Stephanie McBride
Dublin City University, Ireland | Views:

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Smother (2021)

Smother is a six-part television crime series written and created by Kate O’Riordan (Mr Selfridge, The Bay) and commissioned by RTÉ, which first broadcast it in March 2021. The co-production was developed by BBC Studios and Treasure Entertainment (Finding Joy, Handsome Devil), with Screen Ireland and Western Region Audiovisual Producers Fund. The series has been sold widely – to Alibi (UK), Peacock (USA), ABC (Australia), TVNZ (New Zealand), CANAL+ (France), RTVS (Slovenia) and ETV (Estonia) – and a second season was announced in April 2021.

Smother’s cast is led by Dervla Kirwan, with Niamh Walsh, Seána Kerslake, Gemma-Leah Devereux, Stuart Graham, Conor Mullen and Thomas Levin. It follows the fortunes of the Ahern family – formidable matriarch Val (Kirwan) and her three daughters – in the aftermath of the suspicious death of patriarch Denis, whose influence persists from beyond the grave. The show received mixed reviews, some critics opting for a tentative “promising” after the first episode, others less forgiving. Liam Fay in the Sunday Times called it “self-consciously picturesque” and “the show’s most striking feature is the contrast between the rocky mountain scenery and the prairie flatness of the scriptwriting” (Fay 2021). Pat Stacey in the Irish Independent wrote that the “Overstuffed subplots and the three worst daughters in the world suffocate RTÉ’s Smother” and “an unlikely prospect still is finding an RTÉ drama that entertains rather than embarrasses” (Stacey 2021). Ed Power in the Irish Times thought itpossesses a pulse and it clicks together effectively”, though “the plot unspools like fresh-from-the-microwave Midsomer Murders” (Power 2021). For Éilis O’Hanlon in the Sunday Independent, “The stifling claustrophobia of family life is hypnotically conveyed,” but its status as quality drama “remains to be seen” (O’Hanlon 2021). When it was shown on Alibi in June 2021, Lucy Mangan of The Guardian gave a lavish endorsement, invoking Maeve Binchy’s addictive storytelling and praising the “assorted other seeds of suspicion, reveals and red herrings scattered across the hour” of the first episode (Mangan 2021). By contrast, Ed Power again, this time for a UK readership in inews.co.uk, found that “there were too many characters, each with complicated motives. This was accompanied by a curious apathy towards drilling into the psychosphere of the West of Ireland setting … Change the accents and it could have been anywhere” (Power 2021). Admittedly many of the reviews were written in response to the opening episode, but most reveal a downbeat welcome at best, while many of the Irish reviews also had general criticisms of RTÉ’s drama efforts.

The narrative unfolds across six episodes. This structure allows for the setting up, playing through and exploration of a gallery of suspects as in a classic whodunit. Most of this revolves around Val and her three daughters – Jenny (her eldest), Anna (her step-daughter) and Grace (the youngest, and the only issue of the marriage of Val and Denis). Other key characters include Elaine, separated from her husband Rory, and their sons Calum and Jacob, all of whom now live with Anna. As the story opens, Anna and Rory are trying to secure custody of his sons from mother Elaine. A large cast of characters and their stories demands coherent writing, and this is not a strength of Smother: the complex and unwieldy family links were a major source of confusion on social media. The production team then published a family tree online to clarify matters, and several newspapers produced their own trees and plot summaries including the Irish Sun and Irish Mirror, but narrative distractions and structural weaknesses should have been ironed out long before going into production.

The promotional material and trailers all laid claim to the noir genre, associating Smother with the global success of Nordic/Scandi noir, and several media commentators dubbed it “Celtic noir” and “domestic noir”. With this blanket embrace of the noir term, it is useful to recall noir’s origins in 1940s Hollywood cinema, in which the key characteristics were black-and-white, chiaroscuro lighting, reflective surfaces, an investigative narrative structure and, frequently, a morose detective. 1940s noir was a grim world of greed and corruption, betrayals and conspiracies, duplicity and sexual excess – usually provoking murder most foul. Yet since then the term has been critically and popularly adopted, stretched and tagged with other locations and geographies. While historically and in popular memory it’s usually raining and often night-time down the mean streets of the noir city, its legacy has influenced the emergence of crime narratives in other environs, such as ITV’s Broadchurch as a “seaside” or “coastal noir”. Scandi/Nordic noir, however, while relocating it and inflecting it for a specific time and geography, clearly reprises the 1940s legacy of lighting and atmosphere and its uncovering of the dark underside.

In Smother, while the narrative starts as a mystery – how did Denis fall? – it quickly becomes a whodunit investigation into his murder. As in early film noir, this investigation is not only of a crime but of the victim himself. As the story opens, Denis and his wife Val are about to separate and a sense of his patriarchal boorishness is evident during her glittering birthday party. After his death, Val assumes the role of detective, probing into all aspects of her family’s lives; it soon becomes clear that her search is not only for the murderer but also – and above all – to protect her family and control the narrative. The local garda sergeant Paudie officially investigates the crime to restore law and order and stability to the local community. Val, however, is motivated more by the self-interest and entitlement that characterise the Aherns as outsiders in that same community. Moral ambiguities and deceptions surface as Val pursues her investigation and conceals any potentially damaging evidence from the authorities. This narrative layering offers competing approaches and imports moral and ethical perspectives into the text, although the rather scant regard for local Garda processes tends to undermine the narrative.

Besides the generic staples from 1940s film noir that apply in Smother, its heritage includes the hybrid melodrama/noir, such as Mildred Pierce (1945). The latter, like Smother, begins with a man’s murder on a dark night along a coast. The eponymous Mildred is also a determined mother who has worked her way up from lowly origins and strives for the approval of her highly acquisitive daughter. The visual style creates a duality/duplicity around Mildred through shadows, glass and mirrors – the fractured images expressing the film’s dual nature of noir (dark, shadowy lighting) and maternal melodrama (conventional evenly-lit sequences). Like Mildred, Val is in a struggle to control her own narrative – and determined to maintain control of her family’s histories and destinies. This is often for outward appearances and voiced in stark terms, such as when she insists “Grace will remember what I tell her to remember”. Smother also visually underlines Val’s duplicity/duality, hallmarked in the opening credits with a powerful mirrored profile of her, which frames the screen at opposite sides.

As it develops, the narrative releases clues or insights into Val’s excesses. She has ignored or implicitly supported her husband’s underhand schemes and is content to enjoy its fruits – the wealthy lifestyle in the Big House; meanwhile Denis has been secretly planning to sell their home due to business problems. The strong visual emphasis on the family’s trophy house underlines the association of property with conspicuous wealth in Ireland. The house used in the filming is Moy House, built in the mid-18th century as the holiday home of Sir Augustine Fitzgerald and more recently transformed into a hotel. The image of the house is central to the show’s branding – an etched drawing of it is used as an ident, as if on the headed notepaper of a titled owner (which it originally was) or of an award-winning country house hotel (which it has since become).

The house provides an opulent façade for the murkier activities of its owners and is not only a visual sign of Denis’s drive to acquire trophies – at one stage Val vehemently asserts that she is not one of his medals. It also provides a sharp contrast to Seaview Estate, his tawdry housing development of fire traps and shoddy building practices.

If 1940s noir showed an inversion of the American Dream, Smother is haunted by the nightmares of the Celtic Tiger which Denis’s property development taps into. Hovering over the plot is an awareness of the continuing consequences of a credit-fuelled, apparently unfettered expansion, of ghost estates and defective homes – memories and actualities which are laced with a widespread public distrust of authority, banking and property speculators. The collapse of the property market and banking sector in Ireland was followed by the intervention of the Troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) that took control of the Irish state’s fiscal policy, the ramifications of which continue to be felt today. For example, the estimated future cost of fixing building issues in defective homes from the Celtic Tiger era now stands at €365 million (Horgan-Jones 2021).

In this context, Smother’s narrative can be seen to refract the wider socio-political implications of Denis’s shady business dealings. Cranes and diggers, visible in several backgrounds, are reminders that resonate with viewers’ memories of the earlier property bubble.

Smother, however, lacks the explicit political corruption plot at the core of much Nordic noir, in which the crime is frequently a means of unravelling an underlying system of governmental or corporate corruption. Rather, Smother represents corruption and double-dealing as the agency of the ruthless, conniving individual. It might be instructive, however, to regard Denis as representative of the comprador class. Pat Collins’s film Living in a Coded Land (2014) includes archive footage in which writer Seán Ó Faoláin identifies an emerging class in Ireland, among whom he lists: “Managers, capitalists, entrepreneurs, speculators, whizz-kids, the new bourgeoisie, chancers, new business types, industrialists, men of property, moneymakers and so on”.

Arguably, Denis’s dealings identify him as ticking almost all of Ó Faoláin’s categories. In the same Pat Collins film, historian Conor McCabe explains how global capitalism’s shift to finance in the 1970s led to the growth of a comprador class of stockbrokers, legal professionals, land speculators and property developers (such as Denis) – middlemen who act as intermediaries, in a subordinate role but within a mutually advantageous arrangement between international capital and the indigenous resources of the state.

Denis’s machinations pervade family life too. He devises a plan to withhold Val’s right to her home and property; he sells Grace’s café behind her back; he involves Jenny in his corrupt investment scheme (making her professionally compromised), and his last will deprives her of equal inheritance as her sisters; he pressurises his teenage daughter Grace to terminate her pregnancy. After his death, Val’s urge to protect her daughters is manifested as control and manipulation redolent of Denis’s approach, which Máiréad, Val’s sister, is swift to point out.

Val: “No, I am not like Denis. I’ve done nothing but protect my girls.”

Máiréad: “That’s exactly what he’d say. You know I love those girls, but they have a sense of entitlement that is off the Richter scale. Denis did that and you did that too.”

Layered with the central narrative enigma of the whodunit are the narrative spokes of family melodrama: Grace’s mental health, trauma and emotional loss; Jenny’s marriage breakdown and struggle to have a child; Anna’s affair with the married Rory and custody of his sons; Val’s own relationship with her lover Carl. These weave soap operatic elements into the investigation storyline.

Val, resolute in pursuit of her own agendas, resists having Grace hospitalised, fearing that her daughter might let something slip and reveal some unpalatable truths. Her other daughters seem well aware of Val’s tendency to control and connive (“Let’s go and see how Mam’s gonna play this one”). Clearly though, despite Denis’s overweening and patronising control and betrayals, Val is not conspicuously a victim. In a telling moment she dismisses his smug view of their marriage and blended family, saying “It suits me, Denis, until it doesn’t,” and leaves viewers in no doubt as to Val’s strength and self-possession in this union. Even lover Carl, seeing Val’s assured determination in satisfying her own desires, complains that he is always “only what’s left”. Her emphasis on her family leads to their break-up, despite her plea: Why can’t I have both?

Historically, the femme fatale and maternal figure are portrayed as opposites – the mother as life-giving, the femme as a sexual agent – a binary that informs many representations of women in early noir. Val, in post-feminist times, asks: Why can’t I have / be both? Her character articulates aspects of both the mother and the femme – voicing empathy for her daughters, yet manipulative and duplicitous. At times, her seeming selflessness also hints at an egotism, revolving around how she sees herself and wishes to be seen.

Although she appears outwardly successful to local townspeople, Val’s drive to control her daughters and family signals a lack, an unease, a tension. In a quiet yet powerful moment, too, she expresses regret, guilt and doubt as to her mothering of Jenny as a baby. As early as 1949, Simone de Beauvoir was writing of the dangers of self-sacrifice and victimhood in efforts to be a good mother; 21st-century media and consumer culture promote further idealisations of motherhood, in a tyranny of social expectations to which many women feel compelled to conform. Placing Val, a mother who is also assured and sexually engaged, at the centre invites responses as to how she inhabits her motherhood role, her over-investment laced with a strong sense of privilege as she negotiates the demands and challenges of motherhood, and intervenes in the lives of her daughters and blended family. Moreover, while Val is not deadly, she is devious and driven; her strength and determination may be admirable if misdirected. Earlier femme fatales suffered containment or punishment for their audacity in transgressing social norms and expectations. Val escapes such a fate in a 21st-century narrative – an ambivalence surrounds her and she is not an unsympathetic figure. Recent critical writings exploring the legacy of noir’s femme fatale in shifting contexts, particularly the impact of feminist political struggles, note how the femme might be reclaimed as a potential ideal in the post-feminist age. Significantly, however, what emerges is that women remain defined and confined, across domestic and work spheres, alongside popular media’s femme fatale image as a marketable and co-optable brand of feminism. Contemporary consumer culture’s rhetoric of empowerment and lifestyle choice reinforces neoliberal individualism only by ignoring and concealing ongoing inequalities, conditionings and anxieties. In this light, it might be instructive to consider how Val is seen – as a victim, a heroine, or an anti-heroine?

Though the writing is uneven at times, Smother’s exploration of gender dynamics involves thinking through the different experiences and circumstances of the women at the centre of the drama – all bound up with motherhood, mothering, motivation and morality. The title itself provides an obvious cue, although it hints at a wider question: who is being stifled or obscured, mother or child?

Despite her insistence on keeping her family afloat, there is a sad absurdity about Val’s attempts to have a family dinner – prepping vegetables for a meal that nobody will eat; a birthday lunch at the local hotel that is riven by spite, anger, accusations and recriminations, at which Val reminds her girls that they were happy to benefit from their father’s morally suspect endeavours – time and again, a meal remains unshared and uneaten, representing a failure in communality.

The series features strong characterisation, persuasive and powerful performances in all the central female roles. At a narrative level, glimpses of potential female solidarity between the women are offered, however shortlived, and mainly thwarted by the deeds and misdeeds of the men about them. Val’s deliriously extravagant gesture in throwing one of Denis’s medals off a cliff is also a casting out of his influence, a gap which she now fills to powerful and chilling effect. In contrast to traditional reclamation by patriarchal order, Smother’s finale involves a sisterhood pact, a female conspiracy to surrender Rory in place of Elaine (who is the guilty party this time) – in an upturning of earlier wrongdoings, a morally-flawed exchange of guilt and blame. Val voices a calm but firm conclusion: “What we’re doing here is best for this family. No one else gets the right to decide that.” Grace, troubled by this cover-up, remarks: “But it’s not the truth. I think we should know that – what we’re doing here.”

Although Val’s actions appear to restore justice and counteract Denis’s damaging influence, her position reinforces the sense of her superiority – as outside and beyond the law. It also reinforces Val’s role as head of the family, showing her as the architect of a future based on secrets and lies – setting in train a legacy of cover-ups which will haunt the family not only in the domestic realm but in wider field of justice and law and order.

In a narrative structured on family and generational tension, a tentative redemptive future is suggested in the blossoming relationship of Calum and Ingrid (Carl’s daughter), whose honesty and openness contrast with the older generation’s hypocrisy and bullying. “Grown-ups tell you not to lie, but they do it all the time.” Moreover, Ingrid’s candour advises a recognition of past mistakes, rather than a concealment. Yet any optimism is undermined by the conspiracy on which the future of the Ahern family is based – the lies which close the narrative.

As noted, Smother has had significant overseas sales and a second series is under way. Despite patchy writing, some clumsy dialogue, overly complex structures and occasional plot incoherence, it locates itself firmly within the Nordic noir generic orbit, with high production values and strong performances. On the other hand, its central focus on Denis and family misses the Nordic genre’s powerful critique of systemic corruption and society’s flaws.

Initiated as a public service remit to create content for national audiences, in the past decade the Nordic noir genre has become a huge success in the international TV marketplace, and now has its own dedicated categories on streaming services and within broadcasting schedules. The critic Mark Lawson’s assertion of Nordic noir’s demise in 2017 proved to be premature, but does raise a fundamental issue as this Nordic model becomes a lead for other producers in developing drama: he argues that, rather than self-consciously catering to the global market, public service productions should first focus on a home audience. (Lawson 2017.) As Irish producers build up productive international partnerships, there may be a growing temptation to develop dramas that are overgeared towards a pan-national marketplace and bent out of shape by the demands of international co-productions.

Dramas with a sense of place and local topologies can strongly engage audiences through stories that illuminate the lives of their own society. Smother was filmed on the west coast around the small town of Lahinch in County Clare, and turbulent oceans, waterfalls and leaden storm skies feature extensively in its compelling cinematography by Cathal Watters. While the visuals and coastal settings link it to others in the genre (such as Hinterland, Shetland, Broadchurch, The Bay), it also invites other frames of reference from the growing scholarship in the Blue Humanities, which consider how the arts have configured the coastal and maritime worlds and reflected shifting cultural and environmental concerns.

With an ecocritical lens, Smother’s dramatisation of coercion and corruption is instructive in the ways in which land and sea are vulnerable to dangers of unregulated exploitation. While Celtic Tiger excesses may not always be to the fore for contemporary audiences, arrogance and duplicity are timeless in their damage. Denis’s patriarchal domination of his family is paralleled in his attitude to business, land and sea. This is Anthropocene Man in his element, relentless and lacking any nuance, cutting corners with defective materials. In his drive for growth at any cost he shows a contempt for family, people, the environment, and regulation, whether of planning, land use or coastal erosion. Yet as recent global crises – wildfires, floods and pandemics, all suitably apocalyptic in tone – have shown, humanity’s efforts since the industrial revolution to control nature in such patriarchal fashion have backfired utterly.

A frequent image, of Denis gazing out to sea, recalls Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings of encounters between the ego and the elemental. Images of such majestic forces make a travesty of Denis’s assertions that “These are my cliffs, my sea.” While Val and Denis assert their power, they are often undermined by this very imagery. In a night-time scene, the town’s distant lights glimmer under an ominous midnight-blue sky and the camera moves in a slow, stealthy, menacing arc across the sea towards the town. Other images of mudflats and dark pools along the shore, highlighted in shafts of light, connote a sense of unease in these liminal spaces, shifting sands and uncertain ground – a hallmark of coastal noir. The black pools are also reminiscent of what Seamus Heaney referred to as Atlantic seepage, where we have lost our footing as land and sea collide. Besides echoing the Nordic genre’s use of atmosphere, the sublime splendour of churning seas and wild landscapes in Smother carry a warning of a wider and deepening crisis.

Works Cited

Fay, Liam (2021). “Smother – Breathtaking scenery, rocky script.” The Sunday Times (March 13) https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/tv-review-smother-breathtaking-scenery-rocky-script-gl0mv25wt

Horgan-Jones, Jack (2021). “Fixing Celtic Tiger-era building issues to cost at least €365 million.” The Irish Times (July 26) https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/fixing-celtic-tiger-era-building-issues-to-cost-at-least-365-million-1.4630256

Lawson, Mark (2017). “Scandi-noir is dead”. The Guardian (March 15) https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/mar/15/scandi-noir-is-dead-the-killing-the-bridge.

Mangan, Lucy (2021). “Maeve Bincy-esque thriller is entirely addictive.” (June 7) The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/jun/07/smother-review-maeve-binchy-esque-thriller-is-entirely-addictive

O’Hanlon, Eilis (2021). “A toxic mix of celebrity gossip and aggressive victimhood.” The Irish Independent (March 14). https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/television/tv-reviews/tv-review-a-toxic-mix-of-celebrity-gossip-and-aggressive-victimhood-40193869.html.

Power, Ed (2021). “‘Smother’: This is what an Agatha Christie-themed Glenroe Looks Like.” The Irish Times (March 8). https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/tv-radio-web/smother-this-is-what-an-agatha-christie-themed-glenroe-looks-like-1.4503861

Power, Ed (2021). “A riveting opening quickly lost momentum in this Irish thriller.” (June 7) The I. https://inews.co.uk/culture/television/smother-review-alibi-thriller-irish-drama-1039707.

Stacey, Pat (2021). “Overstuffed subplots and the Three Worst Daughters in the World Suffocate RTÉ’s Smother.” The Irish Independent (April 11). https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/television/pat-stacey-reviews-smother-overstuffed-subplots-and-the-three-worst-daughters-in-the-world-suffocate-rtes-smother-40301632.html.