Following in the footsteps of BBC crime dramas like Bodyguard (2018), Vigil (2021) features stubborn yet talented detectives, well-choreographed action sequences, and frustrating red herrings crucial to the writing of all good murder mysteries on-screen. The series is largely confined to a submarine — where just walking down the hallway might earn you a couple of bruises bumping into stairwells and railways. By delivering most of its thrilling elements through its claustrophobic setting, however, Vigil cleverly uses the loss of freedom to navigate the suffocating nature of grief and trauma.
Mirroring other limited series like Mare of Easttown (2021) that use the premise of a small-town mystery to highlight how terror is contained in our most intimate relationships, the deep submarine in Vigil, which comes with its own gated community of Navy officers, acts as a metaphor for the intrusive, and often strange ways that grief makes its appearance in Silva’s life. Yet this unique spatial setting also imbues the series’ budding lesbian romance — which takes place on land — with the hopeful connotations of freedom and joy.
BBC’s latest six-part drama follows Detective Chief Inspector Silva (Doctor Foster’s Suranne Jones) as she goes on board HMS Vigil, a nuclear deterrent submarine, to investigate the murder of Petty Officer Craig Burke (Line of Duty’s Martin Compston). Having been in a tragic accident that plunged her car into a reservoir and drowned her boyfriend some years ago, the submarine triggers Silva’s PTSD flashbacks, leaving her shaken throughout her underwater stay. Before leaving for the assignment, Silva asks for Detective Sergeant Kristen Longacre (Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie) as her partner on-land, since they both share a familiar short-hand that would be useful for sending coded messages to each other. Longacre briefly jokes about sending erotic letters, and we soon learn that the two women were romantically involved at some point after Silva’s accident, but their relationship is currently strained. Alongside her traumatic flashbacks, Silva also reminisces about her relationship with Longacre: we get warm glimpses of a love in which Silva experiences happiness again, even in the aftermath of a profoundly traumatic event.
When contrasted against the claustrophobic setting of the submarine, the lesbian backstory in Vigil shows us the queer joy that can come with allowing yourself to be vulnerable to another person. The coded messages that rely on their memories of love to relay evidence to solve the case, then, make their romance as important as the murder mystery at hand. After all, what is love if not a way of accepting the ever-encroaching possibility of surprise, loss, and danger?
As a lesbian viewer, I was surprised by Silva and Longacre’s relationship, as well as the huge significance their romance takes in helping Silva to come to terms with her loss. I am used to crime dramas using grief as a motivation to pursue justice, but these shows usually involve men and their murdered wives — women who are passive conduits for men to finally release their pent-up anger by engaging in police brutality. Jonathan Nolan’s Person of Interest (2011-2016) and Netflix’s The Punisher (2017-2019), for instance, begin with grieving men committed to seeking revenge for their murdered partners and in the process, realize the failures of the police system in upholding actual justice. While this premise makes for a compelling examination of the failures of the carceral state, it rarely involves same-sex partnerships, and Vigil’s tender portrayal of a lesbian relationship paves the way forward for future crime dramas.
Likewise, television critics reviewing Vigil were similarly shocked, and not in a good way: the Telegraph criticized the show for indulging in portrayals of “excessive hugging” while The Guardian labelled these “soppy flashbacks” as a major flaw in an otherwise solid series. What these reviews imply, however, is that crime thrillers are incompatible with representations of love, and in particular, that the inclusion of a lesbian relationship trivializes the seriousness of a supposedly bleak genre.
Yet in the best crime thrillers, like Mare of Easttown, murder mysteries are used to explore the psyche of their protagonists: Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) goes around her town solving cases, however small or insignificant, to avoid dealing with the sudden loss of her adolescent son. Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) in Netflix’s Daredevil (2015-2018) spends the rest of his life saving random strangers because he failed to rescue the one parent he loved most in the world. Vigil uses the confined space of a submarine to amplify the pain of Silva’s grief and highlights how second chances at love are always possible even if utterly terrifying.
In the final episode of the series, Silva finds herself locked in a torpedo that is filling up with water — just like the drowning accident which killed her boyfriend. Remembering how Longacre used morse code as playful banter in their relationship, Silva calms down enough to make a last-ditch attempt to send out a rescue signal using that same code. It is a suspenseful yet emotionally poignant moment where a lesbian relationship — mostly conveyed through flashbacks — becomes integral to both Silva’s survival and learning to live with the trauma she has endured. Silva’s near-death experience eventually prompts her to reconcile with Longacre, and the series concludes with their reunion: resolving the case is ultimately secondary to Silva’s realization that her love for Longacre means that perhaps she has healed, even if only a little, from the wounds of her past. That a lesbian romance becomes the heart of Vigil is not a limitation of the genre’s possibilities, but a joyful portrait of what crime thrillers could do for queer representation.