Netflix Smash Proves Irish Fascination with Catholicism Is Going Nowhere

Netflix Smash Proves Irish Fascination with Catholicism Is Going Nowhere

At first glance, the streaming show Bodkin seems very modern in its attitude, but as it progresses, it reveals that Catholicism is still integral to Ireland.

If you’ve logged into Netflix in recent weeks, you’ll likely have seen Bodkin promoted. Supposedly a comedy, it has all the tropes of a particular depiction of modern Irishness. Set in a village on the Atlantic coast, it’s produced by Barack Obama’s production company (International approval!), makes a huge deal of a pagan festival supposedly from the dawn of Irish history, and features three podcasters trying to get to the bottom of an ancient mystery.

In addition to the murders, it’s full of swearing, sex, violence, and blasphemy, so it’s not for the faint of heart. Artistically, it’s a mixed bag: the tone jumps about all over the place, the central mystery is too convoluted by half, and the American lead can’t commit to being annoying enough to be believable.

It often veers into the cliché of simple Irish folk with the craic and the charm and no apparent interior life. Some malevolent nuns play a prominent role, who live on a mysterious island, promote yoga, and love cash. Even though the show has enough about it to explain these traits away with a schism with Rome, it seems to present an all too familiar and simplistic view of the poor Irish manipulated by the evil Church.

Yet as it goes on, it deepens and becomes something altogether more interesting. The show is saved by two performances: Siobhán Cullen as Dove Maloney, an  investigative journalist, and David Wilmot as Seamus Gallagher. Both are excellent. Wilmot’s character is a fisherman with a dark past who veers from deadpan charisma to soulful poetry to psychotic violence. It should be ridiculous, yet it is compelling and cohesive.

In contrast, Cullen’s character is aggressively one-note, with overwhelming cynicism. A Dublin hack who’s made a home in London, she is obsessed with a truth only she can grasp, contemptuous of the past, and downright cruel to anyone who tries to get close to her.

There’s an easy parallel to make here: Gallagher represents Ireland’s past, in love with an idea of itself but wracked with self-loathing, Catholic in name but not often in deed, using charm and half-true, quarter-remembered stories of slights and cruelties to justify myriad sins. Maloney, on the other hand, is a walking metaphor for Ireland today, running from its past, too clever and too harsh by half.

The ultimate thesis of Bodkin is that the old Ireland is gone, and there’s no bringing it back. But the new Ireland has much to do to make peace with its past, especially its religion, to ensure it avoids going the same way. Those yoga nuns prove much more sympathetic and conflicted than initial episodes suggest. And while Bodkin shows a bleak reality, it’s a more complex and thoughtful examination of Irish identity than most recent efforts.