Image: Screengrab/BBC/World Productions

Why the ‘queer side plot’ makes, rather than breaks, BBC’s ‘Vigil’

Disclaimer: spoilers ahead, don’t read on until after watching episode 6!

Just like many BBC crime dramas, Vigil combines a classic murder mystery plot with gripping detective work, intense flashbacks, and a strong-willed yet likable detective. However, for many viewers, their attention was steered away from the mystery of who murdered Craig Burke aboard HMS Vigil, and towards the relationship between Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) and Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie).

Silva and Longacre are detectives in the Scotland Police Service. When Craig Burke, a member of HMS Vigil (a nuclear deterrent submarine) is found dead, Silva is assigned to investigate. As Silva is airdropped aboard Vigil – into the heart of the underwater chaos – Longacre is assigned to investigate on land. The challenges and twists the detectives face are undoubtedly gripping. Scenes of submarine malfunctions and tense face-offs between the police and Navy left me (someone with no interest in the Navy) intrigued by the mystery closing in on the crew.

Murder mystery aside, the relationship between the two female detectives really gave Vigil a chance to shine. We go from gentle moments of the women slow-dancing and confessing their feelings for the first time, to an explosive fight where Silva is accused by Longacre of being ashamed of their relationship. These flashback scenes establish the course of a loving yet heated relationship.

The final three episodes feature such flashbacks more heavily. A glance at online reviews are enough to see that the ‘lesbian backstory’ sunk people’s opinion of the show like a rock. A Guardian article described the “soppy flashbacks” as a “flaw”, while the Telegraph said, “It might have worked – had there existed even a hint of a spark between the leads.” . Facebook and Twitter comments were less reserved with their criticism, with one user expressing that they were “Tired of the lesbian fest that Vigil has turned into.”

Do ‘soppy flashbacks’ really ruin a show? Sure, it’s possible. But is criticism of Vigil anchored in homophobia rather than genuine concern for the show’s plot? It certainly seems like it.

Do ‘soppy flashbacks’ really ruin a show? Sure, it’s possible. But is criticism of Vigil anchored in homophobia rather than genuine concern for the show’s plot? It certainly seems like it. Romantic side plots are hardly rare in BBC dramas. The Bodyguard. Line of Duty. Peaky Blinders. All well-loved dramas, featuring heterosexual romances between characters – all of which never found themselves so heavily targeted for criticism.

The addition of queer romance to a show can certainly be done wrong. Queerbaiting (when a show is marketed as LGBT+ oriented, but doesn’t come through with it), the ‘Bury your Gays’ trope (a tendency for queer characters to be killed off), and oversexualisation, specifically of lesbian relationships, are all frequent issues in LGBT+ media. Vigil succeeded in sailing right past each of these mistakes.

Not only do both queer women survive to the end, but the final episode features an emotional scene in which the two women reunite and confess their love. It’s hinted they will be able to adopt Poppy, the daughter of Silva’s ex-boyfriend who died, after a (suspiciously familiar) underwater tragedy. A happy ending for queer women on TV is rare. Yes, the scenes may be soppy, but the depth works for a show already tackling such an intense storyline.

A lesbian relationship, on BBC One, at a prime-time slot, is something to be celebrated.

We cannot forget the director’s effort to ensure her female leads were not oversexualised. Isabelle Sieb, director of episodes four to six, has spoken on Twitter about a scene where the women are in a bath together. She explains that she was careful to ensure the bath was big enough to cover Amy and Kirsten in bubbles. This was not only so the viewers could focus on the emotion of the scene, but also so that the actresses felt comfortable. Touches like this allow a level of depth to the queer scenes that may not be possible had the women been oversexualised. It gives the impression that these scenes exist for a reason, not just to look at the actresses’ pretty faces.

A Guardian article claimed that “A tad too much screen time was given to these interludes unless they somehow prove significant.” If by “significant” they mean showing major character development in the show’s lead detective, then I’d certainly say they did prove significant. When Silva is stuck in a torpedo tube, her memories of Longacre motivate her to fight for her life. 

We ultimately see how a life-or-death experience changed Silva and made her realise what was truly important in her life – her relationships with the people she loves, rather than her work. The ‘queer side plot’ gave the characters depth. It gave us a before and after, allowing us to see how such an experience can affect people.

A lesbian relationship, on BBC One, at a prime-time slot, is something to be celebrated. If Vigil’s ‘queer side plot’ wasn’t for you, that’s okay. But for many queer people, seeing ourselves represented on screen, in such a positive light, makes all the difference. It normalises our relationships, and as Isabelle Sieb beautifully demonstrates, it ultimately shows that LGBT+ people exist. They exist even in the most obscure situations, even hundreds of meters under the sea on board a perilous Navy submarine.

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