Rating:*** ½ (3 and a half stars)
Netflix’s latest binge-worthy thriller, The Stranger, opens a Pandora’s Box in the first episode. And from then on, it evolves into a nail-biting mystery involving three separate storylines and several more that branch out from those ones. It’s not a slow-burner in any case, so there are a lot of twists placed at irregular intervals and the finale just ties them all up neatly.
The British series stars off with a naked teenager running in the woods, who seems to be afraid of something or somebody. We just don’t know what it’s about yet as the shocking, graphic detail of that scene ends abruptly. And, alas, by the time you take a few calming breaths, you learn that a stranger (played by Hannah John-Kamen) has revealed a secret to a father of two boys, Adam (Richard Armitage). It wouldn’t be a spoiler if I mentioned it here, but I don’t want to put a spoke in the wheel of your viewing nature. When you get around to watching that point in the series, you’ll truly be met with a wave of surprise.
It’s the sort of secret that’s big enough to break a marriage. But since it comes from a stranger, Adam doesn’t know if he can confront his wife, Corrine (Dervla Kirwan), about it. However, the tingling sensation – not the good kind – that comes from human-curiosity doesn’t let him sleep until the truths are laid on the table. He does as the stranger advises him and bam – she’s right! Now, along with the naked teenager and the relationship-on-the-rocks segments, there’s a decapitated alpaca in the mix. Though, all of these might initially seem like they’re parts of a whole, they’re actually different rivers that join different seas. It’s strange indeed for a thriller to focus on so many things at once, but these little seeds set the mood for the show quite nicely.
During an argument that Adam and Corrine have, the latter slides in the dialogue, “We all have our secrets, Adam. Even you.” That particular line makes him think of a boundary he crossed a few years ago, but that’s not something the show really digs into. It’s the kind of background information that gets buried as newer pieces of evidence keep piling up. Moreover, Corrine’s statement appears to be the glue that sticks the strands together since that’s not the only secret that comes to light. After her disappearance (yes, she goes missing), the makers throw their doors open for the home audience to witness a series of unfortunate events.
The Stranger is based on Harlan Coben’s novel of the same. And like Sharp Objects, which was based on Gillian Flynn’s novel, some changes and additions have been made for the eight-episode mini-series. I haven’t read Coben’s original thriller; hence, I won’t be able to direct you to the impact of the adaptation. That said, I’d really like to sit down with the author to have a chat about how he deals with domestic affairs. Adam, Corrine, and their two sons would have been a perfect family had a secret remained in the closet. But, somehow, their world falls apart with just one question! It makes me wonder about the fragility of love. The things that people do in the name of family aren’t just about going to great lengths here; they’re also about deliberately avoiding the eye of the nightmare.
The Stranger has a cop who goes rogue, another cop who keeps going in circles trying to find out the connection between a dead person and a missing person, a teenager who takes revenge against some of her friends, a father who has his own secrets, a mother who looks after her daughter, albeit sickeningly, etc. Their individual arcs are written pretty well even though many of them aren’t present throughout the show – of course, they’re not the protagonists. They’re supporting characters, but what I mean is that their stories don’t get neglected. Example: the thread that follows the headless alpaca is darkly funny and dangerous, but it still makes for a deserving television moment.
Likewise, when two middle-aged women plan on going on a holiday, their conversations don’t last beyond a few minutes, but it’s important to the narrative since one of them gets killed and the other one (a cop, played by Siobhan Finneran) does her best to catch the culprit. Furthermore, the juicy angle related to the stranger and her job of dropping bombs on people by revealing things they wish they didn’t hear is sassy. The stranger, like Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) in You, wears a baseball cap to hold on to the reins of anonymity. And John-Kamen plays her with just the right amount of selfishness and sordidness. Another actor in her shoes might have displayed a bit of flair – and cockiness even – but John-Kamen doesn’t let those streams of emotion occupy her face because she, too, has a secret.
Netflix certainly has a winner in The Stranger and I’m all the more excited now about the other Coben adaptations (based on more than a dozen of his novels) that are in the works at the moment.