There are no aliens in Cardiff this week, but that shouldn't make us complacent. Series co-producer Chris Chibnall brings us back to Torchwood's bread and butter topic: the intersection of the human and the alien, and what it means to be human in the aftermath. Love and loss are common enough partners, but there's no trace of the maudlin here. The themes of hope and loss, two faces of love, are explored here, with heart-wrenching results.
We open with a brief scene of a teenage boy walking alone across the barrage. His cell phone blips; he has a text message informing him: "U R 9 mins late." The boy looks up and across the water, and sees his mum smiling out at him. He smiles in return, and texts back: "Chill " His mother laughs and calls him cheeky; she turns away from the window, expecting him at the door in the next moment. But the boy never reaches home. Within the next step or two, a wind has kicked up, and we hear the sound of electrical discharges. The boy looks up, and the camera spirals around him, circling closer. His cell phone clatters to the grating in the sudden silence.
Seven months later, Andy (Tom Price) has his old partner Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) up on the barrage, describing the teen's disappearance. Gwen doesn't seem very interested, though, and Andy finally calls her on her attitude, "You've got a face like a slapped arse." Gwen gets right to the point; she wants to know why Andy ditched her wedding. Andy covers smoothly, saying he got called into work, but Gwen checked the duty rosters and already knows that he had taken three days off. Andy claims that Rhys (Kai Owen) doesn't like him, but Gwen knows it's just the opposite, that it's Andy who has the problem with Rhys. Finally Andy admits he couldn't bear to watch Gwen promise to spend her "stupid life" with Rhys. Gwen thought he was well over all his romantic feelings for her, they'd been friends and partners for three years. Andy contradicts himself, one minute saying that feelings aren't like a tap he can shut off, the next saying that he doesn't still have feelings, he just had "a moment." This is a great scene. Price and Myles are so natural together; I had no problem believing that they had worked together for years before Gwen left for Torchwood.
Having cleared the air, Gwen gets back to the case, wondering why Andy called her in. What's so special about this? Andy scoffs, "As if you don't know." He shows Gwen the CCTV footage of young Jonah on the barrage one moment, and gone in the next frame, 6 seconds later. Gwen tries to explain that away, but Andy dismisses the easy explanations. Forty-five minutes later, the cameras recorded the arrival of Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and his great coat at that very spot. Gwen's intrigued, and she tells Andy she'll check it out.
At the Hub, Gwen asks Toshiko (Naoko Mori) to see if there was any Rift activity on the barrage that night, but Tosh can't find anything. She asks Jack why he would stop there, but he says he can't remember anything. We're conditioned to think he's lying, of course, but with Jack, you really can't tell. He's just psyched to go Weevil Hunting with Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd).
When Gwen meets Andy later for tea, reporting that she wasn't able to turn up anything, he accuses her of covering something up. He further informs her that she's become "hard," by which I suppose he means cynical. You can see Gwen wonders if he's right, just as much as she wonders if that's such a bad thing. She can't understand why Andy is so into this case, and he explains that he was first on the scene and thus spent hours with Nikki (Ruth Jones), the boy's mother. Eventually, he guilts Gwen into visiting Nikki herself.
Gwen finds Nikki in her small apartment, swamped with video tapes; she scans crowd footage for a glimpse of Jonah. His room remains untouched, and Nikki keeps a diary for him, imagining what he would be doing if he were there each day. In other words, seven months after Jonah's disappearance, she's still stuck. Jonah's father was never in the picture, and thus is no help at all, and Nikki is burdened by a weight of parental guilt that no one should even have to bear. But she is trying to do something constructive, and invites Gwen to a meeting she has organized for others who have had loved ones go missing.
When Gwen finally escapes, she has to face Rhys, pissed off that she's three hours late for a promised "talk"—and she said she'd cook, to boot. Gwen hilariously makes a beeline for the wine and expertly diverts Rhys' attention: they don't have to talk about a baby, they can practice instead. Sometimes ducking the question isn't such a bad thing, especially when you take Gwen's tactics.
The next morning, Gwen and Rhys are arguing over toast in bed when Toshiko calls Gwen to tell her she's found something related to Jonah's disappearance after all. When Gwen gets into the office, Tosh shows her the graphs representing Rift activity around the time of Jonah's disappearance. It's your typical noisy graph, with one interesting feature: once, just around the time of Jonah's disappearance, we see the activity dip below the horizontal axis. Tosh labels this a "negative Rift spike," and explains that they had always dismissed these as residual Rift activity. They'd always thought that the Rift just left stuff behind, but now she's wondering, what if it takes as well as gives? Gwen thinks it's a great question, but asks Tosh to keep it to herself until they can find out more.
That evening, Andy is happy to see Gwen, ready to attend Nikki's meeting. He makes a lame Field of Dreams reference which (sadly) goes nowhere with the two Welsh women; baseball is clearly not their thing. For a few minutes they're resigned to thinking it will be just be them, but then a few couples appear, and then a few more. Before long the room is packed, and newcomers are scavenging chairs from the stacks in the back of the room. Gwen is disturbed; there are so many. "It's too much, now," she says. She signed on to help find one boy, but there must be another 40, 50 missing people represented by the crowd inside. Andy, oblivious to the possible implications here, says those others have nothing to do with Jonah's disappearance, but that's all the trigger that Gwen needs. She declares Andy "brilliant" and runs off to the Hub for "cross-referencing."
The two women work in tandem, Gwen researching missing persons reports, Toshiko getting her the CCTV to review and checking for Rift activity. Gwen quickly covers a wall in some random room with photos and data sheets on dozens of missing people. She also has a map of Cardiff with the Rift crudely marked by a huge slash of red tape, and she has surrounded it by dozens of red dots. Each of the data sheets has a "Rift spike?" box, and we see her stamping them with matching red dots. Toshiko is aghast at how many people the Rift has apparently taken. Now, Gwen is ready to take it to Jack.
The team is assembled in the conference room as Gwen presents what she has found. Jack praises her work but doesn't see where it's going. They can't predict the Rift spikes, and they don't know where the missing people went—"dispersed through space and time" is rather too large an area to search effectively. Jack has a very hard edge here, and responds badly when Gwen persists. "Seriously, practically, tell me what to do," he asks Gwen; she has no response. He insists she shut it down, but she won't let it go. Owen (Burn Gorman), in his only scene in this episode, quotes the Serenity Prayer to Gwen; she replies, "Bollocks to serenity!" Owen comments that she has a dirty mouth for such a lovely girl; regardless, he's with Jack on this, and he leaves. The camera follows him, and he walks past Jack and Ianto in a warm (if not heated) conversation, framed by the door. The two men look back at Gwen, and it's clear that they disagree about how to handle this investigation.
Gwen and Rhys are at a park, at least physically; Gwen has the long stare. She's a million miles away, wondering how to help those the Rift has taken. Rhys is unpacking a picnic, "wittering" on about how one of his friends avers that his kids were the best thing that ever happened to him, while another says he now feels like a second-class citizen in his own home. Gwen tells him to stop, but Rhys pushes back: this is what they're there for, to talk. Gwen snaps; the idea of a baby is a dead question. Torchwood doesn't do maternity leave, and she continues with examples of absurd scenarios to show what she thinks of the idea of having a family.
Rhys gives as good as he gets, and pushes right back at Gwen. "Sometimes I fucking hate you," he starts out with, and that, at least, gets Gwen's attention. He asks her, why do you do what you do? So people can have real lives, because there's nothing more important than that. He warns if she's going to get all full of herself over her job and forget about real life, then they are not going to last very long. Gwen tries to explain about what's going on at work, but Rhys is so pissed he won't listen; she has to sort work problems at work. That didn't go well.
Getting nowhere with Rhys, Gwen decides to re-open the question with Jack, and walks in on him and Ianto, mid-clench. It's debatable which guy looks better shirtless. Jack is nonchalant, but Ianto has the grace to be flustered. Ignoring both the invitation to join them and the mention of naked hide-and-seek, Gwen asks if locating Jonah can be her special project. Jack refuses; Gwen persists, noting that others have their special projects, why can't she. Jack stonewalls; when Gwen insists "We're not finished," he answers, "We are," and walks back into his office, beckoning to Ianto. He pauses, somewhat conflicted, and tells Gwen, "There's a package on your desk."
Gwen finds the package with its handheld electronic gadget. She's turning it over in her hands when her cell rings; it's Andy. She meets him for tea, and tries to warn him from using the gadget, but he scoffs at her: it's just a GPS, and it's pointing to a tiny rocky island just offshore. Andy knows a boat captain who owes him a favor, so the two arrange to travel to the island the next day. There's a hilarious bit here where Andy asks Gwen to put in a good word for him at Torchwood, if they've any openings coming up; Gwen gives the worst kind of "yeah, I guess I could," reply, which anyone with half a brain could see means "No." Still, it's enough to mollify Andy, and we can credit Gwen with trying not to hurt Andy's feelings.
Gwen returns home at the end of this very long day to find a pillow and blanket folded up by the door for her; she's banished to the sofa.
Next morning finds Andy already in negotiations with the captain; when he asks Gwen for fifty quid, she balks for a moment, but Andy suggests she go to Morocco if she wants to haggle. Andy may be an idiot, but he does have a turn of phrase. Gwen manages to ditch him with the simplest of ruses; she sends him to get them some tea, and then bribes the captain to take off without Andy. He's understandably annoyed, and Gwen's hollow apologies are carried away by the wind.
These little scenes are lovely, as Gwen travels out to the channel island. When she arrives, the first thing she sees is a lighthouse, and the same swirling photography that descended on Jonah as he was taken by the Rift takes us up to the top. As she looks over the island, Gwen sees a group of low buildings, apparently abandoned, but then she sees two people leading a third, his head covered. Jack is following just a few paces behind. Gwen pelts down the stairs and follows them.
She finds herself in some kind of bunker, and rings the bell near the security system. She identifies herself as Torchwood, says she's with Jack, and gives an access code. The woman on the other end sighs that Jack's supposed to tell them about visitors, and Gwen replies that he's a law unto himself. As the door swings open, the other woman, Helen (Lorna Gale) smiles; she says that Jack knows he'll always be forgiven. Whatever it is that Jack has going on here, it's either a good thing or he has thoroughly brainwashed the staff into thinking that it is. Gwen's reserving judgment.
Gwen walks slowly through the maze of corridors; the place is past run-down. It seems that someone moved in to an abandoned facility and never bothered to upgrade it. The atmosphere is oddly neutral; there's no sense of abuse or oppression. Gwen's spooked by the odd noises , sobbing and screams, that filter through the walls in snatches. They walk past doors labeled only with small chalk boards, identifying each room's occupant. Gwen asks, "What's going on here?" Helen tries to explain that they do their best to help the people there, but here Jack steps in, asking to explain: "It's not that simple."
Gwen recoils from Jack; she doesn't trust what's going on here at all. As she backs away, she sees a door labeled "Jonah's Room," and realizes he's there. She asks if she can see him, and Jack runs his keycard through the security slot and lets her in. She's gentle, and hesitates; she can't see anyone at first. She asks for Jonah, and the man in the room replies. Gwen can't reconcile this middle-aged man, completely bald and badly scarred, with 15-year-old Jonah, and says she must have the wrong room. But it really is Jonah, and the man (Robert Pugh) briefly narrates everything that had happened to him since that day seven months ago. For him, decades have passed since that day when he found himself in a land on fire, and was pulled by some unknown rescuer out of the flames. He thought he was going to die, but they saved him. He saw the solar system burn, a sight of terrible beauty. Gwen tells him that she's there because his mother is still looking for him; Jonah, of course, would like to see her.
Outside, Jack explains how and why he created this place. More and more lately, the Rift is sending back the people it took, but they are damaged in ways that neither current medicine nor Torchwood can fix. Jack refuses to consider Nikki visiting Jonah, but Gwen argues Nikki's side: "If you had lost someone, wouldn't you want to know?" Gwen doesn't know about Gray, but we do. Jack relents.
Nikki starts to invite Gwen to her next meeting when she reads from Gwen's expression that she's there for something more serious. When Gwen tells her that they've found Jonah, Nikki's expression of joy and anguish is wrenching. Gwen has to go through the whole explanation, and tell Nikki how Jonah has changed, and of course Nikki is resistant to all this. Gwen ends up calling Andy, who is still very annoyed with her. Gwen needs Andy to tell Nikki she's on the level, but Andy needs something from her, first: honesty. Gwen admits she would never put Andy up for a job at Torchwood, and that finally seems to settle something for him. Gwen hands Nikki the phone.
Whatever Andy said, it must have been enough to convince her; Nikki's on the boat with Gwen, making the short trip over to the island. Gwen and Helen both try to prepare Nikki for what she's about to see, but Nikki's eyes are glowing with hope and love, and nothing they're saying penetrates. When she finally comes face to face with Jonah, she can't accept who he is, and rails against Gwen, asking what kind of person would do such a thing to her. As Nikki is yelling at Gwen, Jonah asks if she has fixed the wardrobe yet, explaining how they had built it together, but one of the hinges was off. From there he catalogs their routines and the little things they said to encourage each other. Nikki, still traumatized, slowly starts to listen, and finally, believes. She embraces her son. Jonah sobs, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. That night I was late. I'm sorry."
Helen gently approaches and says they have to leave now. But Nikki, convinced, wants Jonah back again, she has it all planned out in her head. She can tell her neighbors Jonah is her dad, everything will be all right. Helen insists that they go, and Jonah, sitting on the edge of the bed now, pleads with Helen; he's obviously in pain. Helen says if they won't go then they should at least move away, but before she can explain why, Jonah begins a sustained, oddly-pitched howl. Nikki and Gwen cover their ears, and get out.
When Gwen saw Jonah the previous day, and in his meeting with Nikki, those were during his "good phase." During a "down phase," Jonah could do nothing but scream. Gwen voice-overs that Jonah had looked into the heart of a dark star and it had driven him mad; there was nothing anyone could do for him. The down phases had been lengthening, and now Jonah spends 20 hours each day, screaming. As affecting as these scenes were, this just doesn't play; why aren't they sedating the poor guy? Can't they give him RetCon so he can forget what he saw? "There's nothing we can do," just seems like an obvious brush-off, however much it served Chibnall's purposes as a plot device.
A week later, Gwen visits Nikki to see how she's doing, and to tell her she can visit Jonah whenever she likes, when he's a in a good phase. Nikki stuns Gwen by asking her to promise that she'll never do that to anyone else. Gwen says she thought the uncertainty was killing her, but Nikki replies that at least before, she had hope; it was better when she didn't know.
There's a lovely montage of Nikki, packing up all the video tapes and finally cleaning out Jonah's room, and Gwen taking down her wall of missing persons, and filing it all away. Jack watches Gwen silently. There's a sense of finality in the actions of both women. There's nothing more to be done.
Gwen strikes a match, and we're meant to think she's going to burn the records, but no, she's just lighting the candles on the lovely table she has set. Rhys comes in and sees the table for what it is, an apology. Gwen says they can talk about whatever he wants, tonight, but she's barely holding it together. Rhys knows her too well and asks her if she's all right, and Gwen crumples into tears. Rhys takes her in his arms and leads her to the sofa, and asks her to tell him everything, from the beginning. We pull away, hearing Gwen begin the story of Nikki and Jonah.
Aside from a couple of very minor stumbles, this was a brilliant episode. It played to its strengths, namely Eve Myles' Gwen and how she relates to both human and alien. Her performance here is fantastic, and well matched by the rest of the cast and guest stars. The only quibbles I have are the previously mentioned "there's nothing we can do" cop-out over Jonah's condition; I'll grant there was probably no cure, but surely there was something they could do so the poor guy didn't scream his throat raw every day. The other problem concerned Jack's handling of Gwen. He shut down and tried to shut her out, when he should have known better. She's like a bull terrier on issues like this; she won't let go. We're left having to speculate why he didn't want her to know anything about it. Of course, if he had explained the situation to her, it wouldn't have been much of an episode. It's a big problem, though, since this season had already well-established that Gwen loves Jack and usually trusts him, too.
What this episode demonstrated more than anything else was how perfect Rhys is for Gwen. She trusts him and she loves him, and of all the men in her life, he's the only one that can stand up to her when she gets in one of those imperious moods. Andy, still besotted with her, is nowhere in her league, and rather than having the decency to admit to himself and give up, still keeps chasing after her. What's worse, he whined at her and belittled her, or tried to; it seemed as if he was trying to undermine her devotion to Torchwood so he could get her back as his partner. I like Andy for what he is, but he does have a bit of a weaselly character. Jack is as charismatic as ever, but Gwen seems to have shelved her romantic feelings for him, which makes sense given that she's married now and all Jack ever seemed to offer was sex, which isn't what she was looking for (she had that already with Owen.) But Gwen pulling back on those feelings shouldn't necessarily have meant that she couldn't trust Jack, but that's what we saw here. It didn't feel organic to me, the way that Rhys' takedown of Gwen did, but since so much of the episode hung on the tensions between Gwen and Jack, I guess I'll have to accept it.
This is the first episode of Torchwood that left me choked up, crying with Gwen at the end. Her tears are about so much more than being cruel to Rhys, her apology for so many things besides how horrid she had been to him. She finally realizes that there are some things she can't fix, and that's a hard lesson to learn. Gwen feels responsible for adding to Nikki's sorrow, as if by killing off the hope of finding Jonah, she had stolen him again. How can she contemplate having children of her own knowing they might get scooped up by the Rift someday? It's bad enough with all the perverts and random accidents out there, but knowing your kid could end up scattered across the stars is tough to take.
Still, I think in time Nikki will appreciate what Gwen did for her, and perhaps she'll be able to visit Jonah regularly, and hear about everything he did in his time away from her. Surely there are some great stories for Jonah to tell, and Nikki will realize that she can still comfort him in some way. I don't think a mother would deny her child that, however much he was changed. I think a week was too short a time for Nikki to really understand what Gwen had given her, because she was right, before. The uncertainty is what kills you. Hope, such as it is, can sustain you, but hope can also prevent you from living your life.