The North Water

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colinr0380
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The North Water

#1 Post by colinr0380 » Sat Sep 18, 2021 5:37 am

Whilst I did not write up the first episode of this series, the second episode pretty much demands to be discussed and dissected into its component parts, so I thought I would start a thread for it! Here's the trailer for the series, which is directed by Andrew Haigh, of Weekend, 45 Years and the Looking series.

Episode two begins with our main character, new Ship's Surgeon Patrick Sumner having had a near death experience whilst out on the ice joining in on the fun of clubbing and skinning seals. Sumner had joined the whaling ship in order to escape from his past, which we see a little bit more of in his nightmares as he recovers from his icy dip that appears to involve him trying and failing to save a young Indian boy during a riot. Interestingly he is mixing it up in his head with his own memories of being orphaned as a boy, suggesting he is trying and failing to save anyone else, because he cannot save himself. Sumner is a character plagued by past traumas, perhaps making him similar to the character in 45 Years.

This becomes even more of a theme with the main plot of this episode being one of "who sodomised the cabin boy and left them with venereal disease?", although it is less about the mystery of whodunnit but an insight into group dynamics. The cabin boy tries to hide what has happened and then begs Sumner not to do anything, yet after giving his assurance Sumner goes straight to the Captain, who then drags the cabin boy in for interrogation. The the cabin boy then turns up dead, having been strangled, which leads a quick attempt by the Captain to find (by outing through hearsay) a gay member of the crew to pin the crime onto, based on corroborating evidence of someone saying that they saw them together.

It is quite a harrowing section but fascinating for the way that it is showing not just that guilt or innocence does not matter but that collusion and hypocrisy can pay horrible dividends. In a way Sumner is as responsible for the cabin boy's indigities and death as the assaulter and murderer himself was. He in his middle manager way had not kept discreet about the situation and instead had immediately gone to his superiors, without perhaps realising that the assault itself and who was responsible for it would be the least of the issues concerning the Captain! Instead the Captain is more exasperated by having to deal with an unexpected issue and his right-hand man (with something against the cabin boy) immediately taking against the cabin boy's 'whistle blowing', when it was Sumner himself who blew the whistle on the boy's behalf. Even before we get to the forced 'outing' of the gay crewmate, we have already had the cabin boy's wishes gone against, with the boy having to take the brunt of the indignity, questioning of motives and eventual murder, whilst Sumner stands around in the background wringing his hands ineffectually.

Then we get the Captain, having been provided with a convenient scapegoat in the form of the gay crewmate and through just a disgust of homosexualty ends up conflating homosexuality with pederasty (with the crewmate vehemently detailing the difference between the two, which falls on deaf ears), so it is like the episode here is providing a pretty cut-and-dried situation and then showing how others with different agendas immediately start twisting a situation in a manner which fits their worldview, rather than attempting to view the situation from outside of their agendas. This all ends with the unfortunate man being placed in the stocks and Sumner being pretty much on his way to becoming a pariah amongst the men for getting too involved in trying to find the 'real' culprit. Which is rather exciting in making me think of the dynamics that were going on in the Val Lewton Ghost Ship film.

This is only adding to my feelings about the main character as being more flawed than everyone around him, even if other characters are more immediately repellent, because this situation of Sumner bearing a lot of responsibility for the fate of the cabin boy (ironic in it being another young boy he has tangentially been complicit in killing) combines with the scenes of him also getting enthralled by the activities of the men on the ice as they club and kill seals, and in this episode the detailed tracking and killing of the first whale of the season, even up to indicating a wish to participate and put his surgical knife skills to more practical use in skinning and cutting up the meat.

Sumner is also seemingly particularly enthralled by the 'big baddie' of the show in Henry Drax (played by Colin Farrell), who is mostly being shown through Sumner's telescopically voyeuristic view as he strikes the first killing blows. Drax is also pretty obviously signposted as being the person responsible for the cabin boy's 'illness' (although we are only explicitly shown this through Sumner's imaginings), as he talks to Sumner about the boy and then is the one who provides the 'evidence' that the gay crewmate was touching the boy previously. There is also that horrifically bluntly crude yet well chosen linking of imagery as Drax climbs onto the whale to shove his harpoon straight down the blowhole to puncture the animal's heart, then he and his surrounding crewmates happily luxuriate in the ejaculatory spray of bloods coming from its mortal wound.

Anyway, is Sumner holding back on his suspicions of Drax through a sense of discreet self preservation whilst trapped in an enclosed space of an Arctic whaling ship (such discretion that he never afforded to the cabin boy), or through a growing sense of fascination with the actions and powerful displays of brutal masculinity of Drax? He has already come close to being killed by Drax himself, as Drax seemingly ignored his calls and left him to die in the freezing icy water at the end of the first episode.

It is quite impressive that the whaling scene reminded me both of the ending of Pasolini's Salo yet mixed with a bit of the sexy-dangerous sense of attraction to a killer of Stranger By The Lake! Does Sumner himself subconsciously desire to masochistically end up on the receiving end of Drax's barbed harpoon at some point?
Last edited by colinr0380 on Sat Oct 02, 2021 1:26 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The North Water

#2 Post by colinr0380 » Fri Sep 24, 2021 5:53 pm

III. Homo Homini Lupus

"They'll forgive a man of his mistakes in Brazil, but not here"

Well that escalated quickly. The Captain puts his plan to send the ship up North into dangerous territory in order to sink it for the insurance money, whilst Sumner acts on his suspicions about Drax being the murderer and eventually finds proof in the form of the boy's tooth embedded in Drax's arm, which is pretty difficult to argue one's way out of! So Drax in fighting his way out gives the Captain a fatal blow on the head before being subdued and locked up.

The Captain's right-hand man, Cavendish, pushes forward to the North in order to keep the covert sinking plan in motion, and successfully crashes the ship. But unfortunately on getting everyone onto the ice and most of the crew onto the other ship that was following behind to pick them up a raging storm comes in that traps the remainder of the men on the ice (Cavendish, Drax, the gay shipmate, the philisophical Dane Otto, and a couple of expendable crew one of whom gets shot point blank by Cavendish as he tests out his shotgun). Sumner himself gets accidentally forced into going through drug withdrawal symptoms (that have been caused by his traumatic event in his past, which gets filled out more as a class conflict issue of a posh Officer being able to get away with sending men to their deaths) with his medicine bag being taken on board the other ship whilst he is on the ice.

The discussion about internalised morality and ethics and pragmatic, impulsive behaviours in the tent on the ice in the thunder storm after the ship has been scuttled is the key scene of the episode really as it is where Drax and Sumner get forced to confront each other, and the point at which the other ship disappears leaving the remains of the crew on the ice completely isolated from civilisation, as the other ship at first seems to have abandoned them. Interestingly the planned actions of the scuttling of the ship do not work out as intended at all (and involve premeditatedly betraying those who rely on your leadership, whether in the India-set reminiscence or involving the present time ship's crew), and Cavendish actually has to take an axe to the hull to finish the job, as Drax offers words of encouragement. Whilst the more instinctual behaviours of characters like Otto (who seems to have a premonition of the deaths of everyone but Sumner) and Drax (who appears to be able to turn even the worst situations to his advantage) seem more based in an, albeit brutal, vision of the world that is more grounded. Sumner himself is vacillating between the two poles, going from practical investigation in the early scenes (which only worsens the situation) to shivering and whimpering in the prow of the boat as he suffers from withdrawals and sees the world for how coldly cruel it is by the end.

(I did like the way that we get the relatively 'good guys' of Sumner at the prow of that small lifeboat with Otto, whilst the 'baddies' of Cavendish and Drax are at the rear and the other more compromised members of the crew get shaded in between them)

Anyway it turns out that the other boat did not leave without them but itself was sunk during that storm, with everyone on board drowned. So suddenly from two large ships at the beginning of this episode we are down to half a dozen figures in the landscape left now, with their prospects looking extremely bleak. But on the bright side I suppose that at least the insurance company back in London (or Hull?) will not have to pay out any dividends to those who conspired to purposefully wreck the ship!
Last edited by colinr0380 on Sun Oct 03, 2021 11:06 am, edited 3 times in total.

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Re: The North Water

#3 Post by colinr0380 » Fri Oct 01, 2021 5:31 pm

IV. The Devils of the Earth

"What shall we do with this prick now?"
"Bury him, of course"

This episode feels quite similar to that section involving the Inuits in The Terror where the survivors after months of running their rations low, Cavendish proving to be a terrible leader of men, and Sumner trying to step into the breach to get them hunting to sustain themselves, they are approached by a couple of Inuit hunters who trade some seals with them, even though Cavendish proves to be a poor negotiator. Unfortunately (similar to the situation in The Terror) the Inuits themselves prove to have underestimated Drax, as he approaches and befriends them better than the rest of the camp.

Drax tells Cavendish to let him file his shackles off and leave with the older of the Inuits, but when Cavendish decides to leave with him and abandon the rest of the men events have to come to to a bloodier conclusion than just escaping. Drax kills the two Inuits (thereby also dooming the group to no supplies), then also kills Cavendish when he turns up as Drax is about to make his escape on the boat, before disappearing off on his own.

Of the five men remaining three of them decide to take their chances trekking out on foot, so the group left at the camp comes down to just Sumner and Otto. But that corpse of Cavendish might be more useful in attracting the local wildlife than buried. I do like the idea that maybe that Otto's dream of everyone dying and Sumner fighting a bear was a self-fulfilling prophecy, since it was him telling Sumner of it which put the notion of attracting one for its meat into his head. I suppose the difference between precognition and heightened perception of the most likely possibilities in a situation inevitably coming to pass is a fine one.

The last section of the episode involves Sumner leaving Otto in camp (where his lamp symbolically goes out) to follow the polar bear out onto the icy wastes, with the use of some beautiful dissolves and canted camerawork to show the loss of all moorings as the freezing snow blindness sets in. Everything goes abstract and Sumner is left screaming for either the bear or Drax to come out of the storm to at least have some foe to face down than just battling the elements. That seeming helplessness seems to be what eventually attracts the bear back, so an episode that begins with eating raw meat as a token of friendship before cold blooded murder to ensure one's survival bookends with another detailed loving killing, as Sumner warms his cheek against the dying animal's ebbing body heat, before gutting it and slipping his hands inside to cover himself with its blood and eating its meat raw himself.

It also shows just how bloody and upsetting that Empire Strikes Back tauntaun scene probably would have been if played out in actuality! This is definitely the non-Disney version of that kind of event!

And just when he seems about to die, he is rescued and brought into a cabin inhabited by an Inuit woman and a Priest, played by Peter Mullan!

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Re: The North Water

#4 Post by colinr0380 » Fri Oct 08, 2021 5:33 pm

V. To Live Is To Suffer

Major spoilers:

"Every man has history"
"Not me. Not now"

Sumner recuperates in the cabin and learns of the fate of Otto and the likely escape of Drax, in a series of beautifully quotable scenes that seem to encapsulate all of the events up to this point. In the long wait until the Spring thaw, the Inuit demand that Sumner goes hunting with them, convinced of his "power to draw animals to him", which leads to Sumner finally getting to put his hunting desires into full practice. The gift of a knife with a bear handle seems very similar to the straw cross in Silence. All the scenes with Peter Mullan's priest are talking in metaphorical, coded terms as compared to the visceral directness of life and death on the ice. Eventually over time the Priest himself falls ill, groaning with pain, and re-awakens Sumner's medical side. The bloodiness in this episode is where the animal violence comes home with the detailed surgical procedure on the human animal. It's not just about tools applied to creating death but about trying to preserve life again, although there has been a thin line between the two.

Five months later. Back to Hull.

"Just the two of us left now, all the others silent in their graves"

Back to the cobbled streets of civilisation, where the only bears are costumes. Sumner visits the head of the shipping company Baxter (Tom Courtenay) to pick up his wages and tell them about Drax and his killings. Only Baxter is sheltering Drax in his attic, with Baxter going to amp up Drax into sorting Sumner out sooner rather than later. So Sumner might be getting a late night visit from Drax in his future, but Baxter has his own plans to tie up all of the loose ends neatly, and keep that scuttling for the insurance money issue under wraps permanently. Unfortunately Sumner's killing skills have been heightened by his experiences and Drax's dulled by the booze.

It is really an episode split into two halves with Sumner listening to the philosophical pronouncements of others, the Priest in the first and Drax in the second. And it all ends in a kind of Coriolanus like sex-death embrace of one-way violent penetration.

But will Sumner ever be free? Of the events he has witnessed, of the things he has done, of the acts he has partaken in? There comes a confontation with Baxter, who turns Drax into the full monster whilst absolving himself of responsibility. Compared to direct violence now the horror is threats of destroyed reputations and the twisting of truth into elaborate lies. Baxter will cover up for Sumner's 'murders' and Sumner becomes a thief. Because only money matters in this world, which makes death even more inappropriate when it takes place here than in the wilderness.

Berlin, One Year Later

"Wealth brings its own very particular kind of suffering"

Now a gentleman, a strolling Sumner comes across an emaciated polar bear, caged behind bars in the middle of an entirely inappropriate for its climate zoo and exchanges complicit gazes with it until the bear blinks first.
Last edited by colinr0380 on Tue Oct 12, 2021 2:52 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: The North Water

#5 Post by colinr0380 » Fri Oct 08, 2021 6:02 pm

I would say that despite my misgivings about facing another "period set multi-episode drama series about an ill fated historical sea voyage" so soon after The Terror, it was a great move by the BBC to show both these series rather than just one or the other, as it allowed for a really interesting compare and contrast exercise. They both share quite a lot of the same structure and narrative beats (the dwindling crew, interpersonal dynamics turning ugly, the Ship's Captain having to be offed early on, the 'spirit animal', the hero potentially going native or at least being unable to fit into civilisation again after the events he has witnessed), although The Terror is a lot more grand guignol-slasher horror than The North Water's devastating existential bleakness. Even if they both appear to display little faith in the nobility of the human animal.

I quite liked both series, though for different reasons. The Terror is the series to watch for man-on-man violence taking primacy with its drawn out scenes of slow succumbing to the environment and eventual cannibalism (which only appears tangentially in The North Water through a couple of side comments about Drax having partaken on a previous voyage), whilst in The North Water almost all the violence is an outgrowth of the hunting and killing of animals, to the extent that Drax's casual use of the cabin boy and eventual murders seem like a natural extension of that exploitational instinct. In a way it underlines that Sumner is more of an extremist than anyone else as he is 'anti-socially' violent (though with cause!) both before (with the India flashback) and after (with Baxter) the events on the ice. Drax mainly kills outside of civilisation and only those who will not be missed (meaning that ironically he fits into society far better), whilst Sumner goes straight after some moral retribution in making those in positions of hypocritical authority lording it over him pay, even if that makes him the ultimate pariah.

Although The Terror has animals, it has to go above and beyond reality into having a monstrous fantastical creature stalking and picking off the remains of the crew one by one, until a showdown. Whilst The North Water has that showdown with just your normal polar bear, and makes it more harrowing with post-traumatic consequences of the bear seeming to follow Sumner wherever he goes after that, as if he is fundamentally intertwined with it, or at least as intertwined as he will forever be with Drax, and maybe Baxter. The Act of Killing has that way of tying aggressor and victim together permanently and intimately.

Perhaps most importantly is that The Terror ends with our main protagonist giving up on the possibility of returning to civilisation entirely, even when such a return is offered, in order to renounce his old identity to remain with his adopted Inuit tribe which is kind of Dances With Wolves (or A Man Called Horse) tinged. The North Water is much more brutally upsetting in returning back to a world full of corruption from high to low, and confronting that rot by fully embracing it and becoming an exploiter of not just the natural world but a pragmatic hunter/businessman on the home front too.

I think which is preferred may depend on whether one wants a kind of entertaining thriller or something far bleaker, but I do feel that The North Water may be the better of the two in the sense that it is much more metaphorical throughout, and seems to have its sights set on loftier goals.

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