“Robbie, talk me through your inaction.”
It’s always great to see a series’ potential quietly snap into place, and “Maze Hill” is everything the first episode of Babylon promised. Balancing ruthless humor with mounting drama amid interlocking plots, there’s a muted energy that keeps everything sailing along on a delighted but just-unsettling-enough edge toward the disasters waiting at the bottom. And there’s no stopping them, especially the harder you try: “Maze Hill” circles around the futility of any action at all. It’s an episode of disasters mounting in parallel as everyone’s best intentions backfire, screwing themselves and everyone around them, an unfolding flower with a middle finger in the center.
The most inclusive and most tangled through-line of this begins with patrol cops Davina and Clarkey, who accidentally arrest the Deputy Mayor’s son for possession (after their hilariously awful third wheel forces their hand). When they find so much in his shoes that the charge bumps up to intent to distribute, the Commissioner’s office has to debate whether it’s worth the headache to raid the Deputy Mayor’s house so close to the Policing Conference, and Liz’s carefully managed family reunion becomes a trap as Finn springs the press on them. It’s a remarkably high-speed A-plot, and it lends some nice immediacy to Liz’s sudden face-off with the Deputy Mayor as they find out about the premises search, and he blames Liz for the whole damn thing.
This episode hops so nimbly back and forth between these intertwined disasters that the tangle belies the consequences and feels more like a game. To Liz, of course, it already is one, which keeps the tone lighter than an episode of dangerous decisions and office backstabbing would appear. Her reaction to the whole mess – in a moment that brings Liz as a character suddenly, sharply into focus – is to feed the Deputy Mayor exactly the line that works best for him. She adds something complimentary about the police, but it’s a beat late, on a feed delay: In a crisis, Liz is compelled to make the best story, and all other loyalties are secondary.
With so much forward momentum for Liz this episode, Brit Marling inhabits both her politeness and her barbs with a new sharpness. She spends the episode advocating for risky or hilariously vicious ideas—a police-only Metwork news channel to control spin, corporate sponsorship of equipment, tasing Sharon at a press conference to prove it isn’t cruel. (Interestingly, though Finn’s unabashedly slimy, he’s also hardline about some things on which we’re invited to think he might actually be right.) But Liz’s ideas, however iffy, are also borne out to be necessary; the tasing demonstration controls that story, and without Liz controlling their other story of the day, the Deputy Mayor comes out on top. In fact, he avoided scandal in a single bound by heeding Liz’s advice; it’s more than Headquarters has done. And based on her ultimatums at episode’s end, Liz knows it, too.
Alongside this—not yet parallel, but with the potential to get there—is Robbie’s AFO training. Adam Deacon nails the alternately sad-sack and gung-ho goofiness of his sitcommy arc, where his inability to shoot an armed woman during an exercise puts him in danger of not passing evaluation. The setup (the woman cadet who offers to help, the perfectly mistimed and miscommunicated altercation) wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy in the long run, except that Robbie took action and invited Matt to film him. After last episode’s bad blood, it seems slightly surprising. Still, Daniel Kaluuya’s bemusement is underplayed enough that though we see his manipulation, we can almost imagine the story he pitched Robbie to get him to agree. (One of Babylon’s most interesting achievements is how it skims over things that would be the focal plot of other stories, making the most of its great ensemble cast to create a shorthand that fills in the blanks. We never see Matt sweet-talking Robbie, because we know Robbie will say yes and that the downward slide will continue; once the action’s in motion, the details don’t matter any more.)
It’s a testament to writer Jon Brown that the balance between farcical and serious is so surefooted; Robbie’s impending PR blowup sits comfortably beside Warwick’s decline. Shooting the horse last episode didn’t return him to form, and his well-meaning partners are at a loss about whether to officially register concern or to let things play out. But we know how that’s likely to end, and the bank-robber takedown is so tense that it’s almost a relief to see Warwick break down afterward. I mentioned in the recap of the series premiere that it’s tricky to watch a contemporary police-procedure satire without mapping it over the current events that it mirrors, however accidentally. There’s still a shadow over this arc, but Babylon handles it with care here; Warwick’s psychological state is drawn as cause for concern, and I’m more invested than I expected in seeing how this plays out. (And because Babylon is already so good at blending its expected genres, amid this seriousness, Warwick’s captain awkwardly handing him a sausage roll to show he cares is the best physical comedy beat of the episode.)
The second-best comedy beat of the episode seems initially like an afterthought, but functioned as some of the best of “Maze Hill”’s heavy-lifting with character work: the tasing. Liz manipulates Sharon to say yes, Charles manipulates Sharon to say no (maybe even for the reasons Liz suggested), and the honor ends up going to someone the office probably voted in: Tom. Though they’re each little more than grace notes this episode, Nicola Walker’s wearily-aggressive Sharon and Jonny Sweet’s aggressively-gormless Tom are perfectly opposed on the character wheel. Dovetailing them for the taser demonstration was a beautiful moment. His quintessentially British hyper-polite anxiety attack beforehand is hilarious; the camera dismissing whatever’s happened to him as Walker steps into frame and chats to the press is delightful; her brief assessing glance of-camera and shit-eating grin are sublime. It’s all tightly, delicately managed, and it makes you oddly enthusiastic about what disasters await them.
- How’s working in police PR? “Oh, everyone’s a racist, we’re all corrupt, and at night we lock ourselves in the holding cells and fuck each other.”
- “You seem vulnerable. I might be interested in exploiting that.” Good news, everyone, I’ve found the quickest way to signpost someone as smarmy bad news since [anything Pete Campbell ever said]!
- I continue to love the way HQ is filmed like a place that used to be a citadel and is now leaking; light and information bleed out everywhere.
- “It’s not a spree, it’s a spate.” Paterson Joseph is this series’ hero of making semantic distinctions laugh-out-loud moments.
- “PoCon! Yes, it’s, erm, it’s very much our Glastonbury.” Doomed to be tasered, our Tom.
- “You are a solar-powered fax machine” is such a perfect insult for the two of them; somehow short of an actual burn, the idea of being obsolete would hit Finn so hard he wouldn’t even hear the specifics.
- It gets subsumed amid everything else that’s going on, but after a slightly over-the-top introduction last episode, James Nesbitt does fantastic work here with a subplot little more than a footnote, in which he’s dinged by press for saying he rescued three people when only two have come forward. On many other shows the search for the missing rescuee and Liz’s doubts about Miller’s honesty would be a B-plot or even an A-plot. Here, it’s a half-dozen lines—Liz finds the guy in question, but since he was working Special Services he’s not allowed to come forward about it to the press—but Nesbitt makes a meal of it, the silent disappointment settling on him like the straw that broke the camel’s back.