The second season of “The Missing” is a whodunit with a curious twist: The suspense begins once the mystery is over. In the opening moments of the first episode, a girl is abducted in the forest outside of a German village. Then, just as quickly (for the audience), she returns — stumbling through the same woods before collapsing in the town square. But she is older now, and ravaged; her eyes are haunted. It is 11 years later.
In some ways, this is consistent with the first season of the Starz/BBC anthology series, which also told the story of an abducted child and the subsequent investigation. But unlike the first installment of “The Missing,” the second season mostly dispenses with the circumstances of her abduction. Instead it flashes between the victim’s “safe” return, in 2014, and the arduous present, where the psychological scars of her kidnapping have not yet healed. Alice Webster (Abigail Hardingham) has been found, but that does not solve the hurt and horror of those 11 years, the toll of loss and victimization for everyone involved.
And though this conceit might sound like it lowers the stakes of the story just as it begins, “The Missing” is harrowing, absorbing, and difficult to stop watching; in its multifaceted storytelling about one toxic case in a small town, it offers a wide-ranging, intimate, and mercilessly honest view of human tragedy.
Alice’s abduction is of the type that has loomed large in Western consciousness over the past few years — the missing girl in “Room,” for instance, imprisoned in a basement for years on end, forced into a relationship with a captor who has some twisted fantasy of family underneath the torture. But whereas “Room” split time between the imprisonment and the readjustment to the world outside, “The Missing” focuses almost entirely on Alice’s unwilling, fractured recovery. When she is examined after her return, the doctors find evidence of childbirth. But when she’s asked questions, Alice’s mind seems to skitter over the darkness. She denies giving birth. She denies knowing more about her captor, or being able to recognize him. She avoids details, except when it comes to recounting the day of her abduction. Then, her story spools out with excruciating detail in her almost affectless tone. “So he hit me,” she says, with no expression on her face, as the details spill out of her, “and that was the first time that he raped me.”
As with the first season, the bulk of “The Missing’s” emotional resonance comes from the parents of the abducted — here, army captain Sam (David Morrissey) and teacher Gemma (Keeley Hawes). Sam’s career on the base brings in a widening scope of military figures into the story, including military police sergeant Eve (Laura Fraser) and her commanding father, Adrian (Roger Allam). A connection to a French case draws in Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo), the retired detective from Season 1. “The Missing” excels at ensnaring a widening array of characters into its web, drawing them into the mystery as surely as it draws in the audience.
“The Missing” carefully eschews exploitation of its victims’ plight, favoring instead long, still moments of tension. (A conversation in the fourth episode between Gemma and Eve is one of the most tense, suspenseful moments in the whole series, and it is “just” a conversation.) There is an austere and even antiseptic bleakness to its landscape, marked by swaying pine trees and competent bureaucrats.
Despite the subject matter, “The Missing” is not without positive payoffs — even if those payoffs are not exactly hope, but more an acknowledgement of human resilience. But because so much of the show is about fallout, the emotional richness of “The Missing” tends to outpace the quality of the plot twists. The finale of the first season was deemed by some viewers to be a twist too far, and though that is not necessarily the case here, “The Missing” is more about the audience’s journey of being hooked than it is about the ending’s takeaway. In this season, the show teases the audience with portentous foreshadowing about everything that happened to Alice between the time she was kidnapped to her return home, even if the events turn out to be benign; this feels slightly manipulative, considering the show has the capacity for much more compassionate work.
At its best, “The Missing” is an unflinching tale that investigates not just Alice’s disappearance, but how horror unfolds over time until it becomes a part of everyday existence. The normalization of Alice’s captivity is mirrored by the experiences of the veterans at the base, with their own haunting memories. To follow a lead, Julien finds himself trekking to Kirkuk, in the Iraqi desert — one last, obscure lead, two years after the case was supposed to be closed. Both Alice’s hell and that of the veterans required similar sacrifices — unexpected alliances, horrific losses, and torture that is normalized because it happens every day.
“The Missing” does stumble from time to time, but it ultimately connects the dots on a vital, ever-relevant truth: the paradoxical universality of isolated suffering. amid the hidden histories and buried traumas of the world around us. In its recurring tragedies and ever-so-incremental push towards understanding, “The Missing” offers a clear-eyed reflection of our own reality that is as bracing as the cold mountain air of its snowy forests.