In the first episode of the first series of In The Flesh, I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to start In The Flesh.
Trigger Warning: There is going to be a common trigger across all reviews of this show because there are certain elements of this show that will always be present, so please heed this initial list, as I’ll refer to it each time in forthcoming reviews. In The Flesh deals with body horror, gore, suicide, ableism, oppressive structures, bigotry which is often displayed through violence, and vicious marginalization. I will warn for new triggers if they are brought up in future episodes.
That was, without a doubt, one of the finest pilot/premiere episodes I have ever seen, y’all. How is this show even real?
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That should cover the basics! Let’s get into In The Flesh.
This show opens with a familiar motif if you’re a fan of the zombie genre. We’ve all seen the supply runs, the rundown shopping centers with poorly stocked shelves, the juxtaposition of such things like bags of candy and guns. We’ve seen the foolish mistakes made that cost someone their life, and we’ve seen the inevitable gory end of someone at the hands of the undead.
We almost never see it through the undead’s eyes.
There’s a stark sense of loneliness and isolation right from the beginning of In the Flesh. Part of that comes from the locale, and while I don’t want to equate small town America with rural Britain, I could see some of the similarities. But it’s more than just setting. When we meet Kieren Walker for the first time, his life is full of euphemisms that are an attempt to prescribe him some humanity, but there’s a detached aspect to everything being said to him. How human can you feel when you’re referred to as a disease or a symptom or a condition every waking minute? How human can you feel when the doctors constantly re-affirm the goodness of your progress without looking you in the eye? How human can you feel when your body is so visibly different from those around you?
It’s impossible to divorce the real-world implications and references from the world of In The Flesh, and I’d be willing to bet that all of this is intentional. There’s a commentary on society’s lack of empathy for people with any sort of disability, both the ones seen and unseen. There’s a commentary on the heinous nature of bigotry against people who cannot choose what they are, whether that’s racism or homophobia or any number of oppressions. There’s a commentary on military vigilantism, which has a horrifying history here in the United States. (I don’t want to contradict the British context for all this, of course, but we have one here that fits very well within the depictions of the HVF seen in this episode.) There are slurs and internalized oppression, there are parental fears and frustrations with government bureaucracy. There’s a heavy influence of religious extremism, too, since the HVF is highly associated with a particular brand of Christianity.
It’s all here, and it’s sometimes too real.
Like I said on video, I was fascinated with the choice of when to set this show. The Rising is long over, and the first episode of In The Flesh follows Kieren’s return to Roarton and all of the painful drama that comes with that. The worldbuilding happens through immersion instead of obvious exposition. We learn bits and pieces through dialogue, and most of it is revealed through the story itself. We see the signs of a national healthcare system devoted to those with Partially Deceased Syndrome, and it’s an eerie combination between the plainness of a hospital and the rigidity of a prison. We see how a small town like Roarton has built an identity of sorts that’s plainly opposed to government intervention (for justifiable reasons that are addressed within the show itself) and supports the militia that has developed. I think the narrative is far more sympathetic towards those with PSD since we’re seeing things through Kieren’s eyes for the most part, but there are moments that help us understand why so many of those in Roarton are opposed to the assimilation of PSD in their town.
It’s complicated, brutally so at times. Over the course of this episode, Jem veers between militant hatred of her brother and an instantaneous desire to protect him. I’m fascinated by her character because it’s clear that she’s spent so much time surrounded by people like Bill Macy and Vicar Oddie that she’s never had to question the implication of her beliefs. No one has, as far as I can tell. Since this is the first time PSD patients have been allowed back into the population, it’s always been an idea, a theory, and one without a human face attached to it. So what happens when these people are suddenly back in the population?
Well, for starters, there’s a lot of awkwardness, and there’s a lot of violent posturing. Kieren’s parents, bless their hearts, at least try to accept their son as he is. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, and there are plenty of moments I caught that showed us that they weren’t entirely ready for this reunion. Notice how they don’t rush to touch their son when they pick him up. See how Kieren’s mother asks him to mime eating, which is purely for her own comfort. And take note of how unwilling they are to just tell Kieren the truth about the dangers he’s going to face now that he’s home.
It’s sad. Understandable, given that no one ever would know how to deal with something like this, but that doesn’t make it any less sad. The same goes for so many other stories here. Shirley, who is the first person in Roarton to offer the Walkers any help, is terrified of ever revealing what she’s been doing, though it would be hard to tell if you didn’t know the social environment around her. She tries to hide in plain sight, but the Vicar does his best to turn her own son against her. And it’s such an easy thing to do in this community. All he does is plant a seed within Philip’s mind, and one little snoop on her computer confirms that his mother is doing something with PDS sufferers that’s a secret.
And you can tell it’s only going to get worse.
While Kieren’s parents are definitely supportive (CHECK OUT THAT BAT WITH NAILS, HOLY SHIT), it’s Jem who does the most to question her own preconceived notions of what PDS sufferers actually are. She does so violently, though, and I imagine that’s all she’s known. She’s spent god knows how many years killing zombies, immersing herself in violent rhetoric that was absolutely necessary to survive when the government was ignoring Roarton’s cries for helps. And then here’s her brother, asleep in his bed, his eyes like demons and his skin like a corpse, and he’s talking to her, and it sounds like his voice and it looks like his face, but who is he really? It was easy for Jem to ask her brother if he was a demon, but when he tells her a story about her past that only the real Kieren would know, she flips out. He’s real, this is actually him, and that’s when we find out that some of her anger isn’t just due to Kieren’s condition.
He committed suicide years ago, and he didn’t leave a note.
So while we don’t get any chance to explore this further, I’m hoping that this story will get the same respect as the rest of the real-world issues brought up through In the Flesh. All of this is treated so seriously, and it’s a treat to watch. That also means that this show is deeply, deeply upsetting, and y’all, THAT FINAL CONFRONTATION SCENE IS NOT FUCKING OKAY. This is the first episode, and I’m already heartbroken. Kieren’s parents tried to hide the truth of the world from him, and within just a day of coming home, that truth is displayed to him right outside his home. The execution of Maggie Burton is horrifying, as is the depiction of the religious furor that takes over Bill. Vicar knew exactly what to say to put Bill in that… trance. Whatever it was. It was frightening to watch, and it was even worse to see how he made Maggie take out her contacts specifically so he could view her as inhuman. He couldn’t kill someone who looked like a human.
My gods, he is not going to react well to his son coming home from Afghanistan with PSD. This is only going to get worse, and I’m terrified.
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