Contains extremely mild spoiler.
Pick up a set of Nordic Noir stylistic themes, add some seasoning from a famous local real-life case, mix and drop into the middle of the Ardennes. Result: the Belgian ten-parter Public Enemy which considers big ethical questions and wraps it up in a fast-paced and involving plot.
The premise is that serial killer Guy Béranger (Angelo Bison) is released on parole into the care of the monks at Vielsart Abbey and a federal agent, Chloe Muller (Stéphanie Blanchoud). The villagers nearby are none too impressed, and nor are many of the monks. Tourism and development opportunities dry up and a general fear descends on the village. Feelings are running high even before children begin to die.
The exploration of a dynamics of a small settlement in which children go missing is a little Broadchurch and the damaged cop comes from everywhere from Hinterland to Midnight Sun. (Look out also for possible shout-outs to Casino Royale and The West Wing’s ‘Two Cathedrals’.) But these aspects never feel clichéd or over-played and that’s partly because of the abbey backdrop but also some fine tension and dynamic between Béranger (a complex but largely unsympathetic character), Muller, and the brothers Lucas (Clément Manuel) and Patrick (Philippe Jeusette) Stassart.
Where this series breaks free of its counterparts is its focus on three key ethical dilemmas.
First, we look at the relationship between the rights of the individual and the ability of the community to live in peace. Second, we consider the idea of ‘forgiveness’, or whether an individual can really pay their debt to society or indeed reform themselves. This is explored through the arguments that ripple through the abbey but also through the back stories of Muller and others. Both points of view are put and the viewer is free to make up their own mind. Perhaps Lucas’ emergence as the moral centre of the series does point the viewer towards a ‘preferred’ option though the conclusion is not foregone as he goes through considerable inner turmoil, particularly in the second half of the series. The villagers, too, are on a slightly different journey, though when a vigilante group decides to act, it’s easy to dismiss them as ignorant hotheads, manipulated by degenerates. There are times (especially when rituals and superstitions are under the microscope) you wonder whether the series is really making the point that village life is at worst lawless and at best not very sophisticated and truth can be found only in settlements that are the size of towns or larger.
Finally, there is plenty of consideration of what it is to be loyal, how we choose to whom to be loyal and what the consequences of those choices can be.
The show doesn’t develop all its characters equally: this is an advantage as it gives the space for some of them to really flower and for us to empathise with them as they struggle with their choices. As one conflicted character sinks from their ambitious and family-centred existence to become a howling bundle of incoherent rage, we feel for them as we have been alongside them through every step.
‘We became the monsters,’ says one of the characters in the denouement: they are right, yet most of the characters in this drama are recognisable. If they are monsters then we know that we, the rest of us, are only a few steps away. Given what we know at the end, the relatively high body count gives an indication as to the fragile nature of a society that feels under siege.
Expect the usual slow burn for the first couple of episodes before a rapid escalation of pace and an especially thrilling and emotional final pair of episodes. Don’t miss it.