Iron Maiden

Helen Mirren, on the street in New York.Photo: Jake Chessum

I don’t want to spoil the triumphant return and weepy farewell of Helen Mirren as Chief Inspector Jane Tennison with too much plot. You need to know that she’s almost 60, her father is dying of cancer, her Scotland Yard boss wants her to retire, and her breakfast consists of a bottle of vodka. To determine who murdered a pregnant 14-year-old, this old gray head with the wasteland face must think her way to the monster through a labyrinth of lies. Lunatic parents, confabulating classmates, sanctimonious schoolmasters, trigger-happy street toughs, and the troubling shape of her own neediness torment the chief inspector unto Endgame. And we find that this final act is a genuine reprise and redeeming resolution of all that went before.

This is a Mirren less like her current Queen Elizabeth (to whom she imparted perhaps too much intelligence) than like one of Graham Greene’s whiskey priests who has chewed intelligence down to the end of its tether and then used the loop to hang himself. It is a great role, the best this wonderful actress has ever had—better than the Irish widow in Cal, or the Russian cosmonaut in 2010, or Mrs. King in The Madness of King George, or Ayn Rand in the cable-TV movie about the voracious novelist/philosopher/nut, or even the slithery Morgana in John Boorman’s Jungian version of Excalibur—and she occupies it as she has all her roles, as if by expropriation, with an apparent abandon that trusts an inner compass pointing toward magnetic poles of character.

We first met Mirren’s Jane in January 1992, when the old-boy network at New Scotland Yard found her guilty of being a woman, no longer young, nor ever glam, and not to be taken seriously. Her own father, whose birthday party she missed to appear on a crime-news TV show, was mystified by her workaholism. Of course, with her Grand Inquisitional skills at interrogation, she cracked the case. But what was remarkable about the first Suspect, besides Mirren’s splendid performance, was that a difficult woman was permitted to find more than enough satisfaction in her equally difficult job. Intellectual activity was its own reward, and an equal-opportunity employer too. Men have always been willing to sacrifice domestic comforts to the higher calling of some exact science, like farm foreclosures or carpet bombing. Jane played the same game.

In the second Suspect, trying not to reach for a cigarette after sex with a fellow Yard detective, Jane was thrust into the combustible politics of race and class when the decomposed body of a 17-year- old girl turned up in a backyard in a benighted Afro-Caribbean neighborhood. With both a by-election and a race riot in the offing, Jane had to sort through skull fragments, fallible memories, Yoruba amulets, and ambiguous images on a videotape of a reggae concert. What again astonished was the way she listened, as if her whole body were an exquisite ear, as if intelligence itself were a passionate, sexy sonar.

The third Suspect swam through the lower depths of London vice and the higher reaches of official corruption, where someone killed children. Fresh from another ruinous love affair, Jane entered a cesspool of tabloid journalism, corrupt social services, blackmail, suicide, homophobia, and aids, assuming responsibility for all the orphans in a burning world. She also decided to have an abortion.

This was the fourth Jane we saw in April 1995, having just emerged from the clinic to lead her now-loyal troops against anal-retentive shrinks, sleazy porn merchants, and the werewolf media, in order to find a missing baby girl. And she misconceived her entire investigation because a perfectly legal and straightforward medical procedure had thrown her into a funk. The baby had been killed by her distraught mother. An equally distraught Jane missed the telltale signs because—psychologically, intellectually—she had committed the same crime. The missing child was her own.

Tell it to Dr. Seuss. The first three Janes would have done their professional duty, then gone home to deal with her misgiving, that mix of relief and regret that attends every important adult choice. But on television and in the culture at large, the retreat from support for women’s reproductive rights had turned into a stampede. This Jane, Jane IV, I no longer trusted.

But the old Jane is back. What I can tell you, carefully, is that Prime Suspect: The Final Act incorporates and refines precious elements from all these previous hours—the father whose birthday Jane missed, the ghostly child who never was, the earliest nemesis at Scotland Yard, the satisfactions of a job well done, what music and art can do to allay loneliness and grief and what they can’t, why being an adult means living with your choices, how listening at full alert sounds the darkest depths, and the address of the nearest AA meeting. It’s like saying good-bye to Leopold Bloom.

Prime Suspect: The Final Act
PBS. Sunday, November 12, and Sunday, November 19, 9 p.m.

Iron Maiden