Vigil series two review: Without the submarine, this Suranne Jones thriller has lost its way

Way back in 1950, the great American crime writer Raymond Chandler authored an essay on the current state of thriller writing. “When in doubt,” he wrote, “have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” Chandler was sending up a tawdry trend among his contemporaries, but the snippet came to define his oeuvre too. Men with guns were, after all, frequently coming through his doors. And if the second season of BBC One’s Vigil is anything to go by, this approach hasn’t gone out of fashion in 75 years.

After a demonstration, in Scotland, by a weapons manufacturer goes horrifically wrong, resulting in several casualties, DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) is brought in to investigate. She partners up, in more ways than one, with her pregnant girlfriend Kirsten (Rose Leslie). “It’ll probably mean we have to stop holding hands when we get there,” Kirsten observes, as they embark on a mission that will take them from the Scottish Highlands to the (fictional) Middle Eastern state of Wudyan. Among the suspects in the investigation are Dougray Scott’s stern military bod Marcus Grainger, David Elliot’s rogue veteran Ross, Romola Garai’s plummy squadron commander Eliza, and Sabi (Hiba Medina) the daughter of a missing man whose login credentials were used to hijack the killer drone.

When the first series of Vigil aired in 2021, it filled the scheduling gap opened up by the end of Jed Mecurio’s Line of Duty. Created by Tom Edge (whose eclectic CV includes the Oscar-winning biopic Judy, the sitcom Lovesick, and the Beeb’s adaptations of the Cormoran Strike novels), it saw Jones’s detective boarding a submarine to solve the murder of the chief petty officer. The claustrophobia of the subaquatic setting evoked the island location of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None or the snowbound suspects of Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman. But while Vigil’s second season is still a notional whodunnit, the canvas is more sprawling. Amy is packed off to the desert (“They put gay people in prison,” her daughter laments) and Kirsten is left to stalk the streets of Glasgow.

What Vigil does well is tension. There is always another twist, another character ready and willing to point a gun at our protagonists. But the characterisation is thin: Amy is demonstrably competent and somewhat austere, while Kirsten is a bit more impulsive, fractionally less measured. The show is far more invested in the twisty machinations of the military-industrial complex. “We’ve a multibillion-dollar contract on the line,” growls the arms dealer, Derek (Steven Elder), as Amy sticks her nose into their work. This is a world in which lives are cheap but ending those lives is a lucrative business.

What gets lost, in this attempt to wrestle geopolitical concerns into a six-part mystery narrative, is simplicity. Like so many British shows of this ilk (Bodyguard, COBRA or The Capture) it succumbs to over-complication. Much of the technological detail sounds like gobbledegook (“GPS is easy to spoof,” scoffs an analyst, explaining how the RPAS data is cloned – whatever that means) and the web of transcontinental interpersonal relationships becomes increasingly tangled. Terrorism, LGBT+ issues, PTSD: all are thrown into the mix, like blending a variety of, individually nutritious, vegetables to create an undrinkably thick smoothie.

Where the first season of Vigil could always fall back on its basic premise – giving its detective no means of escape – this second outing finds it harder to sustain tension. The first episode’s cliffhanger involves a rifle aimed at a character, the second episode ends with a knife being pointed at a character, the third episode concludes with a revolver being pointed at a character. You get the idea; it is a cheap trick designed to confect tension because the narrative, otherwise, is not generating that friction itself. “I want answers!” Amy demands, on the Al Shawka airbase, but the answers themselves are not that interesting. What’s more interesting – to the show’s writers, at least – is that Chandleresque overreliance on the threat of death.

What made Vigil distinctive – what made it gripping – was its setting. It might have stretched credulity to squeeze Suranne Jones onto another submarine for this second outing, but given how preposterous this Arabian sequel is anyway, it might have been advisable. Twists and turns are all well and good, but, eventually, you’ll lose your sense of direction.