Your life is a lie. Each day you wake up is another day you continue to live that lie, and if somehow you slip up and make a mistake you’ll die. For weeks, months even, you pretend to be someone else and are constantly in danger of being found out and killed. Even worse are the things you have to do in order to preserve that lie. You have to watch with approval as people do things that all your instincts cry out for you to interrupt. Sometimes it’s not enough to just sit back and watch, you have to join in, and tear another hole in your soul.
When does the lie cease to be a lie and become reality? Does there come a point when you cross the line and become who you’re pretending to be? How do you hold on to the vestiges of yourself when everything you do is in direct opposition to what your conscience tells you is right? Do you ever find, to paraphrase Frederick Nietzsche, that by staring into the eyes of the dragon too long you start to become the dragon? It’s hard to imagine there are people who would willingly put themselves into the type of position described above. However, as is brilliantly depicted in the Tiger Aspect production Murphy’s Law, Series 3, now available on DVD from Acorn Media, that just about perfectly describes the life of an undercover police officer.
Detective Sergeant (DS) Tommy Murphy, James Nesbitt, is an undercover officer for the National Crime Squad working in London England. Those who have seen previous episodes of the show will know he’s pretended to be everything from a bent cop to a homeless alcoholic in the course of his operations. While he’s had to deal with difficult situations in the past, the six episodes making up Series 3 take him down roads that are darker and more twisted than any he’s walked before. Unlike previous years where each episode has been a stand alone story, on this occasion the operation he’s involved in is spread out over the course of the season’s six one hour shows. As a result we watch everything he has to endure in order to get a result.
What starts off as a simple attempt to catch people willing to buy illegal firearms, Murphy is posing as a supplier and armament expert, gradually turns into a far more elaborate sting operation. When the person who shows up for the initial meeting, one Caz Miller (Michael Fassbender) tells him the gun will be used for a murder, Murphy refuses to sell him a gun but offers his services as a contract killer. He hopes that by doing this he’ll not only be able to prevent a murder from taking place, but also bring down Miller and whomever is responsible for ordering the hit as well. It’s this spur of the moment decision that begins his long and dangerous journey of the soul.
It turns out Millar’s boss is somebody the police have been trying to catch for a long time but have never been able to accumulate sufficient proof to nab him. Dave Callard (Mark Womack) is a known cop killer (A frustrated senior officer says “Two hundred witnesses just happened to be in the loo” in explaining how Callard was able to get away with beating the cop to death in the street), and drug dealer who has been gradually giving himself the gloss of legitimacy through front operations. When the connection between Millar and Callard becomes clear, those higher up in the force decide this might be the chance to bring him down and direct Murphy to start infiltrating his organization in order to accumulate evidence against him.
The police first fake the murder of Collard’s target by bringing him into their custody and offering him witness protection in return for supplying them with evidence of Callard’s illegal activities. After proving his worth as a hit man, Murphy is gradually drawn deeper into Callard’s operations and starts to gain his trust. However, just as he thinks they’re about to pull Callard in for possession of hundreds of thousands of counterfeit Euros, a bigger fish appears on the scene and the officer in charge, Detective Superintendent Reece (Michael Feast), insists they put everything on hold so they can check out the nature of the new arrival’s involvement.
While a good deal of the action takes place with Murphy undercover, the show also does a great job of showing the amount of work going on behind the scenes in this type of operation. One of the more interesting characters is DS Paul Allison (Owen Teal) Murphy’s “cover officer.” His job is to ensure Murphy’s fake identity can stand up to any digging the target might do into his background. In this case that includes creating and entering into the system a false criminal record in his name; finding him a place to live; creating IDs; and coming up with any sort of documentation he might need at any time, for any occasion. This includes a program for a funeral when Murphy has to come up with an excuse for missing a meeting and says his uncle died.
Even more fascinating is the relationship between the two men. While the two characters are old friends and Murphy trusts Allison completely, it doesn’t stop the latter from being a mixture of parent and confessor for the former. When Murphy sleeps with the wife of the man he supposedly murdered and looks to be developing feelings for her, Allison gives him holy shit for his unethical behaviour then lies to Reece in order to prevent him from finding out about the incident. When Murphy starts to go off the rails because the case is dragging on for far longer then was anticipated, it’s Allison who both brings him back on track and convinces everybody else that Murphy is up to doing the job. In many ways Allison is the only real friend Murphy has, and knows him better than anybody else. He is Murphy’s life line, the reminder of who he really is and what he really stands for.
Most police procedurals seem to think a one hour runtime is more than enough time to solve a crime no matter how complicated it might be. If you’re lucky, you may get a two- or even three-part special. Spaced over the course of six full one hour episodes (that’s no commercials and about fifty-five minutes a pop) Murphy’s Law, Series 3 gives the writers not only time to allow events to unfold in a much more natural manner, but allows them to spend plenty of time with Murphy himself. Given that type of latitude, an actor of James Nesbitt’s quality can’t help but give what can only be deemed an incredibly special performance. While everyone in the cast is remarkable, his performance is simply one of the best I’ve seen in a police television series before.
While he rarely allows Murphy to show any moments of weakness, even when he’s off the job, things come up through the cracks periodically. He lives a life of almost complete isolation with no family nor friends outside of whomever is on his team at the time and the criminals he’s associating with. His sleeping with Ellie, (Georgia Mackenzie) the wife of the man he “killed,” is brought about by his genuine feelings of affection for her and his loneliness. Of course it also makes him hate himself for doing it, as he knows she would never have slept with him if she thought her husband were alive, and he’s taking advantage of her grief. The layers of lies he is forced to live while undercover takes him places that tear him apart inside, and Nesbitt’s depiction of what Murphy goes through because of Ellie, gives the viewer a clear indication of the effects this can have on a person.
Murphy’s Law, Series 3 is not only an excellent police drama, it is also an incredible peek behind the scenes into the life of an undercover police officer. I’ve never seen another show on television to compare to this for the starkness of its depiction of the life people like Tommy Murphy have to lead in order to do their jobs. On top of that, the show makes no attempts to hide any of the moral ambiguities associated with this type of work and in the process reminds us the gap between those who commit the crimes and those who prevent them isn’t as wide as we’d like to think. While there’s no doubt who the good guys are, they tend to think a little too much the same as the bad guys for comfort. You might just end up agreeing with Callard when he tells Murphy at the end, “I could have been you and you could have been me.” Only a really good television show would be brave enough to say that, and only the best of those have the ability to create a world where it is believable. This is one of those shows.