I'm a sucker for True Crime podcasts, in fact in my last job I got a few of my colleagues into listening to these podcasts. We would go over each gory detail from the latest episodes during our lunch hour as we sat out in the sun by the Leeds Art gallery. I know, bougie as hell of a setting but trust me when I say none of us actually fit the bill if one was to try to fit us into the bougie box. Anyway I digress... So bit of an update (read that as justification) to how I have suddenly found the time to be bingeing on tv series, I mean in the last month alone I've probably smashed through entire seasons of 5 new shows, some of which left a lot to be desired and we shall not name them in this here review (COUGH with an OBVIOUS side eye** - BRIDGERTON!!). I've had time because we are in our third lockdown here in the UK. In fact who am I kidding, an extended first lockdown actually, since March 2020. A little break here and there to give us, the people, and Boris with his bad hair some breathing space, complete with the mandated 6 feet social distancing plus mask of course.
One of the shows that I have just begun watching is called Truth Be told (I know, dear reader, Captain Obvious here as you probably already knew I was going to write about it based on the half-assed attempt with the very engaging title to this review. Please understand lockdown is engaging the very creative core of my being so my writing this is enough.) To be honest anything with Octavia Spencer in it will always be on my watch list. Granted some of the roles have done her dirty (I'm looking at you MA) but I'm always super excited to watch any of her work. Also whilst it's based on the book - Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber, it's supposedly inspired by Sarah Koenig's podcast - Serial. Serial's season 1 was based on the case for the murder of Hae Min Lee by her boyfriend Adnan Syed, it was literally my go-to listen for my runs. I mean I was prepping for a half marathon in 2019 and it would be my playlist for my long runs, Season 2 & 3 are equally as amazing as Season 1, it made me appreciate True Crime podcasts at a whole new level. If you haven't listened to it, I highly recommend that you do.
Truth Be Told - Octavia Spencer (Image credit - IndieWire)
Anyway, backstory on what the show is ultimately going to be about - Octavia Spencer plays Poppy Parnell who is a seasoned Investigative Journalist with over 20 years experience in the game and has even won a Pulitzer Prize for her work. She has however left her successful career and now has an award winning True Crime podcast where she talks about cases she's worked on, the episodes always being about other people and never about her. However new evidence for the case that actually propelled her career to the status of media sensation has recently come to light and so she now wants to reopen the murder case and help prove the killer, Warren Cave's (played by Aaron Paul) innocence.
Ok heads up - if you've read any of my other reviews (there isn't many so don't get too excited!) you'll know that I don't do the scene by scene or chapter by chapter breakdowns. I'm more about the what excited, angered, saddened or dead-ass bored me. So that's what I'm going to do about this first episode review. Will I do a review for the remaining episodes, I don't know. Maybe I will or maybe I won't, please stop judging me I am living through a pandemonium!!!
First thing that literally had me sit up and pay attention was the quote that Poppy says during a talk she gives where she's discussing the changing landscapes of American journalism and it goes,
"As long as a journalist tells the truth, in conscience and fairness, it's not his job to worry about consequences. The truth is never as dangerous as a lie in the long run. The truth is the only guide."
Listen, I'm always for the nuances and the layers because my life is made up of layers of complex compressed together so when a show begins with that kind of heavily loaded monologue, you know you have my undivided attention and this is only 5 minutes in at this point. This talk follows on from the scene where we see Warren Cave's lawyer being told that their motion to have a new case opened for him was denied. Poppy also meets Warren's mother, Melanie Cave who is played by Elizabeth Perkins, in the courtroom and it's quite intense and clearly unsettles Poppy and so that quote being used for Poppy to say at that specific point in the episode is so powerful and is such clever timing. The domino effect of the interaction between Poppy and Melanie influences her decision to create a series for her podcast where she explores the possibility of Warren's innocence which meant she would need to speak to him in person. To do this she knows she has to enlist the help of his mother, Melanie. There's a scene where she's at this woman's driveway and they have a bit of a back and forth dialogue and some strong words exchanged. But there's a moment of empathy from Poppy when she realises Melanie's health condition, due to her own mother dying from it which breaks down the barriers that exists between them. And this is how Poppy gets her first visit to Warren in prison.
Before the prison visit, we meet Poppy's husband, Ingram Rhodes who is played by Michal Beach. His character is affable and typical of a supportive husband. We are also introduced to Poppy's two sisters and her Dad at mass. All very different personalities but you can immediately tell that they're close and that they all love their Dad which I think was great to highlight because too often we have tv shows with the stereotype of Black women and absent fathers. It's tiresome and pushes the narrative that dysfunction only exists in the Black realm, when we all know good and well that dysfunction is a part and parcel of every family regardless of race, religion or creed. But let me backtrack a little bit here because I feel like this is important, they kind of let you know that Poppy's Catholic faith is an aspect of her character that they want us to understand from very early on. There's a scene where she wakes up in the early morning after the hearing and she's standing in front of a picture which I believe is of her mother and her as a child. In the background is a stained glass window with two doves placed diagonally from each other. Will the significance of the doves in a stained glass window in her home make more sense later on? I don't know. There's a candle which at that time didn't make sense to me because it's like one of those long taper candles you'd see in churches and it's the way she puts the flame out that makes it seem like she had been praying. Before she puts the candle out, she picks the picture of her and her mom up and there's a card that she holds that the camera pans to which reads -
"Your heart will always tell you what's right. Listen to it. - Momma"
So yeah there's a whole lot of loaded innuendos that are laying the groundwork for what she is about to get into, that is, her initial meeting with Warren Cave and whether he will be open to working with her. Octavia Spencer does a brilliant job of exuding the anxiety and the trepidation that her character must feel leading up to the visit. You see her in the car and she takes great care in removing any identifying jewellery and even wiping off makeup and tying her hair back. I don't know if this is intentional in terms of not wanting to distract Warren Cave from just focusing on the task at hand when they do meet.
The first meeting is electrifying... for want of a better word. I use electrifying because Warren's monologue when he addresses Poppy to question her motives and her agenda in wanting to help him is sharp and confronting. He puts her on the spot when he tells her that he know she's lying and it's what he says that drives the knife home into Poppy
"I live in a house full of men who breathe to lie."
And it's the way he says it to her and how it exposes the internal conflict she is feeling regarding her role in putting this man away for life, for a crime that he might not have committed. The meeting does not end well as she finds out that he is now a Nazi and that for her was the deal breaker.
Truth Be Told - Octavia Spencer & Aaron Paul (Image credit - IndieWire)
The episode moves on to a confrontation between Poppy and Melanie. Poppy is understandably distraught that Melanie did not disclose his becoming a Nazi. She responds that Warren was not the monster that Poppy had seen at the prison, that he was still the 17 year old boy that she had lost 20 years ago to prison. She also reminds Poppy that,
"There's a monster inside every one of us and his was unleashed in prison."
Poppy seems close to her sister Desiree who is played by Tracie Thoms and it's no surprise that she is the first person Poppy goes to for advice after her confrontation with Melanie. She is the owner (I believe) of the bar or maybe manager, you don't really know what she is to the bar but what you do know is that she is in charge. They have this dialogue outside the bar which is prepping for their father's birthday celebrations, about the dilemma that Poppy has regarding Warren being a Nazi. She tells Desiree that she feels like it is her duty to help free Warren and says,
"I built my career on that boy's back!"
But Desiree responds,
"And a country was built on ours, now what?!"
This line had me clutching my chest and just thinking, preach my sister, preach!
There's other smaller back stories happening as well in the background that adds to what is happening on the forefront of this story which I feel is just as important. Like Poppy's father's reaction to her in the bar later that same evening, he seems disoriented and his wife, Poppy's stepmother, doesn't seem phased by his behaviour. By the way, quick side note, Poppy's stepmother is younger than her but they all seem to co-exist well enough together so you don't feel like there is tension. Or if there is they seem to make it clear that they are all grown folks and can live peacefully in their own lanes. Anyway back to the interaction between Poppy and her Dad, it feels like it might be early onset dementia but we probably won't know till later in the season so let's table that theory for now.
We also get introduced to the victim's daughter, Lanie Burhman who is played by Lizzy Caplan. She's a death doula which for me is nothing new but I feel like in the series it's used for the shock factor because they categorically state that it is a birth doula but for death. I say its nothing new because those of us from Indigenous backgrounds might recognise it as what we do anyway when we have elderly family members that are going to die. We tend to go visit and start to more or less say our goodbyes, we understand that death is the next natural phase of life (Just to point out, this doesn't mean we don't grieve because we grieve too, we are human after all.). It seems like it's the new thing that white people will pay for, so for me it was kind of funny seeing it and didn't really have the impact that it would have on a viewer seeing a murder victims daughter now helping people deal with death. There's a sex scene of her with the grandchild I believe of the person who was dying, I didn't get the relevance of that until in the next scene where Poppy accosts her outside of her home. We see her husband and daughter come of the house and it's like hmmmm are the writers trying to get us to have a bias against her from the get go because ultimately the reason Poppy wants to help Warren is because they have video footage from before the trial where it is evident that Lanie was coached in the interview with the police to say that she had seen Warren running from their home on the night her father was murdered and that more or less sealed the case against him. The episode ends with Poppy going back for a second visit and laying down the rules for Warren with regards to how she would help him and Warren coming to the decision that he will work with Poppy to prove his innocence.
One last thing that I feel I should add on why I love this episode. For me personally what sets the tone for the rest of the season is how dark skinned women and men are celebrated in this first episode. They have speaking roles and are main characters rather than being relegated to the background or not appearing at all. Poppy's father is also a biker and so you have these Black bikers in the bar during his birthday celebration who are just living their best lives. It's great to see how they address these stereotypes so well so that it doesn't come off cliché.
Will I watch the second episode you may ask, you can bet on it! Will I write about it? Not sure, maybe... If my kids will allow me the time to do it.
Fijian In The UK writer Isabella Naiduki