Mystery Road, currently on AcornTV, is a 2018 Australian series based on a 2013 movie of the same name. Although, really the series is more of a continuation of the movie, which features Aboriginal (also referred to as “indigenous” or “black”) detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) solving cases in small indigenous communities around western Australia. In season 1, Swan is summoned to the Northwest to help local police led by Senior Sergeant Emma James (Judy Davis) find two young men who disappeared while on the job for local cattle baron Tony Ballantyne (Colin Friels). As usual with small towns in crime shows, there are myriad secrets that are revealed as the investigation proceeds. Between the lead actors, the forbidding landscape, and the tacit détente between the blacks and whites in town, Mystery Road is a cut above the usual procedural.
Jay and Emma
Jay Swan is a gruff, laconic detective in cowboy attire who, although talented, doesn’t always play well with others. Think Western-era Clint Eastwood. Swan is hyper-focused, nay obsessed, until he solves his case, and he is fine with using extra-legal tactics to get there. As a black detective, he is neither accepted by the whites nor trusted by the indigenous population, but he doesn’t really give a damn. He’s just there to work. Aaron Pederson, with his growl and his rugged good looks, is perfect for the role. In fact, the original movie was written with Aaron Pederson in mind. Emma James is a lifelong resident of the town. Her family (Tony Ballantyne is her brother) owns a huge cattle ranch (“station”), but she decided to be a cop. She can be a bit of a softy because she knows everyone’s backstory, unlike Jay, who is alternatively blunt or threatening when he questions people. And much to Emma’s irritation, he finds out a lot of secrets that she doesn’t know. Emma is horrified by Jay’s tactics, and wants him off the job, but she has no choice. The casting of Judy Davis in this role is curious. She is past the usual cop retirement age, and she’s bird-like in stature. Yet, somehow it works. There is a speech in episode 5 that will make you say, “Ah. That’s why Judy Davis.”
Mystery Road opens on an abandoned SUV in the desert. It’s one of Ballantyne’s, and an employee, Marley (Aaron L. McGrath) had been driving around checking the watering stations on the ranch. Using webcam footage from the stations, Emma and Jay discover that he wasn’t alone. Reese Dale (Connor Van Vuuren), his friend and recently fired co-worker, was along for the ride. In one clip, you can see them fighting. On their first round of interviews, Jay and Emma hear rumors that Reese and Marley were selling drugs. Another interviewee suggests that Reese was complaining about a problem with the water on the ranch. Turns out Tony is in a deal to sell the ranch to the Northwest Aboriginal Corporation, who wants it for the giant aquifer on the property. It’s a good set up. Was it a drug deal gone bad? Did one of them kill the other in the fight and then flee? Did Tony find out that Reese was bad mouthing the ranch right before a sale? Meanwhile, Marley’s uncle Larry (Wayne Blair) is released from jail, where he served 10 years for raping Reese’s girlfriend, Shevorne (Tasia Zalar), a local barkeep. Against common sense, he decides to return to town, insisting that he’s innocent. Another complication is that Jay’s troubled daughter Crystal (Madeleine Madden) shows up uninvited, with her resentful, attention-seeking mother (Tasma Walton) right behind her.
Our take on Mystery Road
The ending was disappointing, but the series was great. As I mentioned, the casting was spot on, with Australian heavy-hitters in the key roles. Much like the Icelandic shows, the landscape is a character in itself-forbidding and beautiful. The co-existence of the indigenous and the whites (“colonialists”) is relatively peaceful in this town, and Emma prides herself on being from a family that has treated blacks well. But the tension is there, just under the surface, and if anyone’s going to dig into that, it’s Jay. The solution to the case is a let-down, but the arcs of the main characters are satisfying. Both Emma and Jay discover things about their families that will change them forever, and that’s the true conclusion to this season. The last episode closes with Jay driving out of town, onto another ragged community that needs the help of this mysterious outsider. If you like a procedural with some unusual story elements and fantastic casting, Mystery Road is definitely worth your time.
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