1 December 2022

Donkerbos episode 1 recap: Under the rot

This crime drama begins, as the title suggests, in the dark woods. A young boy with long hair tears through the bushes. He looks back and shouts, “No!” at his unseen pursuer. In horror movie style, though, he stumbles, falls and injures himself, puncturing his abdomen on a sharp branch. As he slumps against a tree he asks, “Why are you doing this… I trusted you, you, you…,” and he dies, gasping for air, with blood spilling from the fatal wound.

After a fade to black and the title, we meet Detective Stephanie “Fanie” van Wyk, who’s lying in bed, wide awake, sleepless and restless. She takes a peek at her snoozing hubby, Jaco (Jacques Bessenger), and gets out of bed to check on her son, Kallie (Steph van der Merwe). Before leaving his room she taps a morse code message on his door frame, and the camera focuses on his hand as he signs a reply while still seemingly fast asleep (read more about it here). Fanie ventures out of the house, retrieves her stash of cigarettes and lights up, but just as she exhales her first drag, a police siren is heard. Viewers are transported to a crime scene, and the mystery begins.

Watch the trailer for Donkerbos

Pyjamas off, police uniform on, Fanie takes charge of the scene, where we meet quirky officer Wolf (Stian Bam) who has his gun strapped to the wrong hip, as sharp-eyed Fanie points out.

The next scene is hard to stomach (so close your eyes and only listen if you can). The severed head of a child lies in the bush surrounded by police tape. Wolf is clearly out of his element, but he agrees with Fanie that the head has been chewed off by some sort of animal, a leopard most likely.

He squats down to smell the head and notes that there’s a chemical scent under the rot – formaldehyde. Fanie says whatever animal ate and dragged it here is probably dead – and just like that questions start to form for viewers. Who would have embalmed a child!? And where did the leopard find the little one, sealing their own doom as it feasted on their flesh…

Steph van der Merwe plays Kallie in Donkerbos

“It feels like Pretoria”

Back home as Fanie’s son greets her, the camera focuses on her removing her gun and her wedding ring. As she washes her hands Kallie asks if his friend Francois (Marko Vorster) can come over, but Fanie says they are going to braai at Francois’ house that afternoon. She dries her hands and walks over to Kallie, and for a long moment she kisses the top of his head and strokes it, disturbed by the severed head she saw.

Fanie heads to the laundry room off the kitchen but as she removes her clothes, she spots something tangled in her boot – evidence, for sure, so she bags it as Jaco enters the kitchen. The family chats about going to church and as Kallie leaves the room to get dressed, Fanie tells Jaco about the scene. He gives her back the wedding ring she left by the sink in the kitchen and tries to comfort her, but she rebuffs him and says, “it feels like Pretoria.” But what happened in Pretoria? The plot thickens.

Edwin van der Walt plays Braam in Donkerbos

At church, Marietjie (Nicole Holm) tells Fanie that Braam (Edwin van der Walt) has gone to pick up his brother Sybrand (Wilhelem van der Walt), Fanie’s ex-partner, in Polokwane, and as the church hymn dies, we meet the new reverend Abel Roodt (Carel Nel) who is quite peculiar (Fanie gives him a piercing look as he prays over the congregation).

In the meantime, a police search party finds the leopard, and we also meet Jaco’s employee Spook Steenkamp (Eben Genis) on the flower and timber farm where they work. He is a scruffy looking man with a foul mouth, and as he spits on the ground after having an icy interaction with Jaco, it’s clear this man is someone to keep an eye on…

Sybrand’s story

Wilhelm van der Walt as Sybrand in Donkerbos

We now focus on Sybrand, who’s in his therapist’s office explaining how he feels trapped underwater. He reveals that’s how he felt when he was in the presence of a Mr Steenkamp (the same Spook Steenkamp!), but soon the conversation shifts, and we discover that this is Sybrand’s last session with the therapist.

Sybrand rants on in a brilliant and passionate monologue that is one of the stand-out performances of this episode about his roommate in the mental institution, who has nothing in the world, and about how life came and took all happiness away. “The world is broken, and nobody can put it together again,” says Sybrand.

Sybrand’s therapist seems reluctant to sign off on him going out to work again, but Sybrand walks out, greets his roommate, and even suggests that the roommate come and stay with Sybrand and his brother Braam in Donkerbos, just before Braam himself arrives to pick Sybrand up.

Where is she?

Fanie is back in the spotlight as she goes to the police station. On the road, right in front of the entrance to the station, some graffiti in bright yellow letters asks, “Where is she?” The culprit has been caught yellow handed and she’s cuffed in the station. It’s a run-down looking mom. Her daughter is missing, and Fanie gives her one look, drops the charges, and lets her go. A bulletin board with three missing children from Donkerbos comes into view asking another question in the silence: “where are they?”

Thoko Ntshinga plays Captain Didie Baleka in Donkerbos

Fanie drops into Captain Didie Baleka’s (Thoko Ntshinga) office, where it comes out that this is the first murder case for Fanie since she moved to Donkerbos. This case is special, and like the Captain, Fanie needs to know what’s happening.

“Lord, help us”

At the medical examiner’s office more is revealed about the child’s head. He was between nine and 12 years old when he died three months back. The bite marks on his head were made post-mortem. The ink lettering on his face is in an old form of German and it points to an attempt to preserve the boy. Oak tree leaves, like those Fanie found earlier under her boot, were found in the wound on his neck. When the leopard’s body is also examined, a tag is found, indicating that it belongs to someone.

Eben Genis as Spook in Donkerbos

Sybrand’s connection with Spook is revealed next. Sybrand assaulted Spook when he arrested him for sexual assault of a minor. Apparently Spook said something to Sybrand only he could hear, and Sybrand reacted by breaking Spook’s face on a log. Sybrand’s only regret from that incident was that Spook didn’t die. When the camera shifts, we see a white eye sketched on a tree. We’re taking notes in our crime journals.

In the last 15 minutes of the episode, Fanie tracks where the leopard was held in a breeding programme. She goes to the braai at Francois’ house, she makes a pit stop to see Sybrand, who’s keeping his old, dying dog company (there is a definite spark between Sybrand and Fanie). Fanie gives Sybrand back her key to his house, and as she fills him in on her case. Sybrand encourages her to go to the farm (without a warrant) that they still need to search.

What Fanie finds at the farm is a new crop of nightmares… more painted eyes, and the embalmed bodies of six children arranged around a tree, buried in shallow graves with broken mirror sun crowns around their heads.

Fanie’s last words as the episode ends are, “Lord help us”. Chilling, thrilling and compelling. If this is where we’re starting, imagine where we could end. The next episode drops Tuesday, 6 December. Be there or be a chalk outline.

One Weeks, coming soon
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