares with suspects in the interrogation room, even while hiding information from her team of investigators. She puts strangers’ lives in danger by not disclosing her history of potentially violent blackouts. Oh, right, and much of her time is spent investigating a murder she suspects herself of committing.

The volatility of Marcella as a central protagonist adds an extra layer of unpredictability to the show — we might be accustomed to suspecting everyone, but usually "everyone" excludes the lead investigator. Beyond Marcella, the labyrinthine nature of the show’s plot makes each of the story’s progressive twists hard to trust, since you can basically guarantee you’re only 15 minutes away from yet another change in circumstances. But the downside in building a drama that places the audience in a state of perpetual anticipation of twists is that it becomes awfully hard to care about the plot points and characters that have been left behind. By the time the show starts to reveal the final permutations of its murderous equation, it can be hard to remember who’s who and how they relate in the supporting cast enough to actually engage with the twists. There’s Grace (Maeve Dermody), the girl who was murdered; Grace’s lover, Jason (Nicholas Pinnock), who was Marcella’s husband; Grace’s mother (Sinéad Cusack) who was Jason's boss; Grace’s brother (Harry Lloyd); the brother’s friend (Ben Cura); his friend’s boyfriend (Tobias Santelmann); and on and on and on. And somehow, all of these people connect to the serial murders that Marcella has been brought back to the police force to solve.

As suspects, each new character comes into the case at a staggered pace, but we’re getting to know them all at once, irrespective of how involved they seem to be in the current moment. All the Henrys and Matthews and Tims start to bleed together in their anonymous British suspiciousness. Major turns in the show’s plot become, "Oh, they’re arresting ... who again?"

The plot gets murkier and murkier as the final stretch of the show’s eight-episode season begins to tie together the seemingly disconnected threads of murderers, victims, profiteers, and suspects we’d already forgotten, but each time we return to Marcella, the fog clears and the mess becomes interesting again. You don’t have to like Marcella to be intrigued by watching her squirm her way out of lies with more lies. The mystery for the characters on the show might be murder, but for the rest of us following along at home, the real mystery is trying to figure out how Marcella is digging her way out of a self-made wreckage.