Duncan Greive watches as Ferndale endures a hostage crisis on a Christmas cliff for the ages.
They’ll never beat the truck. That’s the yardstick against which all of Shortland Street’s Christmas cliffhangers will be measured, and invariably come up short. It was the first time the show embraced the dramatic tension afforded by a break, and had the immense advantage of our complete unpreparedness as a nation for the moment when a semi careened into reception and robbed Kirsty from Lionel and Carmen from Guy.
Every cliffhanger since has lived in its shadow, as we know something big coming – we just don’t know what. There’ve been drivers drunk and drugged, killers serial and spree, comas and kidnappings and many car crashes. It took until last year for a true miscalculation, when the show thought we’d had enough of Christmas chaos and gave us a lame yuletide strip tease instead.
Ratings tanked, and are still suffering to an extent. Hence what we saw on Monday – the most chilling episode in the show’s history, an eruption of bloodshed dominated by a hostage crisis and punctuated with a whodunnit.
It began so innocently. Boyd and Harper on the Te Atatu Peninsula, standing in for Ferndale north, looking back towards the city. He on a motorcycle, she on the wings of doubt. They were to be married the following day, and after a few minutes of reassurance from her groom, the bride’s fears were banished.
The bulk of the first half of the episode was dedicated to a story of a fairly prosaic kind of criminality. Nurse Margaret had gotten caught up in some classic invoice fraud, and the bald and brooding Dancing With the Stars bore Ben Barrington, aka Dr Drew McCaskill, had figured out her scheme.
Drew’s rage seethed, squeezed out through clenched teeth. Margaret’s son Curtis, an ex-con like his mother, responded with implausible excuses – “your account’s probably been hacked. Did you think of that?”– and thinly-disguised threats. Elsewhere in the hospital the key dramatic storyline lay, its hat pulled low, skulking through the wards.
Gareth Hutchings. Ageing white man. Misunderstood loner. Disenfranchised father. Gun nut. He was armed and angry, eventually finding Drew, the man he blamed for his estrangement from his daughter. He screwed on a silencer and put a pair into Barrington, who lay in a puddle of plasma while the rest of Ferndale readied for a society wedding, or busied itself with a Christmas party in the caf.
At this point we’d burned maybe 45 of our 90 minutes, and the episode was flagging a little, having spent too much time getting into position and not nearly enough time shooting. Even when Hutchings bumped into the platinum blonde and deeply tanned nurse Kylie Brown and took her hostage, we never really felt the peril.
The pair blundered around in plain sight, while bumbling security guards and blundering cops kept letting him get away. It was Ferndale at its most cartoonish: aiming for drama and hitting comedy. Normally this is one of the show’s charms, and one its very aware of. It’s just not something you want for Christmas.
This period abruptly ended when Hutchings stumbled into the café. He saw the families, and the horror on their faces, and decided to hunker down and take them hostage. The scene was ugly, and unflinching: he shot an old man who groaned sadly while he bled out in front his son, granddaughter and her newborn.
The Coopers, the middle New Zealand battlers who’ve replaced the too-posh Warners as the central familial force of Shortland Street, were united in grief, fear and anger.
Not that they could do anything about it. To make matters worse, the dashing, faultless Boyd was in their midst, having returned to the hospital to retrieve his wedding rings. They had been left at the hospital by Chris Warner, now a mummified corpse of his once-dashing self, but not so old he can’t advance the plot.
As the episode elevated to its closure, with concern and an Armed Offenders Squad outside the hospital and abject fear within, we were treated to a masterful ending. An impromptu wedding at the now empty venue, by a pair of young lovers oblivious to the terror across town. A celebrant willing, and Sol3 Mio – singing from their new album On Another Note, creating perhaps the finest piece of product placement in our television history – more than able to serenade them.
The final minutes saw the trio put the opera into our soap, just as the café siege reached its climax. The moment Hutchings was about to take poor Bella’s baby as a human shield, a group of brave men and women rushed the gunman.
Shots rang out. Bullets flew without aim but with deadly potential. True terror, with Shortland Street typically adroit in casting its terrorist.
The episode wasn’t done. A few floors up a gloved hand reached down, picked up a bloody silenced pistol, and finished Drew off for good in brilliant Ferndale-noir style.
Fade to black, and the annual silent, solemn Christmas credits. Then it was time for the true masterpiece of every recent cliffhanger – the oblique, Lynchian promotion for the summer season, produced by TVNZ’s Black Sands commercial bureau. Each year they spend as long as the soap does on a week’s worth of episodes to make a few promos. And every time it’s a triumph.
So was the episode as a whole – making up for a misstep last year with a tense, ripped-from-the-headlines horror which should return those lost viewers to the unjustly maligned and now revitalised soap juggernaut.
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