Bloodlands series two review – James Nesbitt’s meaningful stares are laugh-out-loud funny

If all crime dramas need a distinguishing gimmick to draw punters in, Bloodlands (BBC One) – which is back for a second series – arrived last year with three. James Nesbitt has long since been part of that top echelon of TV actors whose casting is a selling point on its own. The show’s location, Northern Ireland, promised to offer not just chilly landscapes but a deeper dramatic purpose, steeped in the region’s recent history. And, while critics readied their cliches about the setting almost constituting a separate character in the drama, there was a further sweetener: Jed “Line of Duty” Mercurio’s production company had made it, suggesting fiendish plotting to get lost in.

A hit duly followed, nicely dark and paranoid in tone, with a narrative that pulled off the classic whodunnit trick of making us forget the most likely answer to the riddle. DCI Tom Brannick (Nesbitt) investigated a kidnapping, the details of which mirrored a politically explosive old mystery from 1998, when the wounds of the Troubles were raw: a criminal mastermind known as Goliath had caused four people with links to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) or IRA to disappear, including Brannick’s wife. Ah, said everyone who’s seen a crime drama before: it’s him. Nesbitt. He’ll turn out to be Goliath. Then an episode-two shocker saw Brannick suddenly shoot a supporting character in the face for knowing too much, at which point we assumed him being Goliath was so obvious it couldn’t be true. A couple of eventful instalments later, and – dizzied by twists, overcome by the whiff of red herrings – we were somehow excited to be told that Brannick was Goliath after all.

Reasonably satisfying as the answer was to the question of whether Brannick was a killer, the fact that it has been dealt with does rather jam a stick in the spokes of season two. Brannick’s colleagues may not know he’s bent, but we do. “Is he dirty?” has been replaced by “Will he be found out?”, a less compelling unknown.

The new run does what it must, which is to give Brannick a new secret. We flash back to that pivotal day in 1998, where the Brannick of 24 years ago is conjured up via a combination of some intense balaclava work from Nesbitt, and then some of that exciting youthifying CGI they have nowadays, artificially reviving a wrinkle-free Jimmy N circa Cold Feet. We knew Brannick had been press-ganged into carrying out a hit on gun-runners but now, upon seeing his younger self do the deed, we learn that the shipment of arms he intercepted also contained gold bars.

Roll the opening titles – then immediately it’s crime-scene time. Here in 2022, there has been a murder and, if the excessively doomy music didn’t give it away, our experience of season one tells us one thing for certain: whoever this freshly bulleted carcass is, Brannick is going to know more about them than he lets on. Some more top-level eye acting from Nesbitt – Brannick’s alarm is hidden from the other police officers by his full CSI PPE, complete with face mask – underlines it. The big man has another big lie to tell.

The body is Colin, an accountant who was the custodian of Brannick’s bullion. Brannick and his increasingly suspicious sidekick, DS Niamh McGovern (Charlene McKenna), drive off to break the news to the dead guy’s wife. As played by Victoria Smurfit, the icy blond Olivia is everything one expects from a generic crime-drama widow: floating immaculately around a windswept, glass-fronted mansion, she is too cool, too inscrutable and, as the script heavily flags in case we weren’t seeing it, too sexual to be straightforwardly grieving. Brannick soon wangles it so that he is visiting the house alone to look for more information; that old Nesbitt twinkle, previously obscured by Brannick’s haunted cragginess, briefly flickers.

But although Bloodlands 2 might have a dual story, with the hunt for Colin’s killer layered below the question of whether Brannick can recover his loot undetected, it no longer has the added heft and relevance that the Goliath plotline provided, tapping as it did into the post-Brexit fear that Northern Ireland’s smothered resentments might spring violently back to life. Without that veneer of seriousness, the show’s real identity as a genre piece about an in-too-deep maverick cop is revealed: the conveniently placed clues and particularly the cast’s reliance on pained looks and sly side-eyes becomes hilariously noticeable. The latter reaches a peak in a laugh-out-loud scene where Brannick, McGovern and Olivia get into a Mexican standoff of meaningful stares.

Nesbitt himself, meanwhile, nervily spinning the steering wheel of Brannick’s Volvo or jabbing at a burner phone like a doomed Line of Duty constable, no longer has a role that befits his marquee billing. Bloodlands has fallen back down to earth.