Once again I have squandered several weeks of Saturday night summers by watching TV. Last year it was “Swingtown”, the retro series whose plot seemed only to consist of upwardly mobile Chicago swingers in the bell bottomed, sideburned 70s. It even had a cool soundtrack that CBS endlessly plugged; a Time-Life 70s hit collection CD was hawked every week in a commercial by that old Easy Rider himself, Peter Fonda!
Last night, the 12th and 13th final episodes of the horror/mystery schlockfest “Harper’s Island”, and us <1 million (probably) losers/viewers who have stayed through this campy guilty pleasure were probably surprised at the shocking reveals and “even bigger twist” that ultimately wrapped up this series.
Set in the islands near Seattle (but actually filmed around Vancouver), “Harper’s Island” tells the story of the wedding of Henry Dunn and Trish Worthington, and the invited guests who come to this island for a few days of festivities –and sometimes truly grisly murders (uh, them!). There is a killer on the loose, and signs point to a once-presumed killer, John Wakefield, who killed the mother of the one of the guests, Abby, a close friend since childhood of groom Henry.
Each week, in shocking and disturbing fashion, a guest is taken out, stabbed, maimed, sliced, even harpooned. The bride’s father, a sleazeball who was revealed to tried to stop the marriage, is shown standing during a wedding rehearsal and a long slab of sharp glass drops from the ceiling and slices him through the face. CBS couldn’t stop showing this in promos –“last time on Harper’s Island”, etc.
While the plot lines sometimes seemed thin and dialogues a tad nonsensical during the course of the series, the wedding guests were an often interesting bunch. Abby, friend of Henry’s, returned to the island still haunted by her mother’s murder there, and was now living as a writer in LA. Cal was a somewhat prissy but engaging Brit, who had brought girlfriend Chloe, and was using this occasion to propose to her. Sully, best friends with Henry since they were kids, used to date Trish. Trish’s father had remarried with a younger woman, who was having an affair with the Trish’s father’s second in command. He was there at the wedding with their extremely annoying and spooky daughter, Madison. Madison had visions, and could claim to see things others couldn’t. She also never smiled.
In Episode 12, the guests are still terrorized by all the murders and have pegged them on Wakefield, who is on the island somewhere and from whom they are desperately fleeing. Trish has escaped with a local named Jimmy, who used to date Abby and who is assumed to have nasty motives in wanting to cause trouble. Jimmy loses Trish, then meets up with Abby. The two find a rifle-toting Henry, along with Sully, who wants to know where his beloved Trish is. Jimmy is almost shot to death by Henry, but not before Trish shows up, safe and not left for dead, as we are made to feel. But in this sequence (at 7:30 in the video), we have the first jolting twist of this series:
Trish, distraught that people around her are dropping like flies in murderous ways, was thought of as dead herself before she reunites with Henry. She retreats to a quiet cabin and while she waits for Henry to show, shehas the bright idea to try on her wedding dress again. Henry finally arrives and they have some cuddle time on the sofa. Then, Henry hears a noise, grabs a rifle and goes outside. He comes back in, tells Trish to stay and lock the doors. Moments later, Wakefield, who has just escaped from the makeshift jail down the street, enters with a key. He has come back to kill Trish.
She escapes, barefoot and wearing white flowing wedding dress, breaks a window, and runs into the forest. And just when you think, “No, she isn’t about to fall down!” (go to 5:55), she does. Sign of a clichéd TV moment. Henry suddenly shows up, tells Trish that Wakefield the killer does have an accomplice, but it isn’t Jimmy. It’s him! Trish learns with horror that not only is he the killer, but he also murdered her father and that Henry is also the son of John Wakefield. Having no use for her any longer, Henry then brutally stabs his bride, her blood staining her white dress atop the forest of trees and bushes.
But wait, there’s more –the final episode awaits. In it, we learn (perhaps) why Henry the Groom would be the killer/accomplice all of a sudden. He has learned a few years ago that he is the half brother of Abby. They share the same mother –Abby’s mother had an affair with Wakefield, something that Abby’s father, the island’s sheriff and long since murdered by Wakefield, knew. Because his mother gave him up, Henry was raised by a family that was not his, and he didn’t know this. To avenge this life he led, he is obsessed with Abby, the girl whom he loved but who now is related to him. (I know, weird.)
Episode 13 takes the twist a bit further. Jimmy and Abby are looking for Sully, Henry and Trish. Sully has sent off Madison and her mother, Shea, in a boat to safety. He and Henry set off to look for Trish, then Henry confronts his best friend with a rifle and tells him he killed Trish. But who appears on the scene —–it’s Wakefield! Henry stabs Sully in his typical deranged brutal way with the line, “You shouldn’t have dumped Trish”. Next, Henry finds Abby and in a struggle with Wakefield, the next twist emerges: Henry kills Wakefield in front of Abby, who finally (!) learns of her friend’s murderous and obsessive ways. After that, Henry unspools in front of her, revealing his intentions, which also include killing her friend Jimmy. Of course, this being a finite series that had to end somehow, so too did Henry. He is felled with a quiet “Sigh” after Abby stabs him with a knife in a final battle with her and Jimmy. The two are the remaining wedding guests on the island who are still alive.
So what’s the big deal with Harper’s Island? It’s not just the fact that Henry Dunn was revealed to be the killer of many of the guests, but Christopher Gorham’s character had been pretty dull and milquetoast throughout much of the show. A few clues may have been dropped along the way, including where he was before some guests died, and the general motives (the groom’s father despised him because he wasn’t blue-blooded like him, for example.) Gorham’s portrayal of Henry is a tough one to call –fairly unmemorable and cipher-like all the way up to the moment when he reveals himself before he stabs his supposed bride.
That single camera shot of his face, and when he calmly turns around a says “Hi Dad” to Wakefield is a striking moment. So too is his unhinged madness (he chillingly tells Abby, who has a shard of glass in her hand ready to stab him, “I choose life with you. I love you.”) This is not the Christopher Gorham who sweetly romanced Betty Suarez on “Ugly Betty”, then left that show for this juggernaut. And yet, Gorham was probably the most well known of all the actors. Most were former soap opera actors and some of them truly shined in their roles —credit must go to the characters of Sully, Chloe (Cameron Richardson) and Jimmy , all of whom brought depth. Abby perhaps not so much, since the actress seemed too dark and moody to show much sympathy for her. Not that I wanted Henry to kill her at the end per se, but I wasn’t exactly rooting for her to live either. She lived because that was the natural result of the plot line.
CBS premiered this 13-week series on April 9 and in May jettisoned it from Thursday nights to the ratings cellar of Saturday nights. Over 10 million viewers managed to catch the premiere, but that total quickly dwindled to less than 2 by the end of May. And yet, the show also had a strong web presence: CBS.com has all full episodes on its website (and many others), and a boisterous fan forum where people could guess who the killer was –all has helped spread its appeal on the Internet. Also, a few countries such as Canada, Ireland and Australia were concurrently broadcsting the show this spring and summer, with other countries starting later this year A complementary (though wholly unrelated) website, www.harpersglobe.com/island chronicles the daily happenings of Harper’s Island, which is a real island off the coast of Washingtion State.
Mystery over, the murderer revealed, the killer killed (actually, both of them), and yes, the annoyingly spooky Madison still safe. I even hear that Christopher Gorham may be back this fall on “Ugly Betty”. Now what to do on a Saturday night? Hey, didn’t Big Brother 11 just start all over again?