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Prime Jane
Detective Superintendent Tennison remains true to herself

It’s been seven years since we last saw her in Prime Suspect 5, but very little about Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison has changed. At the beginning of Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness (airing this Sunday and next, April 18 and 25, at 9 p.m. on WGBH Channel 2), we see Jane (Helen Mirren) undergoing a mandatory police department physical, testily answering the doctor’s probing questions. This is Jane at 54: unmarried, unattached, no children (she had an abortion in Prime Suspect 4), drinks too much and lies about it, smokes and lies about it. Jane has very little in her life except her work. And her doggedly principled single-mindedness is, as usual, inconvenient for a London Metropolitan Police Department that wants to tie up high-profile murder cases as quickly and with as little image tarnishing as possible. The department perceives Jane as a pain in the arse of progress and is trying to persuade her to take early retirement, but she’ll have none of it. She goes to visit her elderly father in his retirement community and looks around at the idle, aged, lonely inhabitants and is almost visibly sickened. The thought of being alone with herself is terrifying.

Prime Suspect, a joint production of British TV and PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, is one of the greatest, gloomiest detective series ever. Jane Tennison, as embodied by the majestically contrary Mirren (who won a 1996 Emmy for her performance in the series), is an uncommonly difficult, complicated character. It has always been tempting to see Jane — prickly, uncompromising, thwarting her male colleagues’ sabotage at every turn — as a heroine with universal resonance for working women. Jane could not afford the luxury of a serious relationship or motherhood because she had to conserve all of her focus, all of her soul, for her career. Otherwise, the men around her might seize on her vulnerability and halt her ascent through the ranks.

But that image of Jane as a victim of sexism simply doesn’t hold. In Prime Suspect 6, Tennison has a female detective under her command, an ambitious young woman named Lorna Greaves (Tanya Moodie). And Lorna is married, with a stay-at-home husband tending the children. Detective Greaves has figured out a way to have everything, and that brings out unsisterly feelings in Tennison. She refuses to give Lorna plum assignments because, she high-handedly tells her, the job requires a level of commitment Lorna cannot possibly give because of her family responsibilities. The young detective looks at Jane coolly and accuses her of discrimination, and it’s hard to disagree.

Every personal choice Jane has made through the years (the series began airing on PBS in 1992) was made out of ambition, because Tennison can see things only in black and white: either you have a career or you have a personal life. Moreover, Mirren has allowed Jane only the tiniest indications of regret and self-knowledge; the pangs of doubt that caught her by surprise and showed in her face throughout Prime Suspect 4: The Lost Child in the wake of her abortion were unforgettable. Now, in the belated and possibly final chapter in the series, Prime Suspect reveals itself to have been no feminist allegory after all. The series is no more, and no less, than a profound character study of one willful woman who makes the same choices — and the same mistakes — over and over. If there were a Prime Suspect drinking game, you’d take a swig every time Jane lets a suspect go for lack of evidence and someone ends up dead. Jane keeps winning Pyrrhic victories, keeps going home to the same empty flat. The question Prime Suspect 6 — one of the series’s finest, most provocative installments — asks is this: why does she do it?

Jane’s father (veteran character actor Frank Finlay in a beautifully open-hearted performance) gives us a much overdue glimpse into what makes Tennison tick. When she was an adolescent, he tells her, "You could never leave anything alone." Young Jane asked endless questions, took up causes, dug in her heels and tried her parents’ patience. She had to worry a problem until she not only solved it but vanquished it. Now that she’s a detective, Jane’s determination to see justice done and speak for the victims who can no longer speak for themselves has resulted in much unpleasantness for her commanders in the police department. In the past, Tennison refused to settle for the early, obvious suspect in cases the department didn’t want to waste time on — murders of prostitutes (male and female), teenage runaways, gang members. She burrowed into her cases, and her persistence invariably led her to more-prominent suspects with seamier motives.

The four-hour Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness is no exception. Written by Peter Berry and directed by Tom Hooper, Prime Suspect 6 is set in an England overwhelmed by a tide of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers. The wars and political strife these "invisible" day laborers and janitorial workers have fled have followed them across borders. In The Last Witness, a young Bosnian Muslim woman is found strangled to death with torture marks, both old and fresh, on her body. As Jane and her squad investigate, they find themselves immersed in the Balkan war-refugee subculture, where the wounds of neighbor-on-neighbor genocide are still raw.

Jane has to keep reminding her boys — jolly, bigoted old-timer Simms (Robert Pugh) and slick, political-animal-on-the-move Finch (Ben Miles) — to make a respectful attempt at pronouncing the name of the victim, Samira Blekic, and the tattoo’d, sullen Serb, Duscan Zigic (Velbor Topic), who becomes the prime suspect. Of course, the case is deeper and murkier than it first appears. And of course, Finch, in tandem with the eelish Detective Chief Superintendent Larry Hall (Mark Strong), undercuts Jane’s investigation by trying to tie the murder victim to an international crime ring.

Jane persists, it goes without saying; she follows her hunch that the prime suspect is not the guy they want, even as she fails to see evidence right under her nose (her "blindness" is underscored by the fact that she’s fumbling with her age-weakened eyesight throughout the story). She makes a bad decision that has heartbreaking results (take a drink), then makes more mistakes trying to atone for it. Eventually, she gets pulled off the case (take another drink), but she pursues the truth all the way to Bosnia and the scene of the long-ago massacre that she believes lies at the heart of her case. As she peers intently at the bullet holes in the walls of a factory building that served as an execution site, it’s the quintessential Jane moment. She’s found the evidence she needs to tie her suspect to the crime. She’s been vindicated. And yet, she can’t see the horror she may have set in motion. She believes that British justice will be served. But her guide in Bosnia, her old lover Robert West (Liam Cunningham), a war photographer, knows that the murder victim’s kin will prefer, and seek, a different sort of justice. There is no happy ending to Prime Suspect 6; we’re left only with the half-satisfying, half-depressing knowledge that Jane Tennison has been true to herself. She couldn’t leave it alone.

IF PRIME SUSPECT 6 has you jonesing for more of Helen Mirren’s regal (and sexy) authoritativeness, there is help. The first three installments of the series are already available on DVD; Prime Suspect 4 and Prime Suspect 5 will be released this Tuesday, April 20, with Prime Suspect 6 due on May 18. (PBS has set up a Web site recapping each series in exhaustive detail — go to http://www.pbs.org/masterpiece.)

Prime Suspect 4 comprised three two-hour stories: The Lost Child, Inner Circles, and The Scent of Darkness. The first is significant for Mirren’s steely and fleetingly wistful portrayal of Tennison closing the door on motherhood. In the third, Jane’s affair with a psychiatrist closely aligned to a case she’s working on leads to charges of impropriety. Poor Jane never did know how to pick them. In Prime Suspect 5: Errors of Judgment, Tennison has been demoted and forced to accept a humiliating transfer from London to Manchester, where she handles a case involving a gang murder and a 12-year-old prime suspect.

If you’re tempted to buy any of these sets, the first series and Prime Suspect 3 — the only two installments written by series creator Lynda LaPlante — are the ones you want. The first features Mirren at her most ferocious, as Jane hits the ground running in her new position of authority over a male squad. The third is a moving story of sexual identity set amid a backdrop of disposable "rent boys" and the pedophiles who prey on them. The stellar cast includes David Thewlis, Ciarán Hinds, and Peter Capaldi.

Issue Date: April 16 - 22, 2004
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