DES Episode 3 Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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DES Episode 3 Review

Tony has no fingernails left.

When dealing with serial killers, it will always pay you dividends to expect the unexpected.

Such would have been the case with Dennis Nilsen – but people were fooled into assuming his wits were as dull and drab as the appearance he presented to the world.

In Des, David Tennant dulls down his actorly twinkle to present Nilsen’s bland, sometimes staring aspect to the world. But at the end of Episode 2 of the drama, he got up and spoke two words, eight times over.

“Not guilty.”

Nilsen had confessed loquaciously to the killing of 15 people (three of whom may well have been entirely invented, 12 of whom were gruesomely not). He had given details of body-burnings that had resulted in the discovery of fragments. He had given the names of some of his victims, who had then been identified.

Then Dennis Andrew Nilsen took the stand, and pleaded “Not Guilty” to all charges.

Episode 3 of Des is all about the fight to jail a killer, sure, but it’s also all about the fight to jail a player. Someone so fundamentally callous that they’d throw the friends and families of their victims on a furnace too, and roast them with the knowledge that he might yet get away with what he’d done.

It charts the rise of Nilsen’s supposed self-discovery, the notion that while he admitted (or, some would say, revelled in) having committed the crimes, having killed people, cut them up, burned them, boiled them, flushed their flesh down the toilet like the waste he by then saw them as, he could still be “not guilty” of their murder on the grounds of never having pre-meditated their deaths.

While Episode 1 was the story of a killer caught and absolutely helpful, and Episode 2 was the story of how powerful that killer could be by withdrawing his co-operation and forcing the police to make all the running when trying to get him to trial, Episode 3 is a genuine courtroom drama, as Nilsen pleads not guilty, and the lawyers wrangle, the police panic, and their case begins to crumble.

There are some great auxiliary performances in this episode, the most important of which is from Laurie Kynaston as Carl Stottor, a young man who Nilsen had killed, but then brought back to life and eventually sent on his way. His life broken, his memory shattered, Stottor would eventually be crucial in bringing home a verdict that got Dennis Nilsen sent to prison, rather than to hospital as a prisoner of diminished responsibility.

Kynaston delivers such fragility to the screen, he’ll make you want to weep, and wrap him gently in blankets, take him home and do nice things for him.

It’s a role that’s written and played to absolutely expose the callous reality of Dennis Nilsen – played by Tennant mostly in silence throughout the trial, but with much simple dark staring, conveying his inner life and thoughts without a word.

The drama almost moves away from Nilsen in this episode, though there are still some great scenes between Jason Watkins as Nilsen’s self-appointed biographer, Brian Masters, and Tennant’s Nilsen.

The trial of Dennis Nilsen became a game of utter, calculated cruelty, Nilsen demanding the case against him as a murderer be proved, toying with the notion that as he never pre-meditated any of the killings, they could not be murders. As he never denied responsibility for killing all the men who ended up on his pyres or in his drains, only murders and attempted murders were brought as charges against him. If you can’t prove pre-meditation, you can’t prove murder, and so it was dangerously likely that the case against him would collapse.

The episode succinctly shows how desperate the police became to get a conviction, and how cunning the defence was in seeking to undermine the basis of pre-meditation, all ultimately coming down to Carl Stottor’s evidence. The evidence of someone Nilsen killed – and brought back to life, nursed back to consciousness, and eventually sent home, days after his brief death.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that the trial of Dennis Nilsen went down to the wire, ultimately resulting in a spoilerific verdict that will have you on the edge of your seat, even knowing what happened next. That’s ultimately the triumph of Episode 3. You know what surely happens – you’re watching a dramatization of the catching and incarceration of a serial killer…

Aren’t you?

But even so, it will have you biting your nails like a Hollywood blockbuster. And again, there’s Nilsen, David Tennant washing most of the animation out of his face and eyes to give you perhaps a more honest look into the killer’s mind than Nilsen himself ever quite did. Seemingly impassive, working only to establish his case, to destroy the evidence and the philosophical groundings of the prosecution’s case. And almost immediately after the case, acknowledging that it was more or less a play, a piece of theatre to keep people talking about him. A last chapter for his biography, a last roll of any available dice.

Still there was no remorse for his victims. Still he claimed to have taken their suffering into himself, and so only he could really speak for them. Still, he was an utterly amoral exhausting pain in the arse.

David Tennant, across the three episodes of Des, has established his power as an actor, perhaps more than ever before – which given the range of his previous performances really says a thing or two. There’s not a bad performance in the piece, with Daniel Mays shining as DCI Jay, Jason Watkins well meaning but somewhat creepy as Brian Masters, Ron Cook as more than the archetypal senior policeman as he sways in the wind throughout the Nilsen case, and Laurie Kynaston as Carl Stottor, who did not want to testify, but had to, and looked his killer, his saviour and his nightmare in the eye across a courtroom.

The script itself and the way it’s delivered on screen give a fundamental sense of Nilsen and his psychology, without ever going back to dwell or re-paint in actions the killings that put him where he ended up. But it’s important to remember not to celebrate him.

It’s harder to remember that when the crimes he committed are never shown, and when he’s played so compellingly by an actor of Tennant’s power to convince. But by occasional vignettes between Nilsen and Jay and Nilsen and Masters, and most importantly by the counterweight of Kynaston as Carl Stottor, the drama manages to take the shine off Nilsen’s fascination value, while still delivering an enthralling account of his arrest, his narrative, and his eventual end.

If you’re going to commit to watching only one drama series this year, you could do a lot worse than making it Des. Keep a weather eye on the narrative Nilsen would have wanted you to take from him, but most of the way, you can trust this production, its deft script, sharp direction and flawless performances, to take you where you need to go.

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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