Deceit: Season 1 REVIEW – An Engrossing Crime Drama

We ain't misleading you when we say this is a good show.

Deceit
Deceit

Cultured Vultures spoilers

Deceit is a show based on a true story that follows Sadie Byrne (Niamh Algar), a covert police officer. For most of her career, Sadie’s played second fiddle to the male officers – she’s the bait to lure in all these drug dealers and criminals, but then the men swoop in and claim the victory. That’s all about to change for Sadie when she’s requested to take part in an undercover sting operation with heavy stakes. The Metropolitan police are under pressure to solve the murder of Rachel Nickell, who was stabbed 49 times in the Wimbledon Common in front of her young son.

The audacity of the crime – in broad daylight and while she was with her child – sets everyone on high alert, so the police are desperate for answers to set the public at ease. The police do have one suspect in mind, Colin Stagg (Sion Daniel Young), who was spotted at the Common by witnesses, and an investigation of his flat does suggest that he could fit the profile of the murderer. Professor Paul Britton (Eddie Marsan), who was brought in to consult on the case and write up a profile, crafts a covert operation meant to get Stagg to confess his crimes. I have no idea why Marsan played Britton in such a peculiar and creepy way. He seemed to be channeling some Hannibal Lecter energy, and people unaware of the true story this is based on might even think he’s the murderer given how strange he behaves.

Given the nature of the operation, this is where Sadie comes in – she’s to take on the persona of Lizzie James, and worm her way into Stagg’s life. Once he trusts her, they believe he would spill the details of the murder and implicate himself. The task is beyond anything Sadie has ever had to do, and each interaction she has with Stagg is nerve-wrecking stuff, as we wonder whether or not she would be able to wear the persona well and not slip up.

After watching Censor last year, I was excited to see Algar’s performance here, and she didn’t disappoint. To watch her transform into her Lizzie James persona is riveting stuff – her little preparations before answering his phone calls, her practice sessions in the mirror and with Professor Britton at the restaurant. Sadie’s clearly disturbed by the content of the letters they exchange, she can’t even bring herself to read them out loud when she has to, but as Lizzie she must engage him on that level if he’s to grow to trust her. While Algar does fantastic work, I do wish the season explored Sadie’s character a little bit more. Besides her ambition, there’s very little else we know about Sadie. Perhaps that’s the point – she’s spent so much of her life playing different roles that there isn’t a clear sense of who she is anymore.

It’s remarkable how much Young is able to channel the energy of the real Colin Stagg. While the letters are graphic and sometimes has violent connotations, Young portrays Stagg as awkward, gawky, but also sincere. I wasn’t privy to the details of the case before this season, so the fact that I was able to discern his innocence is a credit to Young’s acting. All the interactions between Algar and Young are the best parts of the show – absolutely gripping to watch her navigate these conversations carefully, painstakingly taking the time to build a sense of trust.

Even though the operation has clear boundaries, it does feel unethical and deceitful. Sadie is manufacturing a relationship under false pretenses, but she’s also heaping expectations on him as Lizzie. It becomes increasingly unclear if the fantasies he concocts is for her or for him. Sadie herself starts to struggle, since what was meant to be a two month operation has now been extended, which means she’s been stuck playing the role of Lizzie far longer than any of her other personas. Lizzie’s fetishes and past secret also means she needs to be turned on by perverse things, and all this begins to take a mental toll on her.

Deceit is a crime drama, but it feels so much like a horror at times with the way it’s shot. Sadie would frequently hallucinate Colin in all parts of her apartment, usually when she’s showering. These sequences are terrifying, as is Sadie’s research into satanic cults. I had to avert my eyes at some points because the images were a bit too unsettling, and I wanted to be able to sleep without seeing images of the devil.

Both Professor Britton and Detective Inspector Keith Pedder (Harry Treadaway) care very little for Sadie’s psychological health. This is made abundantly clear considering how easy they made it for Stagg to get in touch with her. The moment the phone rings in the apartment she’s staying at, she has to engage him; she’s not allowed any respite from him. They want a break in the case, they want a confession from Stagg, which means pushing Sadie to pressure him into a confession.

The last episode is where things fall apart for me. There’s the media frenzy of the court case, and the eventual unraveling of all they had built up, but none of it’s particularly interesting. Even if you didn’t know anything about the real case, the way the episode is structured makes it pretty apparent how things would turn out. The real Sadie retired from the force after this case, and filed a suit against the Metropolitan police for lack of care. Even though Sadie was merely being steered by others, she was the one everyone judged – the deceitful woman who tried to manipulate poor Colin Stagg into admitting to a crime he did not commit.

The fallout from this case is tremendous, for not only did Sadie and Colin both suffer because of their associations to this case, the police’s fixation on Stagg meant that the real killer was able to kill again.

While the conclusion of the season is not as strong as the way it starts, Deceit is a compelling crime drama that should satisfy all you true crime aficionados. Don’t attempt to watch it at night, though.

Review screener provided. Deceit will stream exclusively on Topic beginning April 14, 2022.

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Deceit
Verdict
While the conclusion of the series leaves much to be desired, stellar performances from Algar and Young make this a must-watch for true crime fans.
7.5