Paul McGuirk
Trinity College, Dublin | Views:

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Love/Hate (2011)

Director: Anthony Byrne

Creator: Stuart Carolan

Cast: Aiden Gillen, Robert Sheehan, Ruth Negga

The first series of Love/Hate, the ‘crime-drama’ produced by RTE & Octagon Films, and broadcast on RTE television in the autumn of 2010, received respectable viewing figures and met with a mixed critical response.1 Bernice Harrison (2010), in The Irish Times,thought that the ‘hard men’, on whom the series focused, were a bit ‘‘soft around the edges” and ‘‘too nicely spoken” whereas Eilis O’Hanlon (2010), in The Sunday Independent– a newspaper which has produced considerable quantities of mythologizing copy about the activities of the denizens of ‘gangland’ – took exception to what she termed the transformation of “thicko skangers into heroes”.

Created and written by Stuart Carolan, the first series introduced viewers to John Boy Power (Aidan Gillen), a moderately successful ‘drug-baron’, his wily lieutenant, Nidge (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), and an assortment of minor hoods: Darren (Robert Sheehan), Tommy (Killian Scott), and Stumpy (Peter Campion). Given that none of his crew is up to any good, John Boy has difficulties holding them together. Darren’s brother, Robbie (Chris Newman), on his release from prison, is murdered by a gang member but Darren is reluctant to take revenge as he is more concerned with the fact that Stumpy has impregnated his ex-girlfriend, Rosie (Ruth Negga). When Stumpy, suspecting that Rosie is still seeing Darren, beats her so badly that she loses their unborn child, Rosie prevails on Darren not to kill him. However, Stumpy, unwilling to rely on Darren’s continued goodwill, shoots him and leaves him for dead. John Boy’s half-brother, Hughie (Brian Gleeson) having admitted to John Boy that he killed Darren’s brother Robbie, accidently kills himself while showing-off with a gun.

The Second series takes up a year after the point where the first left off with Darren working for Fran (Peter Coonan), a cigarette smuggler, loan shark and dog-fighting enthusiast, and getting back together with Rosie. When the Gardaí raid the hotel room where Tommy and Ado (Mark Dunn) are cutting a consignment of drugs, John Boy suspects Stumpy has been turned by the police. John Boy decides that Stumpy has to be “taken care of” and singles out Darren, who has been getting under his skin and owes him money, to do “the hit”. When Rosie discovers that Darren has killed Stumpy, she leaves him. Having fallen foul of a creeping coke habit, John Boy becomes increasingly paranoid and unpredictable. Nidge, who has been looking after the day to day running of the business, decides that it is time for a change of leadership. With Darren’s assistance, Nidge eliminates John Boy and takes over.

Love/Hate follows in the wake of several innovative television crime series emanating from the US in the last ten or twelve years. In HBO’s The Sopranos, which ran for six seasons and eighty-six episodes from 1999 to 2007, David Chase, the series creator, and his writers, took the idea of the crime family that underpinned Godfather I & II (Francis Ford Coppola, US, 1972 & 1974) and turned it on its head. Instead of portraying the main characters as bourgeois businessmen caught up in complex machinations of post-war commerce, the series depicted Tony Soprano, his family and his criminal organisation as limited, blinkered, lower-middle-class aspirants. The tone of much of the writing was informed by an unusual degree of black comedy. Just as Robert Altman had satirised American politics and culture in Nashville (US, 1976), Chase satirised American family and corporate values by focusing on a Mafia family from New Jersey. A sentimental psychopath, Tony Soprano wants to do right by his wife and children – but on his own terms. This apparently modest ambition, however, frequently leads to appalling outcomes for those people unfortunate enough to get in his way.

Series like The Sopranos and The Wire contextualise the lives and actions of their characters in various ways.2  In The Sopranos, Tony’s therapy sessions with Doctor Melfi involve him having to rethink his focus on ‘family values’ in the face of her broader social analysis. The Wire, with its multi-protagonist, fractal narrative, adopts a more socio-political approach, where the spectator gets to see the marginalised inhabitants of the Baltimore projects create a counter-culture of under-privilege and disadvantage in a hostile commercial environment. Although The Wire started out looking like just another ‘cop show’, it quickly shifted perspective by focusing on the inter-connections between law-enforcement, street-crime, and politics in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. Rather than privileging the ‘chain-of-command’ that permeates City Hall and the local police precincts, and primarily serve the interests of the established business community, the series deconstructs the prevailing power structures, and explores how decisions made in the upper-echelons of society play out at a lower level and how the ruling elite respond to the problems they themselves create.

Love/Hate, on the other hand, locates its action in ‘gangland’ – a mythological arena that has been conjured up by a number of the Irish tabloid newspapers over the last twenty years or so. Carolan focuses on the interpersonal relationships of a number of unremarkable characters whose involvement in the local drug trade is of itself unexceptional. None of the characters interact in any serious way with the ‘outside-world’. Dublin itself is only glimpsed in fleeting montages evoking an anonymous postmodernist metropolis. The representatives of the outside world – Detective Kerrigan and John Boy’s solicitor, Pat – are themselves depicted as denizens of ‘gangland’.

Whereas The Sopranos succeeded in getting Tony’s family and associates to stand in for America, Love/Hate does not examine the relationship between the criminal activities depicted in the series and Irish society as a whole. As presented thus far, the characters inLove/Hate are too one-dimensional to stand in for the broader complexities of Irish society. Few of the characters have more than one serious attachment. John Boy is a straightforward stock paranoid-psychopath. Everyone is out to get him but he is determined to get them first. When he discovers that his girlfriend Debbie is a junkie he immediately ditches her (though he has himself developed a serious coke-habit). Whereas Tony Soprano was constantly cultivating relationships with a wide range of people, relationships that gave rise to complicated conflicts of interest and loyalty, John Boy experiences no such conflicts. He is a narcissistic solipsist who simply bullies and intimidates everyone with whom he comes in contact. Everyone with whom he comes in contact is viewed as a means to an end or not ‘seen’ all. Unlike Tony Soprano, he never questions his own motives or actions.3  A crude and blinkered opportunism provides his only terms of reference. As a result, his malevolent downward-spiral accelerates throughout the series without any serious interruptions. It may well be that there really are people out there like just John Boy but figures like John Boy do not make for interesting or engaging dramatic characters.4 

Burdened with the responsibility of introducing an element of moral ambiguity and conscience-wrestling into the proceedings, Darren and Rosie’s storyline never rises above the banal. Right from the start the audience knows that Darren is a sensitive soul because his Dublin accent is not as flat as the rest of the cast. Having bludgeoned one of Fran’s Rottweilers to death, after Fran set the dog on the homeless outcast, Luke (Gavin Dita), Darren is reluctantly drawn into the ambit of John Boy’s affairs. Coerced into killing Stumpy, Darren gifts the ‘blood-money’ he receives for the ‘hit’ to Stumpy’s mother. Despite this gesture of atonement, Rosie leaves him, suspecting that his overtly gentle demeanour conceals a disposition altogether more ruthless, and coldblooded. Nidge, the only character of any substance, does have conflicting attachments. He has to cope with John Boy’s unpredictable mood-swings, his unequivocal devotion to his son Warren, his temperamental wife’s pregnancy, and his sexual relationship with Linda (Danelia McCormac), Fran’s wife.5 Where John Boy is brooding, self-pitying, and volatile, Nidge is clear-headed, unsentimental, and calculating. Where John Boy intimidates and bullies, Nidge cajoles and persuades. Where John Boy is myopically self-centred, Nidge can make allowances for other people’s short-comings and failings. When push comes to shove, he is just as ruthless as John Boy but his tipping point is more elastic.

The Sopranos encouraged its audience to identify with Tony, his family and associates. Week after week, it hammered home that when, pace Margaret Thatcher, ‘there is no such thing as society’, when the centre no longer holds, the individual is left with nothing but the crudest social-Darwinism to guide her or his way. Tony Soprano wants to think well of himself, to believe that reasonable principles guide his decisions, and that he adheres to a code which gives his actions some recognisable meaning. However, when push comes to shove, Tony does not have any values that tie him to the collective. The few loyalties to which he pretends stretch no further than his family – and even they are compromised by naked self-interest. The Sopranos developed this logic relentlessly, embroiling  its audience in Tony and Carmella’s domestic arrangements while demonstrating the brutal reality upon which these scenes of familial normality were based.

Whereas The Sopranos implicated its audience in the dysfunctionality of its cast of characters, and made it aware of its complicity in the spread of neo-liberal moral indifference, Love/Hate, presents its audience with a group of people who are radically other, who occupy not just a parallel universe but a hermetically sealed parallel universe – ‘gangland’. That is to say, Love/Hate allows its audience to dissociate itself from the activities and actions of John Boy and his crew rather than recognise and acknowledge the ideological and cultural chains that bind these two worlds together. Love/Hate persists in purveying the illusion that they are not us. They are not citizens of a democratic republic. They are the toxic residue produced by the activities of Ireland Inc, a defective by-product of ‘Tiger’ Ireland that must be disposed of.

But not only are John Boy’s gang radically other, their existence does not impinge on the viewer in any concrete way.6 The title sequence of The Sopranos each week took us out of New York and into the New Jersey suburbs where papers were delivered and garbage collected. Each week, the programme took time establishing this location as somewhere many Americans live. Love/Hate gives us glimpses of Dublin in intermittent fast-edited montages that do not create any sense of place. John Boy’s penthouse apartment, Nidge’s home, Fran’s ‘yard’, Luke’s squat, the pub John Boy’s crew frequents – none of these locations have an inhabited, lived-in feel. All of the characters appear unanchored, unattached to their surroundings, ungrounded in any recognisable social milieu.7 It can be argued that this is a failing common to many films and TV series that tackle issues associated with contemporary urban crime. For example, it has been suggested thatGomorrah (Matteo Garrone, Italy, 2008) creates the impression that the “Camorra exists in a realm ruled by its own laws, a state within a state” and that what it fails to show:

…is the extent to which their system penetrates the city as a whole, into its historic heart as well as its commercial districts, corrupting the entire population’s everyday life (Angrisani 2008).

As far back as 1978, Tony Garnet’s Law & Order series could, in four episodes, give a coherent sense of the social, political, economic, and ideological inter-connectedness of issues around law-breaking and law-enforcement.8 And David Simon described the second series of The Wire as:

a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class … it is a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy; that on its own, without a social compact, raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many (Simon 2005).

Finally, the language used by the characters in Love/Hate contributes nothing to the creation of any sense of a criminal ethos. Adam and Paul, in Lenny Abrahamson’s film of the same name, had a particular way of talking to each other that reflected the dysfunctional way in which they thought about themselves and the world they inhabited. Similarly, both The Sopranos and The Wire deployed language in such a way as to signify not only the extent to which the various characters’ thinking about the world was severely circumscribed but also as an index of their resistance to what they saw as a hostile social order. Of all the characters in Love/Hate, Nidge is the only one that has a distinctive way of expressing himself, and this is largely down to Vaughan-Lawlor’s performance.

On the positive side, the series exhibits consistently high production values. It has a strong cast: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Ruth Bradley, Aoibhinn McGinnity, Peter Coonan, and Denise McCormac all turn in particularly persuasive performances. Stuart Carolan, a witty and intelligent writer whose 2004 play, Defender of the Faith, dealing with the implosion of a Republican family in South Armagh in the wake of the Hunger Strikes in the 1980s, is a powerful and serious piece of writing, would seem to be habituating himself to the mini-series format. And the general consensus would seem to be that the second series is a substantial an improvement on the first. According to RTE:

The average viewership for the second series as a whole was 530,000 viewers with a 31% share, a rise of 76,000 viewers and 3.5% share from the first four-part series which aired in October 2010. The most-watched episode of series two was episode five, which had an average audience of 659,000 with a 41% audience share.9 

With that kind of audience endorsement, it should be possible for the producers and writers to open out the storylines in the planned third series to encompass contemporary socio-political issues that the genre allows and that series like The Sopranos and The Wire were able address, in admittedly different contexts.

  1. On average, the four episodes drew a viewing audience of 400,000 according to Nielsen’s TAM ratings.  []
  2. The Wire was created and written by David Simon and its 60 episodes were broadcast by HBO between 2002 & 2008.  []
  3. Much of Tony Soprano’s soul-searching with Melfi is ironically depicted as an elaborate form of rationalisation.  []
  4. David Chase has always insisted that the mobsters in The Sopranos are all incredibly stupid people, informed at best by a low cunning. But that is not to say that stupid ‘characters’ cannot have incredibly complicated lives that can be exploited dramatically.  []
  5. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s performance packs more energy than any of the other leads; he leaves an audience in no doubt that he is fully committed to the part.  []
  6. The only contemporary references in the course of the second series is a brief conversation between John Boy and his solicitor about changes in legislation requiring solicitors to disclose certain financial matters and a toast to the ‘recession’. This is strange given that Carolan began his career writing current affairs satire for Newstalks’ The Last Word.  []
  7. Many of the exterior scenes, shot in and around Inchicore, are so tightly photographed that even if the spectator is familiar with the locations it can be quite difficult to identify them.  []
  8. Law & Order was a four part BBC TV mini-series written by GF Newman, directed by Les Blair & produced by Tony Garnet in 1978.  []
  9. http://www.rte.ie/ten/2011/1213/lovehate.html  []

Works Cited

Angrisani, Silvia. 2008. “That’s Camorra”, Sight & Sound, 18:11, November, pp. 20-1

Harrison, Bernice. 2010. “More Westlife Than Westies”, The Irish Times, 12 October

O’Hanlon, Eiilis. 2010. “How To Turn Thicko Skangers Into Heroes”, The Sunday Independent, 10 October

Vine, Richard. 2005. “Totally Wired”. The Guardian Unlimited, 4 September