At first glance, BritBox’s A Confession seems to be a typical dramatization of a true crime story. The series stars Martin Freeman as Detective Superintendent Stephen Fulcher, who put his career and reputation on the line to solve a double murder. But there’s more going on under the hood of this particular drama.
The Uncounted Victims of Crime
A Confession does what many other true crime dramas attempt, with varying levels of success. It highlights that every murder has more than one victim. There is the person who has been murdered, of course. But murder also makes victims of that person’s friends and loved ones. They have to carry on with their lives, never fully escaping that loss and grief.
While Freeman is unquestionably the star of the series, it’s every bit as much about the journeys of two families who are looking for daughters who have gone missing. They may not realize at first that their paths are the same. It’s a tragic truth they’ll come to learn. But that’s one of the most aching facets of every missing person story. The questions. The hope. And then the moment when that hope goes away.
Those outside of that kind of unimaginable grief often believe that there is closure in the finding of a body and knowledge of the truth. And perhaps it does bring some type of closure. But knowing brings its own pain, in the depravation of hope that their loved ones really are okay somewhere. That they’re just lost somewhere. That one day, they may return home.
From the first episode, A Confession shows two mothers desperate to find their lost daughters. One knows (or at least suspects) her daughter has been the victim of foul play, though she still has hope her daughter will be found alive. The other believes her estranged, troubled daughter is merely lost but can be found. It is this dichotomy that makes the series at many times painful to watch. Karen Edwards, played by Imelda Staunton (in a role so emotionally compelling one quickly disassociates her from her prior role as Dolores Umbridge), watches Elaine Pickford (played by Siobhan Finneran) on the television, pleading for information about her missing daughter. And her natural response, “That poor woman,” is an unconscious separation from the other woman’s plight. Yes, her own daughter is missing, but it’s not the same. Surely, their daughters’ stories don’t have the same ending. Except they do.
Abduction (and possibly murder) is something that happens to other people. Not to us. And if there’s one thing A Confession makes one feel from the very first episode, it’s that – for some – this is merely a lie we tell ourselves. It’s hard not to watch parallel stories of mothers’ grief and not put ourselves in their shoes, to realize that this is tragically something that all too easily could happen to any one of us. Which makes this dramatization of a true story all the more terrifying.
An Ethical Conundrum
The law has always fascinated me. It’s why I became a lawyer. And having studied the law for several years, there are certain tenets to which I firmly adhere. One of those tenets involves what we owe to those accused of a crime. Due process. Miranda rights. The presumption of innocence. After all, the criminal justice system is imperfect at best. (And that’s understating things by a lot.) I believe that every person accused has the right to effective counsel because it’s the only way to even attempt to ensure the innocent are not the victim to miscarriages of justice. And, even still, exoneration statistics (at least in the United States) suggest that all too many innocent people pay for crimes they didn’t commit.
But A Confession reminded me that my study of the law is in many ways academic. If not theoretical. Which isn’t to say that I’m wrong to believe that there are standards to which the criminal justice system – in the United States or abroad – should adhere. The accused have rights. As they should. And every cog within the justice system has a duty to attempt to ensure that the innocent go free and it is only the guilty who are made to pay for their crimes.
That said, A Confession is a reminder that my ability to take a hard line on this subject is, in many ways, a privilege. I have never lost someone dear to me, and I hope I never do. But the series does make me step back and wonder at the strength of my convictions.
For the most part (and particularly since I usually avoid shows about unsolved crimes), I know the outcome of the true crime shows I watch. I may not know the culprit’s identity. But I at least know the fate of the victim involved. I know if they’re alive or dead. But when it comes to missing persons cases, that isn’t necessarily the case. It certainly isn’t the case for those living through the experience, having to wonder what happened to the person they loved. For however long that uncertainty might exist.
If I knew someone I loved to murder, would I still want the criminal justice system to adhere that hard line? Would I still demand they uphold every single right of the accused? I’d like to think I would still hold to my moral convictions. But what if, like at least one mother in this story, I didn’t know that my loved one was dead? What if there was still hope that they could be found alive, that they could be saved? If only someone could get to them in time?
It is a question I’ve been asking myself since I watched A Confession, and I’ll be honest that I’m not confident in my answer. I can only pray I never have cause to find out.
Ultimately, A Confession is true crime series that is well worth watching, even if it is somewhat unsettling for the questions it makes us ask of ourselves. And for those who want more behind-the-scenes details of how the perpetrator was caught, there’s an accompanying documentary, How to Catch a Serial Killer.