By Gen Terblanche24 May 2023
If you go into the woods today … crime dramas to stream on Showmax
Nature is a place where we refresh our spirits. “Forest Bathing”, walking in wooded areas, is a scientifically supported form of therapy that’s shown to reduce stress, boost mood and improve scattered attention. But it’s also a place where killers hide bodies – as many an unlucky dog walker could tell us. And in fiction, it can be a symbol for the wildness in human nature breaking through our civilised masks, a place of fairy tale monsters, horror, opportunity, and a whole lot more.
Read on to see how five series on Showmax explore the different meanings of a forest.
Alfred Molina plays devout Catholic Chief Inspector Armand Gamache in the single-season crime drama series Three Pines, based on Canadian writer Louise Penny’s novel series (2005-now) centering on the big city Montreal detective and his work in a small town in Quebec named Three Pines. The series frames Armand’s cases by contrasting them against Canada’s notorious police neglect of unsolved cases involving missing and murdered indigenous women. And the ongoing horror of the abuses that stolen indigenous children suffered at residential schools is highlighted from the very first episode, in which murder victim has turned a former residential school into her swanky mansion.
The town of Three Pines exists on the edge of the Canadian wilderness, with the trees encroaching into the town and the snow blurring the boundaries even further. The town is named after three trees standing in its centre, hinting that its people have found an equilibrium with nature. The trees surrounding Three Pines embrace the town and protect it from much of the worst of the modern world, allowing them to form deeper personal connections and community. But they also isolate it and guard its deadly secrets. And it’s a place where the weather sets traps for the unwary with the same indifference in which some humans kill.
For a team of teenage soccer players stranded in the Canadian wilderness following a plane crash in Yellowjackets, the forest is a place of constant danger. As the struggle to survive strips the characters down to essentials, the show explores humans’ primal instinct to create symbols and stories to appease and control death and the uncaring elements. The only way the crash survivors are able to make peace with the extremes they’re going to to survive, from enduring starvation, to cannibalism and murder, is by striking a “magical” bargain with the wilderness. In this world, the forest never seems to provide without demanding blood sacrifice in return. And a little blood shed voluntarily before you go hunting comes more easily than letting the forest take what it wants at random.
The more we learn about the adult versions of survivors who made it out alive after 19 months in this green hell, the more it seems as if they’ve brought the dark heart of that forest back with them. As the theme song promises with its repeated phrase, there’s “no return”. Natalie (Juliette Lewis and Sophie Thatcher) even tells Lottie (Simone Kessell and Courtney Eaton), “The whole time, there was something, some darkness out there with us. Or, in us. It still is.” Lottie believes she and her companions can still appease the wilderness spirits, if they give them what they want – and according to her, that’s blood. And in season 2, the adult Travis (Kevin Alves and Andres Soto) tells Lottie that, “The only way to know what the wilderness wants is to get as close as possible to death.”
Mare of Easttown
This crime drama series is set in a bleak, rundown, poverty- and addiction-stricken Pennsylvania small town surrounded and cut through by forests and rivers. Detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) is investigating the disappearance of teenager Katie Bailey (Caitlin Houlahan), along with the murder of teen mother Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny), whose body was found stripped nearly naked and sprawled over rocks in a creek near a bridge. Erin is one of several local young women being preyed on by the town’s abusers, exploiters and rapists, and Mare needs to wade through miles of misdirection they set up to protect one another.
In Mare of Easttown the forest is somewhere the townsfolk use as a dumping ground for their secrets, and a place to commit their crimes unseen. The show takes place between Autumn and winter, and it’s a deciduous forest, so the greyness of the bare trees between those still shedding their yellowed trees hint at death and decay, along with a kind of barren hopelessness. Tangles of branches and undergrowth echo the interwoven ties between the people of Easttown, from incest, to affairs and interlocking family relationships. Even the area’s tidier, greener parks have evidence of violence strewn across them. As the series ends, we see a lot more green trees, though, and the start of hope.
Stephen King’s 2018 novel of the same name is the inspiration for this psychological horror crime drama series. The show kicks off with the body of a young boy named Frank Peterson, which is found in the woods covered in human saliva and bite marks. All evidence points to junior school baseball coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), despite the fact that Terry can prove that he was out of town at the time of the killing. While the police wrack their brains over the case, private detective Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo) connects the dots between Frank’s murder and the murders of several other children across the country. A doppelganger seems to be at work and one of the detectives in the case, Jack (Marc Menchaca) starts leaving offerings to a spirit in the woods that seems to be controlling him.
In the series the forest and wilderness are places that hunters disrupt, and where they target unwary prey. Jack’s offerings of human goods not only look out of place, they turn the forest into a dump, cluttered with objects like lamps, a keg of beer, coolers and boxes of electronics. Whatever spirit he’s making offerings to, it seems that what it wants is something that’s out of place in nature. The contrast also points out how much of what humans surround themselves with is out of harmony with the sanctuary of green places. Even the deer that Jack offers to the spirit has been mutilated.
Welcome to the dark woods – it’s in the title! This local crime drama series centres on the investigation into the murders of six children whose bodies are found in the tangled old growth forest of Donkerbos, Limpopo. Detective Fanie (Erica Wessels) must work through the clues to find out who’s killing children from abusive homes around town, and why they’re leaving behind an eye symbol and ritualistically displaying their victims.
The series opens with a boy running from someone through tangled branches of a forest at twilight until he falls onto a branch and dies, curled up against the roots of a huge tree.
The forest is both a sanctuary and a deadly trap. This idea is absolutely central to the series. The show’s serial killer is inspired by the (in-series) German children’s book Der Mutterbaum (The Mother Tree), which contains the phrase, “The children cried, and their tears flowed down to the roots of the Mother Tree and the Mother Tree was angry.” In the book, the tree then lashes out at the children’s abusers. The forest in Donkerbos is somewhere that is alive, mysterious, dangerous and protective, where the towering tree trunks become like cathedrals. Where man meets nature in a treehouse in the story, though, Donkerbos shows us how crime turns a child’s private refuge and safe place into a hiding place for an abuser. And the people in Donkerbos who live closest to the boundaries of the forest combine both the gentleness of nature and its savagery.
So when you go into the woods today, prepare for a big surprise on Showmax. This is no teddy bear’s picnic.
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