The Hero’s Journey in “A Confession”

Less than halfway through ITV’s true crime miniseries A Confession, the cop catches the killer. After hours of building a rapport with cigarettes and the usual good cop routine, he even draws out the titular confession. The killer guides the cop and his squad to the pretty English countryside where he dumped the body. Out of nowhere, the killer then casually asks: “Do you want another one?” The answer to that question will briefly make the cop a hero before it will ruin his career forever.

Martin Freeman plays the cop, Detective Superintendent Steve Fulcher, whose investigation into the disappearance of 22-year-old Sian O’Callaghan in Swindon, Wiltshire puts him on the trail of the perpetrator: Christopher Halliwell (Joe Absolom), a 47-year-old taxi driver and father of three. So far, a typical starting point to a typical crime drama. Once the perpetrator is caught, the second half of the six-part series becomes a study of the consequences when morality and law collide.

True-crime aficionados will be familiar with the adage that the first 72 hours are the most crucial in missing person investigations — and the likelihood of the person being found decreases with each passing hour. Fulcher obviously knows this too. “I don’t do this to find dead bodies,” he tells his wife. “I’ve got to believe I can save her, haven’t I?” Five days into the search, he still believes Sian is alive. Worried any delay will further reduce her chances of survival, he decides to take a big risk. He arrests Halliwell, who eventually confesses to not just murdering Sian but another woman named Becky Godden-Edwards.

However, Fulcher secures the confession without bringing Halliwell to the local police station, without clearly informing him of his rights to maintain silence, and without a solicitor present despite his repeated insistence on it. This deliberate violation of police protocol made Halliwell’s confession inadmissible in court and ultimately jeopardised Fulcher’s own career. It thus raises the age old question about ends justifying the means, especially in circumstances where what you think is legally right and morally right are not the same thing.

Be it in the movies or on TV, we’re all used to seeing cops frequently breaking the law to enforce it. The Dirty Harrys and Vic Mackeys have been glorified as heroes. But in the wake of George Floyd’s death, we’ve come to realise how they played a part in normalising police misconduct. A Confession highlights another grey area in the justice system: No doubt Fulcher took the law into his own hands, but he did it believing a woman’s life was at stake. The harsh penalty he faces for violating police regulations makes you wonder if cops should be allowed to circumvent them in certain circumstances. But the question remains: where do you draw the line?

A Confession isn’t just Fulcher’s story. It is also the story of the families of the two young women whose lives were cruelly cut short. There’s Sian’s mother Elaine (Siobhan Finneran), who dreads having to be “that terrified family.” While making a public appeal for her daughter’s safe return at a press conference, she wonders who among them will “cry on cue.” Then there’s Karen (Imelda Staunton), who hasn’t seen her daughter Becky for over eight years. Nonetheless, she still believes she will return home. On what would have been her 29th birthday, she has a cake baked and ready, and lights the candles as the doorbell rings. But it’s not Becky, it’s the police confirming her worst fear.

With Halliwell’s confession ruled inadmissible, the subsequent trial sees him charged only for Sian’s murder, but not Becky’s. While Elaine withdraws from the spotlight to focus on mending her broken family, Karen launches a dogged campaign to win justice for her daughter. Becky struggled with drug addiction and was a sex worker when she was abducted and killed by Halliwell. Considering sex workers are constantly dehumanised in the eyes of the law, the public and the killers, Karen must fight a larger battle against a system which judges the victim, rather than the criminal — a system which treats the lives of the marginalised as less worthy than those in “more respectable” professions. Even Elaine is outraged over her daughter and Becky’s names being mentioned in the same breath. She fails to see that Becky too is a girl with a mother torn between fear and hope.

This brings us to another ambiguity that families of missing persons are forced to suffer: they’re trapped in a limbo between grief and loss, the hope for a reunion and the hope for just any resolution. When Becky’s body is discovered but not yet identified, the police officer informs Karen they’ve received over 600 calls from people all over the country hoping it is their daughter. It is hard not to imagine 600 mothers hoping for some measure of closure. It’s an unimaginable nightmare being in the dark as it slowly dawns on them that they may never see their child again. Karen sustains her optimism for eight years, only for it to be quashed in one crippling moment of truth. The resolution comes a lot sooner for Sian’s family but it’s still heart-breaking. When Sian’s boyfriend is brought in to positively identify her body, he says, “I was hoping they’d made a mistake. Right up until the last moment, I was hoping, somehow, they’d got the wrong person.”

At its bedrock, A Confession is a quality crime drama.