Rail station employee Ed (Timothy Spall) lives a humdrum life, dealing with all sorts of annoyances at work while also caring for a mentally ill son, trying to keep up a brave face and hold his family together while his condition worsens. One day, a mysterious passenger (Tuppence Middleton) asks for a ticket to Macon Heights, a place that doesn’t exist, promptly disappearing soon afterwards and, deciding to investigate, Ed boards the train and indeed discovers the hidden Utopia of Macon Heights. Ed desperately tries to discover what the place actually is but he also finds his reality drastically changing as he begins to see how different his life could have been.
“The Commuter” is a peculiar one; the episode has a bit of a slow start, it certainly doesn’t get “into the action” in the same way that the previous two episodes did, and for a certain amount of time, it doesn’t seem like Philip K. Dick in the slightest, more like an original creation which, while it may have its own merits, isn’t what we necessarily tune in for. Curious though it was, I spent a great deal of time wondering if it was actually heading anywhere, especially since it was heading into its final act without many answers; I was seriously expecting “the answer” to go completely over my head, the episode’s true meaning remaining unfathomable and baffling, no satisfying resolution in sight.
Thankfully though, the episode reached a very satisfying and affecting conclusion and, although the episode is a real puzzler, the eventual revelation is thought-provoking, imaginative and deep. It has a central theme of happiness and the idea of drastically changing your life, completely removing the parts of your life that cause you and your family distress, and all of this is brought that life remarkably well through Timothy Spall’s grounded performance and Jack Thorne’s (This is England) patient, unhurried writing.
Timothy Spall (looking unhealthy underweight these days, I think) is cast well in the role of Ed, the troubled train station employee whose mentally ill son is a source of great worry and pain. Spall does well in showing that “fake smile”, trying his best to put a brave face on things, making a few “dad jokes” as he struggles to guide his family through an awful time, but he also gets to genuinely smile as he experiences the hidden Utopia of Macon Heights and later on, he convincingly shows uncertainty, desperation, anger and unwavering love in a final scene which puts everything that came before into perspective; his final “decision” being incredibly brave and touching.
The episode is Spall’s show but the supporting cast is also great; the goooorgeous Tuppence Middleton (who I mentioned every week in my War and Peace reviews!) is confidently intriguing as the mystery woman who essentially becomes Ed’s guardian angel, Anne Reid puts in a brief appearance, and it was wonderful to see Hayley Squires on screen as a mysterious waitress, incredible as she was in last year’s I, Daniel Blake.
The design of the central hidden Utopia, Macon Heights, is praiseworthy as it is bright, colourful and brilliantly odd, a stark contrast to the grey, grim colours of the real world, especially highlighted by its first scene involving a re-used teabag! The episode also showcases a strange, otherworldly sci-fi “realm” located in an attic and elsewhere in the episode, there are a few gorgeously shot scenes containing some truly beautiful, tranquil colours, accompanied by a fine score from Harry Gregson-Williams, which also impresses when heard on Ed’s first trip to Macon Heights – it is appropriately angelic and otherworldly. Tom Harper, who has some excellent work under his belt having directed episodes of MisFits, Peaky Blinders and the This is England TV series (alongside Jack Thorne yet again), directs well and provides a fair share of trippy, dizzying camerawork as well as those lovingly crafted visuals and an altogether intriguing overall tone.
So while “The Commuter” doesn’t have the pizzazz of the previous episodes, sometimes not even seeming like Philip K. Dick at all, it does have an abundance of humanity, heart and character development. It’s a real headscratcher of an episode, a bit of a puzzler, but its purpose eventually becomes clear and so far, this has been the episode that has actually been ABOUT something, one with a message that has a meaningful impact, achieved through some solid, intelligent writing and an unshowy but powerful central performance.
Next week: Steve Buscemi, a synthetic woman and a heist.