Chasing Shadows

Having got off to a good start in its first two episodes and earned the admiration of boxing legend Frank Bruno, many ‘Blue Lights’ viewers have been wondering how the show will kick on as it reaches the halfway point.
Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn’s series has done a pretty good job up until now of establishing its characters and opening up several storylines.
But now we’ve reached the halfway point, this is the moment when it really needs to fly.
Thank Heavens, then, this episode began with one hell of a jolt.
In a week when our airwaves were full of politicians and journalists reflecting on the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement, tonight’s episode, written by Dubliner Fran Harris, rammed home a brutal reality of contemporary policing in Northern Ireland.
Blackthorn Police Station’s officers had to deal with a so-called “paramilitary-style attack”.
Before I continue, at this point I must say for the benefit of our mutual friend Slogger: SPOILER ALERT – if you don’t want to know some of the things that happened in Episode Three, Slogger, please look away now…
Tonight’s episode began with ‘Peaky Blinders’ alumnus Packy Lee playing a petrol station attendant who was visited by the McIntyre gang about arranging his son’s kneecapping.
Issac Heslip’s drug dealer JP Jr had fallen foul in last week’s episode of the dissident republican gang after they discovered he was making money on the side by selling their product in some of the more affluent areas of Belfast.
Michael Shea’s Mo McIntyre and his sidekick Dane Whyte O’Hara’s Gordy Mackle were dispatched to the petrol station to break the bad news to his dad that JP Jr was to be shot.
Viewers were then subjected to some heartbreaking scenes of JP Sr and his wife, Mary Moulds’ Siobhan fearfully prepping their son for the attack outside their back door.
As JP Sr stood in the garden with a towel ready to stem the blood flow, his son was ordered on the other side of their garden fence to lie face down on the pavement and was then shot near the knee.
The gunman was Gerard Jordan’s muscular enforcer, Anto Donovan.
As JP Jr howled and then whimpered, his dad tried to comfort him and keep him conscious.
Not long afterwards, Sian Brooke’s rookie officer Grace Ellis and her colleague, Martin McCann’s Stevie Nichol arrived on the scene to administer first aid.
While the ambulance carted JP Jr off to hospital, Grace joined his distraught mum Siobhan in the kitchen to confirm it was a paramilitary style attack that had been agreed in advance.
She was told in no uncertain terms to drop the line of questioning.
However as we have seen before, the 41 year old Englishwoman, a former social worker, is not one to take no for an answer.
Determined to make a difference, Grace turned up at the hospital to encourage JP Sr to help identify those responsible but she was again rebuffed by a man living in fear of reprisals for passing on information to the PSNI.
Explaining that JP Jr might initially wake up relieved that the shooting wasn’t as bad as he thought, she painted a picture of him gradually becoming withdrawn and realising he mightn’t walk the way he once did or be able to ride his scooter.
“He might say he hates you for it.. for allowing it to happen,” she warned as JP Jr’s distraught father’s jaw dropped at the thought.
However Grace stressed she wasn’t blaming him or his wife.
“I know how it works. You’re a man who has been given a terrible choice.
“They either put a bullet in his head or in his knee.”
Grace’s presence in the hospital was noted by Desmond Eastwood’s DS Murray Canning who dismissively told her to step aside as he was taking over the investigation.
However Grace wouldn’t let go and she gradually earned the detective’s respect as they made headway with JP Sr and Siobhan – much to the concern of Stevie.
When she wasn’t trying to reach out to victims of the McIntyre gang, Grace was tending to the needs of her colleague Katherine Devlin’s fellow probationer PC Annie Conlon – offering a place for her to stay after last week’s dissident threat.
Annie continued to be wound up, though, by the reluctance of Hannah McClean’s PC Jen Robinson to get her hands dirty while on duty.
The duo spent hours handling Paddy Jenkins’ sweet but lonely, traumatised man Happy who made a scene of himself once again in the city centre.
Always eager to avoid being on the streets, Jen spotted an opportunity to skive – taking him to hospital.
On the Carrick View estate, Valene Kane’s twitchy Angela Mackle was visited by John Lynch’s James McIntyre who warned her about the consequences of making a scene and drawing the police into the area like she did in the first episode.
Nabil Elouhabi’s senior British intelligence officer Joseph also resurfaced to reinforce the message to Jonathan Harden’s Inspector ‘Jonty’ Johnson that the McIntyres and huge swathes of Carrick View remained out of bounds to his officers.
That wound up Richard Dormer’s bolshie officer PC Gerry Cliff who was keen to establish exactly why he and his Blackthorn colleagues were being prevented by the spooks from doing their job.
At the halfway point, ‘Blue Lights’ felt like it had taken another step forward with an episode that packed one hell of a punch right at the start.
While the rest of the episode didn’t quite match the potency of that early act of violence, it was nevertheless a compelling watch.
Patterson and Lawn have been adept at tapping into familiar themes and tropes from other classic US and UK cop shows, while also emphasising the unique challenges faced by police officers in Northern Ireland.
Taking her cue from them, Fran Harris wasted no time in confronting the bizarre and terrifying nature of living in a community in the grip of a paramilitary gang.
Her episode felt like the darkest so far but there were hints that events could get a lot, lot darker.
Once again, McCann and Dormer were on top form – the latter delivering the best gag of the episode with a cheeky response to Tim Loane’s pompous doctor who ranted about his car being stolen.
Devlin, McClean, Braniff, Kane and Lynch continued to do sound work, further fleshing out their characters.
Shea, O’Hara and Jordan again revelled playing local hoods, while Jenkins milked a fine line between comedy and pathos.
Packy Lee and Mary Moulds almost walked away with the acting honours as the troubled parents of JP.
However Episode Three belonged to Brooke, who over the course of the series has so shown real star quality by creating a compelling, compassionate portrayal of an English “blow-in” who wants to do good and is prepared to go the extra mile and take risks to do it.
Once again, the episode was solidly directed by Gilles Bannier, with Stephen Murphy’s cinematography making good use of the city’s locations.
At the halfway point, ‘Blue Lights’ is progressing really well.
As a cop show, it measures up impressively against similar shows – understanding what makes fans of the police procedural tick.
As a Northern Ireland drama, it is also proving to be one of the best.
If the writers can inject even more grit, ‘Blue Lights’ could really evolve into something special.
(While all episodes of ‘Blue Lights’ are available on the BBC iPlayer, Slugger will be posting on each episode after they are broadcast on BBC1. We would, therefore, be grateful if you could refrain from any spoilers for future episodes in the comments below.)

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