DES Episode 2 Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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DES Episode 2 Review

Tony’s lips are sealed.

Which is worse? Having one of the nation’s most prolific serial killers in your cells when he won’t stop talking? Or having one of the nation’s most prolific serial killers in your cells when he clams right up?

That’s the arc of Episode 2 of Des, the dramatic interpretation of the arrest, trial and conviction of Dennis Andrew Nilsen, played in the role of his life by David Tennant.

The thing that’s often brushed under the carpet about Nilsen is that he was, at almost every opportunity, an unmitigated, unapologetic pain in the arse. Standing always on his own rights – and often on the rights of others, as a committed trade unionist and roaring socialist in the height of Thatcher’s Britain, he was never really happier (at least in public) than when he was challenging authority on behalf of the ‘little guy.’

In his own twisted narrative, even his killing of probably 12 mostly-indigent and homeless men was a thing that had to come to light, to illuminate the plight of the homeless in Thatcher’s Britain. The fact that her policies made it easy for him to kill homeless men, he believed, was an indictment as much on her as it was on his own dark needs.

While in Episode 1, Tennant had a reasonably fair fight on his hands for control of the screen, with Daniel Mays’ DCI Jay and Jason Watkins’ Brian Masters (Nilsen’s biographer) to balance his performance, in Episode 2, you get a total Tennantfest, and that’s ultimately because of Dennis Nilsen’s subconscious delight in being a pain in the arse.

Initially, he was friendly, co-operative, even garrulous in his confession to the police, and Episode 1 took us through his eventual provision of the name of his last victim, and the beginning of investigations at his previous address – where most of his victims met their fate, and were ultimately burned in bonfires at the bottom of his garden.

Episode 2 shows us Nilsen in a mood, demanding better accommodation, seeming not to understand why he was classed as a Category A prisoner, “like a bloody criminal,” and ultimately withdrawing his co-operation with the investigation in what was either a fit of genuine pique, or – frankly more likely when you understand the egomania that quietly burned inside Dennis Nilsen’s head – a calculated flipping over of the gameboard, to keep the focus on himself and his power.

In this episode, the power of Nilsen’s silence fuels everything – especially the increasingly desperate work of DCI Jay and his team. With 12 bodies at least to find and name, with overtime mounting and the budget stretching, Nilsen throws them one extra, complicating bone. The name of a victim that wasn’t unknown at the time he was caught. A victim they’d been searching for as a missing person, and who they’d been unable to find. Allegedly because he’d been burned to ashes in a bonfire at Nilsen’s house. The case of Kenneth Ockenden, and the police’s inability to find him, had been a longstanding black mark in their copybook. The decision to re-open his cold case as part of a serial killer investigation lost Jay significant support from higher up in the Metropolitan police – and all the while, Nilsen let them sweat, because they had stopped paying him the attention he believed was his due.

Tennant is utterly masterful throughout the three episodes of Des, but it’s in Episode 2 that he most gets to flex his acting muscles, especially in terms of dialogue and revealing the underlying psychology that drove the man.

That said, there’s powerful stuff from Daniel Mays here, as Jay is faced with pressure to close the case before all the bodies at Nilsen’s properties have been identified. Pressure from above, pressure from the country as a whole, a weird and different form of pressure from Brian Masters, and there, in the middle of it all, watching as it unfolds, dangling names, pushing interest in his own case, is Nilsen, a raging egotist in the body of a sad civil servant.

Nilsen’s silence in particular drives the drama that faces Jay and his team, and it leads to if not tragedy, then at least heartbreak, when the case is closed with just 8 victims named, and just days after the end of the period when names can be added to the indictment, they identify another of the victims.

And then there’s the surprise.

Nilsen, from the moment he was arrested, was all about his own narrative, about keeping himself at the heart of the story while seeming to speak on behalf of his victims. In one of the creepier elements of his expressed psychology, he believed he had taken his victims’ pain ‘into’ himself, and so felt no compunction in speaking as their advocate, to the fury and terror of the friends and family of the victims. Episode 2 winds up and up, and you won’t realise how much breath you’ve been holding till the room gets pink and spangly. From his explosive beginning, stating demands, making statements, and talking to Brian Masters about what made him tick and what started him on the pathway to his own particular morbidity, through his silent withdrawal of co-operation with Jay and his team, to the end, which, unless you’re already well-versed in the to and fro of the case, will knock you absolutely sideways.

While Mays and Watkins are powerful players in this drama, the script captures with the benefit of hindsight what was never entirely clear in the here and now of the 1980s. Everything – but everything – from just before he was ‘caught’ and arrested – happened to Nilsen’s playbook. His treatment in jail notwithstanding – he wrote endless letters of complaint about the conditions in which he was kept – the whole drama played out in response to his determination, his action, his inaction.

Were he still alive, he would, annoyingly, adore the fact that that reality is finally being foregrounded in this drama. In Episode 2, you’ll see Tennant bring a raging, self-revolving, utterly appalling egotism to the screen, in pressurised expressions of a sideways logic that identifies quite how differently Nilsen thought from most members of society. It’s hypnotic and horrifying and clever and it demands you see its point, even when its point it outrageous. That’s the power of Nilsen’s aberrant personality, and Tennant is breathtaking at bringing it to the fore and nailing it to the screen.

It’s a performance that should win awards, and probably will, and it’s a performance that might well be among Tennant’s career bests.

But equally with that, the script brings an insight into one of the worst discovered human beings in recent British history that re-focuses our view not on the horrifying things he did to other, relatively helpless people, but on the mind behind those acts, the screaming ego in the silence of an ordinary skull. The ego that separated him from the common herd.

And the ending will have you yelling at your screen, and skipping straight to Episode 3, in sheer disbelieving shock at the final events in this utterly compelling mid-section.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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