Have you ever watched something and hated it? Sat on it for two days, watched it again, and loved it? That happened to me with And Then There Were None, a recent miniseries based on Agatha Christie’s standalone novel about a string of unsolved murders on a remote island.
The setting is sinister, and the events strange. A stranger invites eight guests to an island where they meet the cook and the butler, but not their mysterious host. Their host does not turn up in time for dinner, but midway through the meal, a record player booms a message through the house: all of them are murderers. How do they plead? Indignant, angry, and reactive, they demand of the butler to know all about it, but he knows nothing. No one does.
One of them keels over dead midway through the evening drinks. Then another. And another, as the hours pass in this remote place, with no way to access the mainland. At first, it seems like random accidents. But no, there’s a framed poem in every room. “Ten Little Soldiers,” and it outlines how each of them are to die. The question is, who is the murderer? Where are they hiding? Are their ‘accused crimes’ real? Will any of them get off the island alive?
Though I had read the novel many years ago, when I first encountered this miniseries, I found it… morbid. If you’ve seen it, you know why. If you haven’t, it’s a slow “horror” miniseries, a game of cat and mouse and “waiting” that sends a chill up your spine, because you know the clock is ticking for them all. The question isn’t who’s doing it, but who is going to die next. I’m going to spoil plot twists in my exploration of the psychological elements, so read at your own risk.
We find out all the people on the island are murderers who escaped justice, and at least a handful of them are remorseless sociopaths. Philip Lombard is the only one who doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. There are varying degrees of self-denial and callousness involved. Vera, the “heroine,” allowed a little boy to drown so his uncle, the man she intended to marry, could inherit a fortune. Lombard killed an entire village during his military service for personal gain. MacArthur shot his wife’s lover in the head during battle and blamed it on the enemy. Emily Brent’s militant morality caused her to turn a pregnant maid out of the house, leading to her death. A drunken Dr. Armstrong’s ineptitude on the operating table caused someone to bleed out. William Blore beat a man to death in custody. Anthony Marston ran over two kids in his car. The butler smothered his last employer to death for her money, and his wife did nothing to stop him. And Judge Wargrave sentenced many a man to death… and enjoyed it.
The book characters’ details of the crimes are different (for example, they made Blore beat a homosexual to death in the miniseries), but the outcome is the same. The series does a good job of building up your hatred for these people and helping you to see them as victims of a terrible evil stalking the rooms of the house. Since the law could not condemn them, someone has taken matters into their own hands, intent on melting out justice.
Often, people debate whether evil is inborn or built, if psychopaths are born wrong or develop antisocial traits. Most psychologists agree they lack specific traits, such as empathy, that enable them to have much concern for other people, but not all of them become murderers. This series and its characters shows the difference between the true sociopaths and psychopaths (Vera, Lombard, Marston, Emily Brent) and the “repentant” murderers who feel convicted, cry over their sins, or accept their punishment, as MacArthur does, with a sense of terrible resignation. For them, it was a crime of passion, disgust, or chance. In particular, Blore does not want to die. But the focus and the fear comes from their own immortality, not always a sense of remorse for their actions. Some, like Emily, go to her death, insistent she is not to blame. Vera tries to evade her death by persuading the unmasked murderer that he missed something, they can be of use to each other, that she fooled the trial court and jury once, she can do it again—and they can escape. Together. You need me.
The murderer is Judge Wargrave. As a man who oversaw hundreds of cases, trials, and executions, midway through the last execution, he looked into the eyes of a psychopath and ‘understood him.’ He saw them as ‘the same.’ But he had never given into the violent urges of the people brought to face his justice. Instead, he saved his ‘masterpiece’ of a crime for his retirement, for the moment the cancer was eating away at him. And planned the perfect crime. He even “died” early to throw everyone else off the scent, so he could move between them unnoticed. They suspected him the least, as the one of seemingly the most ‘virtue’ among them (an esteemed and respected judge). His crime includes killing himself and leaving the police with no answers: just ten bodies.
Wargrave is a fascinating depiction of a psychopath. He chooses for his victims people he believes escaped justice and ‘deserve’ to die. And he includes himself among them, either to fulfill his ‘ideal’ crime and make the unsolvable mystery notorious out of pride, or because he believed murder deserves death. Being a murderer himself, he too must pay the price. Charles Dance gives a mesmerizing performance alongside the rest of the talented cast, but a second viewing will show you just how clever and insidious Wargrave is. He plants suspicions and scares in other people’s minds. He leads them down the wrong path, and manipulates their emotions. Like the devil in their midst, pretending to be a paragon of virtue. A true depiction of the truth that you can never trust appearances.
Most of us like to live in the comfort of assuming ourselves good. Better than the generations that came before us, because we do not own slaves or believe the earth is flat. We delude and flatter ourselves in thinking we would, somehow, have managed not to get caught up in holy wars or the Nazi Party. But MacArthur did not know the day he found a letter from his wife in another man’s pocket that he was going to become a murderer. Nor did Blore intend to beat a man to death when he got up that morning. These crimes were not planned, but reactive. Angry, evil choices.
Everyone is capable of evil. Anyone can make a split second decision and go from the road of virtue into the ditch of wickedness. There are psychopaths, but there are also “everyday people,” trying to cover up their sins. Those who let rage get the better of them, or think themselves better than another person and more worthy to live. Deep down, there’s a shadow inside us all that wants to wreak havoc in our lives. If we let it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors and writing novels about them, caring for her beloved cats, running a MBTI typing blog, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.