The other thing that bothers me: the show creates suspense and drama by invoking people’s biases and shitty assumptions.
Are we really supposed to believe that Dr. Macmillan killed the factory owner in “Death by Miss Adventure” (s1.10)?
Are we really supposed to believe that Arthur is the murderer in “Murder in the Dark” (s1.12)?
In both cases they’re innocent, and that’s good, but why are we expected to doubt them in the first place?
With Arthur it’s a really straightforward use of really shitty stereotypes, the ideas that anyone with any kind of mental difference may turn out to be a ~deranged murderer~, and that any kind of disability should inspire disgust and suspicion. When it comes to Mac, I feel like I have less justification for being upset, but still, Mac being a murderer should never have been a serious possibility– certainly not in the audience’s eyes, at least. But the show presents it like we should really wonder if she did it, and I can’t help but feel like it’s playing on an assumption that same-sex relationships are just not meant to be, that they mess people up and end in tragedy.
We shouldn’t need proof and a dramatic reveal to not feel all skin-crawly and suspicious about Arthur. We shouldn’t feel that way in the first place. We shouldn’t think that her attraction to women erases everything else we know about Mac.
This got pretty long, so I’m saving “Death by Miss Adventure” for the next post.
1. Arthur in “Murder in the Dark”
(a) Why doesn’t it make sense?
I. Let’s consider the murder that actually takes place during the episode, Marigold Brown, the girl found in the pool.
- She didn’t die by drowning, she was strangled and then put in the water
- Phryne didn’t find any signs of struggle near the pool, so she was carried some significant distance to be put there
There should be at least some doubt that Arthur would be physically capable of committing this murder. We know he walks with a limp, and has some difficulty holding a pen– does it seem likely that he could physically overpower this girl, strangle her, carry her some distance, and throw her into the pool, without splashing water all over himself or getting his clothes mussed?
In fact, on re-watching this episode, the very incident that makes Arthur seem the most dangerous also makes it clear that he’s not, physically, that dangerous. After the party, when
the guy in the pirate costume Guy Stanley is accusing Arthur of the murders and saying he should be put in an asylum– when Arthur is angry, and scared, and attacks him– Arthur grabs Guy’s throat, with one hand. If there were ever a time he’d use his full strength, you’d think that would be it, wouldn’t you? He’s being threatened with the very real possibility of being locked up indefinitely in a place that’s probably worse than some prisons, for a crime he didn’t commit. He has every reason to be both angry and terrified, and when he, understandably, lashes out, he can only do it with one hand.
It takes a while to strangle someone to death. Even if you’re strong enough to completely cut off their breathing, it takes a while– on the order of 3-4 minutes– for lack of oxygen to even begin to harm the brain. It takes a significant amount of strength and determination to actually strange someone to death.
Phryne and his other relatives, you’d think, would have had plenty of other, less stressful opportunities to know what Arthur can do and what he can’t. There’s no real reason for them to suspect him, and it would be easy for one of them to say at some previous point “Don’t think Arthur could have done it. You may not trust him, but he just isn’t strong enough.” But nobody does.
II. Where did he get the toffee apples from? I mean, they’re not something you’d have sitting around the house. They’re sticky. You eat them when they’re fresh. And Arthur mentions that he isn’t supposed to have candy.
Could he have somehow gotten them himself?
This is an assumption, but I doubt he’s allowed to come and go as he pleases, and even if he could sneak out, I doubt he gets given pocket money. More than that, if Arthur walked into a candy store, looking and acting the way he does, do you think the owner would treat him like any other customer? I suspect the average person’s thought process on seeing Arthur try to buy a toffee apple, even if he did have money, would be more like “This poor, confused [insert well-meaning but offensive term] has wandered away from his keeper. I’d better make sure he gets back where he belongs.”
(b) Why it’s really clearly shitty: the costume party
Why is he wearing a creepy wolf costume? Why is he writing people creepy notes?
Because he realized he’s not wanted at the party, so he needs a costume that hides his face. Because he and Jane were already planning to wear coordinating costumes– Hansel and Gretel– so now they’re still going to wear coordinating costumes, but as Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. When the (admittedly, truly creepy-looking) wolf waves at Jane at the party, she smiles and waves back and goes to join him– she clearly isn’t scared. She knows it’s Arthur. They must have planned this together. Yet the tremolo violins want us to think that Arthur-in-a-mask is totally sinister and creepy. When it’s clear that there must be someone else involved.
You could imagine that Arthur is acting as the murderer’s accomplice for some reason, luring Jane into danger. Except that we already know that Arthur recognizes the murderer as a murderer, as the person responsible for Marigold’s death and Phryne’s sister Janey’s disappearance. It doesn’t seem likely that he’d let that person convince him to do anything. And Arthur doesn’t want to harm Jane or anyone else, unless he’s been putting on an act both during this episode and for years (Aunt Prudence says he’s never gotten over Janey’s disappearance and still has nightmares about it.)
So, the immediate catalyst for everyone chasing off after Arthur is the envelope he put under Phryne’s door, which had Janey’s hair ribbon in it from the day she disappeared. There’s no reason that should put him under suspicion. It’s not news that he was there when Janey disappeared. He’s already said that he was there. I think Phryne has already mentioned that he was there.
Phryne says “It must be him,” thinking that the murderer sent her the ribbon, and the fact that several other people– Arthur and Aunt Prudence– were at both the scene of the disappearance and the party should contradict the idea that the murderer is in the house sending Phryne little envelopes. Arthur was friends with Janey and was devastated by her death. He would have picked up her ribbon for the same reasons Phryne kept the other one. It isn’t even that weird that he’d choose to give it to Phryne that day and in that manner, if you accept that he’s not likely to do it in a socially normal way. He’s been thinking and talking about Janey’s disappearance a lot lately, so it’s on his mind. He decides Phryne should have the ribbon as a keepsake– he may not know she has the other one. Replace Arthur with a hypothetical nondisabled cousin, who can take Phryne aside and quietly explain, “I found this the day Janey disappeared, I’ve kept it all this time, but now I think you should have it,” and it would be 0% weird. By no stretch of the imagination does it indicate that he’s the murderer. It just indicates that he doesn’t know how to have delicate conversations. Jack and Phryne act like it’s a shocking, scary revelation, but it isn’t suspicious and it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. (To be fair, Phryne keeps saying that Arthur wouldn’t hurt anyone, and she has reason to be shaken by anything related to Janey’s death, actual shocking revelation or no. But Jack’s response to “And Arthur was there” is to run off and search for him.)
There is absolutely no reason to think that Arthur is dangerous.
Unless you think his disability makes him inherently creepy.
That’s why I don’t think it’s particularly impressive that Arthur turns out to be innocent. It’s a step up from having him be a murderer, of course, but part of the plot literally does not make sense unless you allow “Arthur has an intellectual disability”–> “Arthur sometimes does slightly unusual things” to equal “Arthur is probably dangerous”. The show uses that stereotype, that bigotry, it encourages you to feel that way for a while, and although you turn out to be on the wrong track, it doesn’t say you were wrong to feel it in the first place.
This could have been a story about how Jack Is Wrong to suspect Arthur, but it’s not. Arthur’s wolf mask didn’t have to look as scary as it does. The background music certainly doesn’t need to go all dramatic high-pitched violin tremolo when Arthur appears on screen. The show wants us to feel like he’s dangerous, even though the facts of the story don’t support it. We’re supposed to feel that thrill of fear and disgust and creepiness, and then find out it wasn’t Arthur after all, and immediately refocus on tension about what the real murderer is doing. There’s nothing to tell us we should feel bad for suspecting Arthur, nothing to show it’s any more wrong than any other wrong lead. There’s no real explanation of his point of view and how he did what he did for innocent reasons, like you might expect from some kinds of mystery story– all this stuff I’ve said about why he’d give Phryne the ribbon and why he’d wear the wolf costume is reading between the lines. It makes perfect sense, and the foundation is there, but the show doesn’t put it together for you. You get to walk out of the theater, so to speak, with the impression that Arthur did a bunch of creepy things. All he actually did was have a disability. That’s not okay.