It isn’t often I find myself identifying with the villain nowadays, but BBC’s 2012 two-part TV movie The Mystery of Edwin Drood had me examining my own past through the lens of this tale by Charles Dickens. This is the last story that Dickens ever wrote but he wasn’t able to complete it. At first I was uncertain about how Gwyneth Hughes would choose to end the tale, but she managed to capture the essence of the story and condense it into a spectacular finish. Matthew Rhys’s performance as the villain John Jasper was electrifying, and the tragedy of it all brought me to tears.
At the heart of this story Charles Dickens explores family dynamics, particularly between fathers and sons, and the deep, dark emotions that are caused by the damage in these relationships. John Jasper, Edwin Drood, Jr., and the mysterious, shadowy figure of Edwin Drood, Sr. are the main characters but their relationship is not quite what it appears to be, and the untangling of their intertwined pasts is mesmerizing.
John Jasper’s jealousy of his nephew and his obsession with his nephew’s fiancee Rosa Bud boils over from daydreams into taking action when company comes to town in the form of a potential scapegoat, Neville Landless. Neville and his sister Helena are dark skinned visitors from Ceylon, and Jasper uses their presence to instigate a fight between Neville and Edwin which later casts suspicion on Neville when Edwin disappears. Jasper uses this to get closer to Rosa who is terrified of his intensity and anger.
Meanwhile, the hunt for Edwin Drood, Sr. and Edwin Drood, Jr. plagues John Jasper who we’ve seen murder Edwin Jr. in various daydreams, hallucinations, and potentially in reality. He is nearly driven mad by grief over the death of his nephew and searches out the murderer even as he comes closer and closer to the possibility that it was he who ended his nephew’s life.
I did not see what was coming next. After a shocking twist in the story, we find that not all is as it seems in the Drood family, and where at first there was just one son, there are now four children, but only one had a relationship with their father. Jasper John is haunted by this turn of events. It consumes him with a jealous rage and finally pushes him over the edge. It’s a tragic conclusion, but all along we’ve seen the pain and bitterness beneath Jasper’s anger, and it finally takes its toll. There’s only so much a person can handle.
While watching The Mystery of Edwin Drood, I thought about my own family. I grew up with several siblings, and since there was musical talent on both sides, we all took lessons. I chose the harp. It was unique and set me apart. I’ve always enjoyed being on the fringe. But I soon learned that even with this elegant instrument beside me, I couldn’t measure up to my siblings’ talent. One of them can transpose at the drop of a hat. The other can compose tunes and slide between styles in their sleep. And another picks up an instrument and instinctually knows how to produce music from it. My talent? I can sightread very quickly.
We grew up in a competitive environment. We were always performing, competing, with each other as well as in contests nationally and internationally. I started to fade into the background once I realized that I was nowhere near as talented as my siblings nor was I interested in being so. I knew deep down that my parents thought I was better than I really was and it began to wear on me. I knew they wanted professional musicians and I didn’t measure up. I soon became bitter toward my family and began longing for the freedom to seek out something else that I was better at than my siblings.
I was burned out by the time I got to college, but the harp was still around my neck like a millstone. I was expected to play at every event, and I felt guilty for the thousands of dollars my parents spent on lessons, instruments, and music. When the harp became my identity, I entertained thoughts of it being damaged, burned, dropped, something that would separate me from the rage I felt toward it and the guilt I felt for not practicing. I had to put my harps in another location than my living arrangement because I would cringe each time I saw them because I felt they were glaring at me.
I became bitter, jealous of my siblings, and enraged at the idea of being forced to be something I wasn’t. It got to a point where I had to seek out therapy or else I’d have lost my mind.
And I discovered that I’d been missing something. I had internalized all these thoughts and emotions but it never occurred to me to voice them. Being able to write or talk about how I felt was a relief, a release of a pressure valve that had long been pent up inside. If John Jasper had been able to emote as a child and express his pain at the lack of a parent might he have grown up differently? If someone had paid attention to him and seen the early signs of rage might Jasper have been able to process and grow up in a more healthy manner? Could he have found an alternative father figure to help him?
There are lots of children who miss out on things: parents, food, education, health, belongings. We’ve all got reasons to be bitter or angry. It’s absolutely alright to express your pain. Because when you have to hold it inside it eats you alive. You become a monster, unable to connect with those around you or experience healing. When you are made to feel alone in your pain you’re separated from the rest of humanity, and it’s easy to see how that can lead to becoming the next John Jasper.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is one of the best BBC productions I’ve seen. The production value, music, performances, everything adds up to a suspenseful, dramatic story. It’s available on Netflix.