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The killer in AMC+’s new drama Ragdoll attracts the attention of the London police through a particularly gruesome MO: He has fabricated and carefully positioned a murder victim cobbled together from the bits and pieces of six murder victims, leaving the authorities to solve a half-dozen killings while at the same time trying to work their way through a kill list of six future targets.
It’s one of those head-scratching things where, after watching three episodes of Ragdoll, I’m truly not sure if Freddy Syborn (Killing Eve), adapting Ragdoll from the novel of the same name by Daniel Cole, recognizes that he’s making a metaphor rather than a TV show. There’s no question that the Ragdoll Killer has a particularly creepy methodology, nor that Ragdoll as a TV series has enough unnerving moments to satisfy impressionable devotees of the genre. At the same time, impressionable devotees of the genre are the ones most likely to recognize that the show is, itself, a patchwork of far more than six familiar serial killer movies and TV shows. Its only original aspect is the often chaotic stitching together of the familiar elements. Think Criminal Mends, if you’re a thread devotee.
Airdate: Thursday, Nov. 11
Cast: Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Thalissa Teixeira, Lucy Hale
Creator: Freddy Syborn; based on the book by Daniel Cole
Before we meet the Ragdoll Killer, we have to meet the Cremation Killer, who sets his victims on fire or something before he’s caught by Detective Sergeant Nathan Rose (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) and then set free because Rose cut corners in pursuit of the case. Rose’s ethical compromises and their aftermath leave him so damaged that he attacks the Cremation Killer in court and then spends time in an asylum working his way through PTSD of various sorts.
Rose returns just in time to join the Ragdoll case, which is convenient given that the body was found in an apartment building directly across from his own. It’s extra convenient because many of the body parts seem to belong to people connected to the Cremation Killer, and extra extra convenient because the names on Ragdoll’s kill list conclude with…Nathan Rose.
Rose is rusty as a detective and generally emotionally rusty, but he returns to work, partnered with former protege Detective Inspector Emily Baxter (Thalissa Teixeira) and with Detective Constable Lake Edmunds (Lucy Hale), who is gay and American because somebody realized that this particular patchwork needed more audience-spanning elements.
Syborn has some commentary he wants to work through here, reaching for but never quite finding genuine humor amid the pile of dismembered limbs. There’s some talk about the entrenched patriarchy of British law enforcement, driven largely by Edmunds monologuing about her graduate studies, which serve as the weak rationale for her presence among the London police. There are jokes about the British tabloid press and the need to fetishize and build brands around serial killers. None of this is perceptive, nor will most viewers especially care about the occasional lecturing.
There’s an interpretation of Ragdoll in which Rose’s self-flagellation is reflective of a genre taking itself to task for its fascination with the inner workings of the serial killer mind. But I don’t think the show is that smart, in part because Ragdoll is positively giddy about the killer’s convoluted machinations, which are incredibly personal and calculating to an exhausting degree. He’s Hannibal Lecter meets Jigsaw meets Zodiac meets John Doe from Seven, a combination of so many near-psychic killers engaged in so many games of cat-and-mouse with so many different detectives that he’s never at any point scary or disturbing on his own.
All the excessive business renders moot any attempt to play along with the mystery. You’re supposed to invest instead, I guess, in the partnership at the show’s center. But other than forced banter, there isn’t much there. Lloyd-Hughes, most recently seen going through similarly traumatized motions as Sherlock in Netflix’s short-lived The Irregulars, is interestingly drained and twitchy. It’s hard to tell if Ragdoll has forgotten to illustrate Rose’s capabilities as a detective or if that omission is just another expression of his rustiness, but Lloyd-Hughes is workably sarcastic and mopey.
Ragdoll does more for Hale as a professional realignment — a less stylized palate cleanser after shows where cinematographers got lost in her eyes — than Hale’s presence does for Ragdoll. That’s mostly the fault of the series’ writing choices. Hale is every bit as convincing as the scripts let her be, and she has a chirpy energy — toned down, though, from Life Sentence or Katy Keene or Pretty Little Liars — that benefits the show. Also underwritten is Teixeira’s Baxter, who quickly became the character I wanted to see more of, if only because of how little we’d been given.
It’s basically irrelevant but probably nods to the show’s general failure to generate any group chemistry that two Ragdoll characters go out for karaoke in an early episode and neither is onetime American Juniors finalist Hale.
AMC+ is promoting the producing connection between Ragdoll and Killing Eve, but the clever self-awareness that lets Killing Eve upend so many genre tropes is exactly what’s in short supply on Ragdoll. Well, that and a central relationship worth following. Killing Eve has generally been afraid to imagine what it would be without Eve and Villanelle at its center, and Ragdoll suggests that it has been correct to set aside narrative common logic to protect its unlikely core duo. The result in their absence is simply underwhelming, derivative and dour.
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