Breathe: Into the Shadows Review (SPOILERS): When Does Protecting Your Loved Ones Go Too Far?

I did quick episode by episode reviews, this is where I am going to summarize and review the whole darn thing, start to finish.  If it’s not your cup of tea but you are vaguely curious what the plot is, read this one. Oh boy! (full index of all reviews here)

Whole Series Plot: Police consulting psychiatrist Abhishek and chef Nithya Menon’s young diabetic daughter is kidnapped a week after a young medical student is kidnapped.  After months of no clues and no ransom demand, they have given up hope when they get a video recording delivered to their house showing proof that their daughter is alive and happy and healthy, locked up with the medical student who is caring for her.  But they are warned that to keep her alive, they have to kill a particular man, and make sure he dies while angry.  Meanwhile, Amit Sadh the hero cop from the last series is just released from jail after 6 months punishment for causing injury to an innocent bystander during a shoot out.  He asks for a transfer from Bombay to Delhi in order to find and apologize to the innocent bystander he hurt.  He arrives in Delhi and is given charge of the murder case for the man Abhishek killed.  Abhishek inserts himself in the investigation claiming it sounds like one of his patients and tries to cover his tracks, at the same time he and Nithya are given someone new to kill, a Lesbian artist who has to be killed for “lust”.  Halfway through the show, we get the big reveal that the kidnapper is…..Abhishek’s alter ego!  The trauma of the bus accident that killed his parents caused his psyche to split. 

Afterwards, he was sent to a boarding school where the principal took responsibility for him and his split personality was diagnosed.  But the principal decided to do nothing to cure him, instead to encourage the split as a way of protecting himself from more trauma.  The victims he picks are ones who “did wrong” to Abhishek in the past.  Amit slowly starts to put together the truth, hindered by an ambitious female cop who wants credit for his achievements and helped by his loyal constables and his new friendship with Plabita Borthakur, the crippled innocent bystander who has forgiven and befriended him.  Abhishek’s alter “J” begins to build a connection with another human for the first time when he begins to spend time with a young prostitute, Saiyami Kher.  And we learn his motivation, when the principal/foster-father was dying he encouraged the real Abhishek to go into therapy to take control of his alter J.  J felt betrayed by this and decided to force Abhishek to defend himself for once, he forged documents to take money from the real Abhishek’s bank account and build his kidnap hole, then kidnapped a caregiver for the daughter, then the daughter herself, and finally began to force Abhishek to commit murders.  In the end, just as Amit has put it all together and is looking for Abhishek, Nithya notices Abhishek acting very oddly and starts to follow him.  She finds their daughter and rescues her, but “J” follows them.  He tricks the daughter to come to him by acting like the real Abhishek, and then uses her as a hostage, until the real Abhishek manages to take control and release her.  Abhishek is arrested and put in a mental asylum, Nithya escapes punishment although she was also culpable for the crimes so that their daughter can have a parent.  3 years later, Abhishek is in a mental asylum and his doctor’s believe he is getting better.  But then Saiyami comes to visit him and he gives her a note, “c-16”, the number of the hotel room they used to rent, indicating that “J” is still there.  The show ends with “J” coming on stage for the asylum talent show, with his distinctive limp and hand fidget.

Breathe Into The Shadows trailer: Abhishek Bachchan, Amit Sadh ...

So, first, the central twist is a tidy way of getting people to watch the show by revealing part of the premise without showing the whole hand.  The promotions made the initial set up of “parent of kidnapped child forced to become killer” clear.  That’s intriguing, that’s a nice dark moral conundrum right there, which still has a mystery left of wondering why exactly this particular person was chosen as the killer, and why his victims were chosen to be killed.  That’s fine as far as it goes, but then you run into another problem of needing to have an interesting original solution to that second mystery, AND you need to have a big start play the secret villain without revealing who that star is.  Simplest solution, make the villain someone we already know from elsewhere in the plot.

Okay, now we have to reveal a secret villain who is already a main character.  This is the point where they lose me a little bit.  The solution was to make Abhishek both the innocent forced killer and the evil kidnapper.  Alternative route would have been to just introduce an additional character.  Like, say, what if his beloved principal had instead been a beloved teacher (so, slightly younger) who was still around as a supportive kind advice giver in Abhishek’s life.  You could still have a big name actor, and a big twist, but it wouldn’t have to be INSANE.  The only advantage to the “Abhishek has a split personality” reveal is that it gives Abhishek-the-actor a really fantastic fun challenge.

It would have an advantage of being a shocking surprise, if this weren’t such a familiar old hat kind of shocking surprise.  Fight Club is the most famous recent version (SPOILERs, I guess?).  In the Indian context, there’s also Manichtrazhu.  The reveal, for me, was less of a “whoa!  Mind BLOWN!” kind of moment, but more of a “really?  That’s it?  So lame” kind of moment.

Like the first season of Breathe, the whole series hinges on a dangerous ignorance of medical common knowledge among the audience as well.  I’m less worried in this case, the chances of someone actually meeting a real true split personality are pretty low, to impossible (it’s arguable that the whole split personality idea isn’t even a real thing, just a bunch of patients who are presenting in a confusing way).  It is a little worrisome that a mental illness (of any kind) is being treated by love and thinking of it as a strength instead of as the illness it is.  But less worrisome that last season which had the lungs of a grown man being shoved willy-nilly into a little boy, which then completely cured him for the rest of his life.  It’s the overall feeling of insulting my intelligence that is the same, as a reasonably educated person I know that split personalities/multiple personalities are a very questionable diagnosis, and are so rare that a psychiatrist who finds one could very well decide to upend their whole career to document the case, not just leave some vague instructions about it and then go away.  The whole rest of the show has these great real feeling performances, actual location shooting, specifics of daily life that fit with reality, and then the central motivation is just total fantasy.  It feels off somehow, leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

In a similar kind of way, the logic of certain characters feels rock solid, while others feels strange and for the purposes of the plot.  Amit is completely clear to me.  A straight ahead person so sure of right and wrong that he succeeds just because he doesn’t care about anything else.  He isn’t worried about playing the political game at work, and therefore can see a clear simple answer invisible to other people.  He doesn’t think about his relationship with Plabita in terms of romance or duty or anything, he just likes her and she likes him and they will go along together until they have to part.  When the crazy idea of Abhishek committing the murders and the kidnapping comes to him, he doesn’t dismiss it because Abhishek is an important man or anything like that, he considers it as a serious possibility and sees where it takes him.  It’s an unusual character, not just uncaring of what other people think, but sincerely not seeing it, not seeing anything but his own purpose.  Nithya Menon, also totally clear.  She loves her daughter, she loves her husband, she comes to unconsciously resent her husband as the months go by and he hasn’t fixed the problem somehow.  Once there is a chance for him to do something, she expects him to do it and he understands that expectation.  But once they go down that path, she regrets it, and feels she doesn’t have the right to regret it because on some level she pushed her husband into it.  Great character, very clear, the whole idea of a confident happy woman contented with her place in life and believing she was beyond simple male-female roles, only to be brought up to the realization that she isn’t beyond them at all.  The constables, excellent pleasant average men who are also good at their jobs and attracted to Amit because they can see he is very very good at his job.  The female cop, this delightfully snakey combination of ambition and self-pity that lets her do whatever it takes to get ahead.  All of these characters are great.

But then there’s Abhishek, both Abhisheks, and the show kind of doesn’t know what to do with them.  The “real” Abhishek starts out interesting, a nice smart professional man with a happy family who is shaken when his daughter is taken away, and further shaken as the months go by and he feels like he should have tools to deal with this, as The Man, and as a psychiatrist, and he just doesn’t.  But once the murders start, the show can’t decide where to land with him.  He changes, that much is clear, but is he changing because he is getting used to violence?  Or coming to enjoy it?  Or shutting down his humanity to keep doing what he needs to do?  Abhishek does a great job, but the script doesn’t seem to be able to give him a clear direction beyond “look upset”.  J, on the other hand, is much worse.  There are moments when he seems to feel tenderness of a sort towards Siya.  And he definitely feels curiosity about Saiyami.  But in the end, he is ready to kill everyone for vengeance, heartlessly, even Siya.  Is J a troubled hurt little boy who is incapable of empathy and forgiveness?  Or is he simply a selfish monster looking to gain power and control and live his own life?  I don’t know!  That’s kind of a big deal, when I can’t follow the motivation of the central villain.  Heck, I don’t even fully understand why he is doing the murders.  Sometimes he says it is to teach the other Abhishek what pain feels like.  Sometimes he says it is to teach the other Abhishek how to protect himself.  Sometimes he says it is to free himself from the other Abhishek.  And this doesn’t feel like an Iago situation where he is lying to himself about his motives, this feels like the scriptwriters changing their minds episode by episode in a very confusing way.

And of course Saiyami.  First she is in a whole bunch of episodes for no reason, just us seeing her daily life.  Then she FINALLY meets J and starts being kind of part of the plot, but not really.  It’s unclear why she likes J beyond “the script told her to”.  And why J likes her beyond “she’s a woman who is there”.  Finally, why the HECK is she visiting a mental asylum for three years!!!!  Who is even letting her be there?  She never knew the “real” Abhishek and in this shows messed up version of mental health treatment, the cure is supposed to be killing J, not integrating his memories in a healthy way with the rest of your personality.

I think the biggest miss-step is with the medical student though.  She is the start of the show, her kidnapping is the beginning of the very first episode.  As the episodes roll by, she is increasingly the Best Character.  She is smart, she is brave, she is kind, she wins out again and again against her enemies.  And in the end, she is left as just the person sitting next to Siya on a bench.  We see Nithya get off on bail to return home to Siya.  We see Amit smile and seem happy in the background.  We see Abhishek and Saiyami at the asylum.  Where is her ending?  Ending with, for instance, a medal ceremony as the chief of police awards her bravery would be a nice closing of the circle with opening on her kidnapping.  And it would give the show an overall message of “forget Abhishek and J, forget Siya, forget Amit, remember the average people who suffered through all of this”.  That’s what the best bits were all along, getting to know the victims, to understand their pain, to realize that J’s version of a world without forgiveness or understanding was twisted and wrong.  That’s how the first season ended, hope and a hero and happiness.  Why end this one in darkness?

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