Why Netflix show The Stranger, starring Richard Armitage, isn't your typical true crime series
Netflix's The Stranger released on the streaming platform on 30 January.
There are few shows that start like Netflix’s The Stranger. Adam (Richard Armitage) is sat at a bar inside the clubhouse of the local football team his wife helps run and his younger son plays for. A woman walks up to him and tells him his wife faked a pregnancy two years ago and the miscarriage that followed. Also, that the two sons he does have might not be his either. ‘I’d get a DNA match done if I were you,’ this woman (the stranger) says before leaving. All of this happens inside the first five minutes of a beguiling opening act. What follows is a complex labyrinth of familial and local secrets that intertwine to leave Adam sandwiched between more than just two slices of bread. Released to little noise Netflix’s The Stranger has acquired quite the reputation as an bingeable mini-series, and none of it is unjustified.
After Adam is tipped by the mysterious woman he decides to confront his wife, the eminently likeable Corinne (Dervla Kirwan). While she doesn’t deny nor respond to Adam’s perfectly understandable outburst Corinne has the look of guilt on her. ‘There is more to this’ she says before walking away and leaving poor Adam simmering in anger. A day later, she disappears altogether. Meanwhile, it turns out that Adam isn’t the only person ‘The Stranger’ has approached with a secret. Turns out there are others, some of them, this woman has blackmailed for money in what she later claims is her ‘mission to expose everyone’s secrets’. Wouldn’t that be revolutionary, disrobing the world of every personal lie it wears to keep the fabric from splitting down the middle? It is a question that perpetually teases each bend in The Stranger, the idea that everyone has something to hide. Though there is nothing proprietary about that claim there is something unique, though somewhat unexplored along its edge – what happens when we pretend to suffer just so we can be loved?
As Adam loses sleep, both over her wife’s inconsistencies and her having now gone missing, in jumps local policewoman DS Johanna Griffin (Siobhan Finneran) and her partner Wes (Kadiff Kirwan) who happen to be investigating a dead alpaca (pig) and a naked boy found in the woods on the morning a midnight rave party. There is also the small matter of financial irregularities at the football club Corinne is the treasurer of and a rogue police officer covering up some indecent secrets about a local bigwig. There is so much to pack in this show that sometimes it can be too much of disco rig, shimmying one way and jerking the other. But that is one of the joys of The Stranger. It is not a procedural, with the deadbeat brooding of two central detectives. Neither is it as drab and depressing as the UK’s other missing person original The Missing. Instead, both Griffin and Wes are hilarious. In one scene Wes, gifts his senior officer a giant penis shaped cake asking her to ‘join tinder for good’. The kids in the series are especially funny, cutting through the macabre realism of everything the adults are dealing with.
Played with measured angst by Armitage, Adam’s eyes sockets deepen as the show goes on. From his father to a close friend he used to trust, multiple secrets land in his lap and all of them in one way or another, lead to the mysterious woman. Though the series can at times toss too big a ball of wool to be able to quickly knit it into shape, it remains anchored and consistent on one end, the hiding of secrets, even from your loved ones. One of the key takeaways, in fact, is this suggestion that we often claim victim hood as a way to gaining sympathy, love, attraction and care. A woman Adam hunts down calmly explains to him why she faked her pregnancy like Corinne’s. ‘People were nice. They started paying attention. They started opening doors for me,’ she says, as Adam, looking on, lets his shoulders drop. He might have pushed his wife to it, he thinks. It’s a novel, yet universal idea really, the attempt to manufacture sympathy among other emotional needs.
The Stranger has so many red-herrings and blind curves, you surely won’t see many coming. It isn’t built like a typical noir or true crime series, nor is it tonally one way or the other. It won’t dizzy you with dread or saddle your senses with police-speak. Nor does The Stranger, incredibly, dwell, extensively on loss the way many shows would. It is instead fastened to the idea of doubt, the nagging sense that you, and everyone you know has both lied and has been lied to. Adam, as we learn later, has held onto a secret of his own. But though there may be a woman on a mission to unmask these lies, Adam, through tragedy, learns that living without keeping a secret, simply isn’t possible. There is only one truth, the one you choose to tell.
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