It’s Beth’s 23rd birthday. Over the next 24 hours she’s going to attempt to escape her troubled Protestant stepfather, Billy, and run away with her mysterious Catholic lover, Liam. We’re in 19th century Ireland, in the brooding countryside of county Fermanagh, Ulster, and it’s really difficult to shake the sense of impending doom that descends the moment episode one of BBC Two’s latest drama, Death and Nightingales, gets going.
"The heartache of this place," Beth says as she roams the unruly fields surrounding her stepfather’s great estate. "Love it and hate it like no place on earth. Tomorrow, I leave it forever."
Between the weight of the show’s topic matter and the distinct but distant familiarity of the time we’re dealing with here, there’s no evading the fact that this is a poignant period piece. It’s July 1885 and in the show's opening sequence we're reminded that Ireland is still "an undivided province of the British Empire". Based on Eugene McCabe’s novel of the same name, political turmoil and social unrest is (rather forebodingly) at the core of this three-part drama. Contemporary telly fans considering dipping a toe in these ominous, corset-filled waters – be prepared. I’ll admit, it took me a few minutes to adjust.
We soon discover that it's only having overheard an argument between her parents at a young age that Beth (brilliantly played by Ann Skelly) finds out that Billy (Matthew Rhys from The Americans and The Post) is her stepfather, not her biological one. "I should’ve listened to my father: 'Marry one of your own faith, not some treacherous slut of Rome'," he seethes at Beth's mother Catherine (Valene Kane), a Catholic woman whom he married not knowing that she was already pregnant.
Catherine died when Beth was just 12 years old, and since then she has had to deal with Billy, whose unresolved feelings for his lost wife are uncomfortably transferred to Beth. In a particularly uneasy scene, Billy asks why Beth is being so sour towards him on his birthday, to which she replies that he knows why. She elaborates: "The last time you came in and sat on my bed, kissed me – not fatherly – then said something I'd rather not repeat..." and like that an uncomfortable motif of a father and his stepdaughter's inappropriate relationship is asserted as one of the defining dynamics of the story.
It's wildly complicated as it is. Billy and Beth are bound by their love and loss of Catherine. Beth seems somewhat dependent on him and his questionably acquired fortune; a lingering flashback to Billy's threat of disinheritance plays on our minds as much as it must do hers. When we first meet Beth she's fantasising about how to poison him and her narration often alludes to making him pay for the abuse he inflicted on her mother. But there is a confusing, contradicting affection towards Billy, too. He is, after all, a parent who has raised her alone for more than 10 years. Beth's internal battle over how she is meant to feel about her boundary-crossing stepfather ripples through the entire narrative.
There's little relief when she meets Liam (Fifty Shades and The Fall's Jamie Dornan). He's a charismatic, enigmatic man whose intentions in Fermanagh and with Beth are unclear. He's Catholic (as Beth too identifies, at once to feel closer to her mother and distance herself from her stepfather, I like to assume), and Beth falls for him quickly. Liam's arrival in Beth's small family's already fraught environment is the catalyst for the impending turmoil on the other side of the 24-hour window around which Death and Nightingales orients itself.
There's a sinister underside to the relationships Beth finds herself in with both Billy and Liam, and in one tense day we watch her rationalise her desperate fight for freedom from her difficult stepfather. Within the context of decades of secrecy, mistrust and wider threats from beyond the land that Billy owns, the decision to run away with Liam feels like the lesser of two emotional evils. Although the novel is considered a classic by many, it's safe to say that watching a young woman pushed to these resolutions never makes for the most comfortable of viewings.
Death and Nightingales starts on BBC Two on 28th November 2018 at 9pm