Season Three of The Tunnel (Vengeance) follows the enigmatic Elise Wassermann (Clémence Poesy) and the world-weary Carl Roebuck (the infinitely dour yet adorable Stephen Dillane), two cops on opposite sides of the English Channel with complex pasts, a complex relationship, and a case that makes both of those other things look like utter child’s play. A generally laid-back, slightly grainy and understated sensibility dominates this production, which makes the sudden eruptions of A Clockwork Orange-esque “ultraviolence” pop like crazy. It’s an effect you might find jarring or delightful; I haven’t decided yet. The two intrepid investigators team up, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes lovingly, to investigate a cross-channel situation involving abductions, sex, incredibly grisly murders, cyberstalking, a plague of rats, someone with a Pied Piper obsession and a “danse macabre” scenario that’s part Seven, part Sweeney Todd and part Hieronymus Bosch. It’s a lot. (Watch an exclusive clip from the new season below.)
Let me repeat: It’s a lot.
It might be too much. Or it might be brilliant. I’m not really clear on that. (As of press time, five of six episodes were made available to critics; depending what goes down in the finale, I might revise any number of statements I am about to make.)
Whatever might or might not end up tying together in the end, The Tunnel does not suffer from a lack of plot points, sub-plot points, twisted backstories or sedimentary layers of trauma. It might actually be at risk of suffocating under the rich, dense weight of those things. There’s a Serbian refugee with a missing child. There’s a “flesh show” where shit gets real. There’s a botched murder investigation from the past that comes back to haunt Elise. There are children missing, children found, children in trouble. There are human traffickers. There are back-alley rat dealers. There are guys who wake up unclear on why their buttocks have been branded. There is a bayonetting. There is a possibly dirty police chief. A possibly inept police chief. There is the question of when and where those become the same thing. There is gore, there is grit, there is a troubled teen, a traumatized little boy, a weird pair of twins, and a whole lot of people who are lying.
The performances by Dillane and Poesy are thoroughly excellent, and half as many plot lines as we’re tossed would make for gripping tension. I’m grateful that the showrunners have not tossed in a lot of material to cause us to distrust the protagonists, because that would probably have put me firmly into the “I just can’t” range on the chaos level. My big question is how the finale will bring together the wide range of threads, some really gruesome and some just sad, because a lot of stuff is hanging on it. There are elements of the surreal, the psychotic, the plain dysfunctional, and the kind of evil that arises from trauma in a way you almost feel sorry for more than horrified by, and right now it’s not actually clear to me which of those things are definitely connected. If all of the disparate strands of this arc are destined to braid together, that’s going to be one mother of a braid. If they don’t, the result could be… I dunno, a bit flyaway.
Of the two primary plot strands (at least, they appear to be different, and only thematically connected; their side-by-side presentation makes one wonder), one’s in the past and one’s in the present—though to be sure, the past-tense story has relentless ramifications on the present, and the in-progress crime spree is very much informed by horrors from the past, even arguably the Middle Ages. The past-tense story, while intriguing, is rather mundane compared with the gruesome, obsessive, sadistic freak show that’s playing out in the present. The present-tense story is splashy, mysterious, mythologically freighted and truly hideous, but by the end of the fifth episode I found myself wondering if all the guns on the mantel are going to go off.
If they do, it might be seriously mind-blowing.
The Tunnel: Vengeance premieres Sunday, July 1 at 10:30 p.m. on PBS.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.