Elly McDonald

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Female sociopaths on TV: Luther (2010), Killing Eve (2018), Sherlock (2016), Elementary (2013), Atomic Blonde (2017)

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Killing Eve’s Villanelle (Jodie Comer)

Today, as I write, the second season of Killing Eve debuts on American television.

A Variety article online warns “a brutal killing changes our obsession with Villanelle”, the whimsical assassin played by Jodie Comer.

What could change our love for Villanelle? What could counter her playfulness, her venom, her charisma?

Villanelle is without question the best thing Killing Eve has going, and Killing Eve Season 1 is a cornucopia of good things.

Yesterday, nine years after its debut in 2010, I binge-watched Season 1 of the UK TV crime thriller Luther. Luther stars Idris Elba, who has had me in the palm of his hand (I wish!) since he co-starred in the 1998 UK 10-parter Ultraviolet, where we met him as a Desert Storm veteran hunting vampires in ‘90s London.

Idris Elba is a good thing. But the Luther character I love, my obsession, is Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan. Like Villanelle, Alice is a sociopath. She executes her parents and the family dog. And that’s just for starters.

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Alice is at it again – Ruth Wilson in Luther

The female sociopath on TV is compelling and unabashedly entertaining. She’s the female unconstrained by social convention, the disinhibited Id. She charms, she flirts, but she does not make nice. She’ll kill as readily as smile. She’s the female without fear, the female who turns the tables on men. The female who rejects expectations of kindness, courtesy, forgiveness, gentleness.

In the first episode of Luther Season 2, Abby, a beautiful young art school student out and about in London’s famed Petticoat Lane, is taking photos for an art assignment. Abby is accosted by a young man who persists in trying to monopolise her attention. At first he’s an interruption, then an irritation, then he’s harassing her: she wants him to desist but she cannot say outright “Stop. Go away.” And if she did, he – and any witnesses – would consider that an overreaction, an unnecessary aggression. So he keeps being in her face till she turns away, strides away, retreats to a quiet recess. Where he reappears and kills her.

Alice would not be caught dead that way.

Alice would entrap him. And gut him.

Be like Alice, we think, we women watching.

Like Season 1 Killing Eve, Season 1 Luther is sublime. It works as a brilliant ensemble piece – not only Ruth Wilson and Idris Elba, but Indira Varma, Paul McGann, Steven Mackintosh, Saskia Reeves – and also as a contemporary reworking of Othello, with plot twists. It takes the familiar tale, with its emotionally volatile hero and his doe-eyed wife who ends up dead, and turns our expectations inside out. And it adds in Alice. Perfect.

After Season 1, in my opinion Luther lost the plot. There is no storyline as compelling as the false friend and the slain wife to drive the narrative forward. There remains only increasingly pointless “psychosexual” nastinesses and, infrequently, Alice. Not enough Alice. And even Alice seems adrift.

Luther’s creator and showrunner, Neil Cross, has said he sees Luther as having a touch of the Sherlocks. That’s interesting, though arguably C21st television features a surfeit of Sherlocks. Obviously, there is Benedict Cumberbatch’s eponymous Sherlock, which offers a version of the female sociopath: Lara Pulver as “the woman”, Irene Adler. Then there’s Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary, where ‘Irene Adler’ is uncovered as Sherlock’s traditional archenemy Moriarty, recast as Natalie Dormer. Most recently the Cumberbatch Sherlock has been revealed to have a sociopath sister, more brilliant than the Holmes brothers Sherlock and Mycroft: the evil genius Eurus, played by Sian Brooke.

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Irene Adler, “The Woman” – Lara Pulver in Sherlock

Eurus seems to me in direct line from Luther’s Alice Morgan. Eurus was a freakish intelligence from the outset, terrifying in her freakness. She has the ability to manipulate almost anyone into doing almost anything. Alice was a child prodigy, at Oxford by age 13, at 18 a PhD in the astrophysics of dark matter. Alice explains to Luther she is fascinated by Black Holes:

This is a black hole. It consumes matter, sucks it in, and crushes it beyond existence. When I first heard that, I thought that’s evil in its most pure. Something that drags you in, crushes you, makes you nothing.

It doesn’t take a “psychosexual” expert to figure that a “black hole” is a metaphor for woman. For Alice, her definition of a “black hole” is almost a mission statement. (Reminding me of the wonderful British columnist Lynne Truss, who in the ‘90s referred to a character in the long-running BBC radio soapie The Archers as “Jolene Rogers, not so much a name as a mission statement”.)

One of the promo straplines for Luther is a quote from Season 1, “What if you were on the Devil’s side without knowing it?”

Alice is, arguably, the devil in female form. She’s seductive, beautiful. She’s charismatic. She charms Luther, and they form an alliance. But Luther believes in the value of life, and in love. Alice’s modus operandi is to take what matters and crush it to nothing.

Luther is all stamping bull, stomping forwards, foregrounded. Alice is absence, negative space.

Eurus, likewise, is an absence, physically “missing” from Sherlock’s life, erased from his psyche.

Villanelle is a kind of absence in that she is the mystery Eve seeks to expose. Eve’s job is to trace her, to track her, to entrap her.

I saw a film on TV this week centred on a female assassin and briefly I wondered where she sat in relation to Alice, Eurus, Villanelle, Adler and Dormer’s Moriarity. The film was Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron as a triple agent in a comic strip (graphic novel) version of Cold War Berlin. Theron is wonderful to watch, with her action goddess physicality. But the character is intentionally all surface. There’s no mystery there. Face it, a M16 superagent named “Lorraine” lacks all credibility. We know this Atomic Blonde is American, a male fantasy, Debbie Harry as action figure toy. She doesn’t charm, she does not delight, there is no real intrigue.

The Theron character operates through force, not manipulation. She lacks the black hole power to suck us in.

Once we’re truly sucked in, it’s hard to imagine what fictional misdeed could change our obsession, our crush.

The female sociopath crushes it.

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Eurus Holmes (Sian Brooke) in Sherlock


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Michele Johnson In Memorium (18 March 2019)

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I met Michele through our mutual friend Mary Christie when Michele lived in Sydney in the early 80s. We were neighbours in Kings Cross for a time. We reconnected through social media in more recent times. Michele as I knew her in her late 20s was very much the Michele I could hear in her Facebook posts, which were frequent, and always welcome: amusing, laugh out loud funny, provocative, informative, thoughtful.

I describe her to people who did not know her as “my fierce feisty beautiful friend”. She could be combative; also sensitive. She was caring, and outrageous. She was rock’n’roll. She was art. She was performance. She was politics. She introduced Presbyterian me to same-sex and shall we say less conventional sexual mores (I remained a bystander – dancing together at Kinsella’s was as out there as I got). Michele permitted me to give her a colour cosmetics makeover even though my hands were careless, I used frosted pink lipstick, and her beauty didn’t need any help from me.

She was a straightshooter who told it like it was. She was as generous as anyone I’ve ever known. Witty, acute, astute. Every human being is a universe, and every death is a cosmos lost. Michele was a star. Her loss leaves this world a darker place.

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Michele en route to hospital for specialist appointments

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Left aligned – always left aligned


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Review: Counterpart Season 2 (TV series, 2018) – 24 February 2019

I don’t usually like Season 2 of a TV series better than Season 1. GoT, Vikings… but often I feel as if a series explored its key themes adequately in the first episodes and left itself nowhere as interesting to go.

Counterpart S1 was a terrific series. IMHO, Counterpart S2 is better.

Episode 6 is a stand-alone episode providing back-story. It’s the pivot episode, midway through the 10-part season. It states the main themes explicitly.

In Counterpart, we visit parallel worlds linked by a derelict tunnel called ‘The Crossing’. The Crossing is a closely-guarded state secret on both sides. Most of the inhabitants of the two worlds are unaware there is a counterpart world, and counterpart selves, a phenomenon that occurred in an instant 30 years previous.

At first the two worlds continued on much the same trajectory. Then a flu pandemic killed hundreds of millions in one of the worlds, traumatizing its inhabitants and wreaking havoc with its economy and politics.

Episode 6 shows us how the split occurred, why the two worlds developed differently, and the origins of the flu virus. This sets the viewer up to better understand how we reach where we are: a grey grim world, a prosperous world, a spy state, a terrorist movement.

There’s an allegory here about our contemporary real world, as there always is in Sci-fi. How do we manage difference? How do we address historical wrongs? How to make reparation for ongoing grievances? Can it work to build walls? Is it safe to integrate?

These are obvious questions in a post-colonial, post-Imperial world. There are obvious historical parallels: post-War Germany; Israel and Palestine; Fortress Europe; Australia and its so-called ‘boat people’; the United States and Central America… to name just some.

At the heart of these issues is the question, can we ever embrace the Other, or is the Other always, irredeemably, a threat?

In an unfair universe, where advantage and disadvantage persist, and where one people’s advantage is very often built on another’s disadvantage, can the disadvantaged overlook the happy state of the more advantaged? Or will envy and a sense of injustice always result in retribution?

For that matter, can the advantaged be humble in their privilege and engage with the less advantaged in ways that don’t exacerbate the wounds and that seek to redress harms done?

These are questions that play out at the state level, at the socio-economic level and at the individual level. If I met someone who was just like me – in Counterpart, if I met my own personal Other, the Other with identical DNA, born into identical circumstances, the Other with whom I was One until that fateful split – and if my Other was faring much, much better than me, could I bear that? Who could I blame? What would it mean about me – both of me?

Counterpart S2 asks, if I met my Other, would there not be aspects of my Other’s life that I envied so fiercely, coveted so bitterly, that I might cross all moral boundaries to reclaim that for my self?

Can we share?

Can we play fair?

Counterpart S2 suggests the future of humanity depends on it.

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Samuel Roukin as Yanek (when young) in Counterpart Season 2 Episode 6, ‘Twin Cities’. James Cromwell plays Yanek aged.


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I Know Who You Are (Se Quien Eres, Spanish TV series 2017) Episodes 1-10 – 9 February 2019

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A man lurches down a road. Blood streams down his face. Something awful has happened, but he can’t remember.

The 10-part Spanish TV series I Know Who You Are (Se Quien Eres) is clever, alarming and moving, with beautifully scripted – and acted – dialogue between parents and children, siblings and cousins, lovers, colleagues. Let’s get that out of the road (so to speak): watch this series if you can.

For my purposes, the interest lies in its themes.

Can we ever truly “know” who another person ‘is’? If so, do we ‘know’ instinctively, or through long experience? Is love the gateway to ‘knowing’?

On a pragmatic level, in this scenario, is the amnesia feigned? If not, is it possible that losing memory can in effect re-set a man’s ethics? Can a bad man who can’t remember who he is, become good?

Was Elias a “bad” man? Or was he a reasonable man who did the best he could with his circumstances, in a compromised world?

Is human nature essentially “good”, or are we born wired to different moral frequencies?

Are we born innocent, the famed tabula rasa (blank slate) of philosophy? If experience is erased, do we recover innocence?

If we recover our memories, do we reclaim our guilt?

Elias’s most immediate problem is that his crashed car contains his niece’s cellphone and traces of her blood. And his niece is missing.

Under the Spanish investigative and legal system (which is unlike the legal systems I’ve encountered), he is immediately charged with her murder.

Almost every person in this series is a lawyer, ranging from Elias himself to high court judges (Elias’s wife) to law students (including the missing girl). A given in this moral universe is that lawyers are despicable.

Some law firms are corrupt (but successful and high profile), others start relatively idealistic (but shambolic, a joke, out of their depths).

So at another level, I Know Who You Are is an indictment of Spanish institutions, the Spanish establishment, and of the privileged classes.

Is it just white privileged people who are, arguably, born bad? Hard to say, as no ethnicities appear other than white Spaniards, and the poor are all but invisible (glancing glimpses in late episodes).

The family in Spanish culture is an obvious metaphor for various ties that bind.

We have groups of affiliation, the strongest and most traditional being the family. (Others being social class, gender, ethnicity, profession…) Does ‘for the family’ justify any action? What does it mean to say, “I know who my family is?”

It is not a shock to hear at one point a reference likening family to “mafia”. Or to see a jailed family member behave like a mafia don. It’s not a shock that this family’s home looks and functions like a bunker.

On a literal level, does ‘family’ extend to blended families? Are step-siblings our brothers and sisters? Are step-cousins even relatives? What are our obligations to those not of our blood within the extended ‘family’?

It’s no coincidence the character who symbolizes innocence in this scenario is an orphan.

Family becomes a metaphor for community, and for society more broadly. Margaret Thatcher famously said, “There is no such thing as society”. She meant, ‘There are only individuals making choices in their self-interest as best they see it in their circumstances.’

I Know Who You Are is an acting out of Thatcherite philosophy.

It asks the questions, What are our obligations to those outside our affiliation groups? To human beings broadly?

Do we have an obligation to behave like a decent human being, even if we suspect we are not?

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Alex Monner as Pol, the extraordinary Blanca Portillo as Alicia, Noa Fontanals as Julieta, Francesc Garrido as Elias

There is a Series 2.

UPDATE: In Australia, I Know Who You Are went out in two parts – Episodes 1-10, then, later, Episodes 11-16. So it wasn’t two series, just one longer series, broken into two parts.

IMHO the platform, SBS On Demand, was wise to break this 16-part series in two. The first 10 episodes focus on one specific crime (though other crimes are committed), with one lead detective, and a tight focus on the existential questions I’ve spelled out above.

Episodes 11-16 shift focus to a different crime (though the crime that launched others is still critical), with a different lead detective (though the initial detective is still active), and really homes in on privilege and corruption. I say “homes” in, because ‘family’ continues to be the prime metaphor for corruption and entrenched privilege in Spain. The action becomes increasingly heated, melodramatic, an allegory of Hell.

In the end, it’s a very dark satire: Lucifer at home, with family.


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The shark with my name on it

It’s edging
into the narrows
between the reef and rocky outcrops.
It inserts its proboscis
its probe
and smiles that smile that is not
a smile.
The shark with my name on it
quivers with instinctive
connective drive
Its pale planetary
eyes dilate.
Sensing my proximity
the shutters come down
nictitating membrane.
Better than an eye roll
a full body twist
a wink that says
silently
I’ve got your number.

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Another revolution (31 December 2018)

You say you want a revolution
Well you know, we all want to change the world

The Beatles, Revolution (1968)

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Earth has cycled round the Sun once again. Another new year rises. I’ve been on this trip 57 times now, and every year opens as infinite promise.

The New Year’s Resolution thing is, obviously, a conceptual conceit. Choosing 1 January to make life changes is arbitrary – after all, as Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, every breath is a resurrection. Every breath brings new life. Every breath is an opportunity for change.

Still, in Western culture, at least, a new year is viewed as a re-set button.

The nineteenth-century philosopher (and forerunner of contemporary psychology) William James wrote

To change one’s life:

  1. Start immediately.
  2. Do it flamboyantly.
  3. No exceptions.

Current psychiatric and psychological advice is to recognize behaviour change is hard, and there will inevitably be lapses (“exceptions”), and that understanding change as a gradual process, a process that requires we be kind to ourselves, and pace ourselves, is healthier and more likely to result in desired outcomes than what’s known as “all or nothing thinking”, or “black and white thinking”.

But current advice does suggest starting immediately (THIS breath, then again after a relapse, THIS breath) is smart, and that making our proposed behaviour change(s) public (“Do it flamboyantly”) makes us accountable, opens us to support, and is, all round, A Good Idea.

This week I had the dual experiences of attending a friend’s funeral and spending significant time with a vibrant young woman living with aggressive cancer.

I go to a few funerals. That’s a consequence of my parents’ friends being octogenarians, living in a community with an older demographic, working in aged care and community services, and having ties to a church community.

This funeral was different. The friend who died deserves a full obituary in his own right, so I won’t go there here. But contextually, I was struck by two things: how emblematic of my formative young adult years this man was; and the sense so many present had that this person, for many years, and for many reasons, after early glories had not lived to his potential, and had suffered sensing that.

He is not alone among my friends in that. It hurts me to think of the friends who died disappointed in their lives.

My living female friend presents a different picture. Despite being partway through treatment, with uncertain outcomes, and despite living with constant, often debilitating pain, she goes to the gym every day, walks her dog twice a day, continues a high-powered professional career part-time, cares for her primary school aged child, is a wonderful, loving, supportive partner, engages in a social life, and does all this with cheer and sparkling wit.

We must live until we die, they say (that amorphous, unattributable “they” – oh okay, maybe American country singer Clay Walker).

I have another woman friend with aggressive cancer at present. In this case, she asserts her will to live by continuing to be the combative, acerbic, fiercely intelligent, costume-loving, kick-ass broad she’s always been. She will not go gently.

This year, I want to live out the lessons I’m learning from those with a talent for living.

My resolution is to live like I mean it.

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Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was a vogue for the works of psychologist William Glasser, who developed what he called Reality Therapy, and Choice Theory, and whose books include Positive Addiction.

Glasser is not fashionable these days, partly because it’s argued he places responsibility to change, to live well, squarely on the individual; it’s argued his theories don’t take sufficient account of environmental factors (social and political structures) or genetic traits.

However: there’s not a lot we can do in the short-term as individuals about the social and political factors that impact us, and nothing we can do about our genetic legacies, save for making the best choices we can to minimize our genetic vulnerabilities.

I find Glasser confronting, but useful.

Essentially, Reality Therapy is about client and therapist focusing on practical steps, practical actions, to improve quality of life. Choice Theory is the idea that it’s all a series of choices. Make the better choice, as they (“they”) say.

Glasser’s theory of addiction stems from Freud’s contention that humans find worth through love and work. If a person believes they’ve failed at love and work, they feel inadequate. In Glasser’s view, they may, objectively, be inadequate.

It’s painful to see oneself as inadequate, so, according to Glasser, we choose behaviours that mask that pain. Generally, these are not good choices: self-medicating emotionally through alcohol, drugs, obsessions, compulsions.

The pain of our addictions is a smokescreen to spare us recognition of that underlying pain – the pain of our failure, our inadequacy.

Addiction is a neural rut, a habit wired in the neural pathways that turns a choice into controlling urge.

It doesn’t work to swim directly into a current; we’ll just exhaust ourselves and drown sooner. Instead, if caught in a rip or strong current, we’re advised to swim at an angle towards the shore, to pace ourselves rather than fight the rip – to focus on staying afloat.

Similarly, with behavioural change, and especially with addiction, instead of going mano a mano with the behaviour it might work better to take a more oblique approach: to focus on a positive behaviour, and substitute a positive addiction for a destructive one.

At the time Glasser wrote Positive Addiction, in 1985, research suggested two highly effective substitute behaviours that can displace addiction: meditation, and running. Any behaviour engaged in to excess can become problematic, if it adversely affects a person’s physical health, relationships, work responsibilities, social life or other significant commitments, and there’s been a great deal of publicity around ways running, particularly, can be problematic, but generally speaking both exercise and forms of meditation are extremely useful strategies in countering damaging behaviours.

No one can promise exercise, or meditation, will shield us from disappointment, or ill health, or under-performance. But exercise and meditation can help allay depression, anxiety, and a sense of inadequacy.

So this year, even though I’ve said this before, I plan to put back some of the activities I’ve let drop.

I want to walk more, do more yoga, breathe more mindfully, ride my bike, swim, dance, tend my garden.

I want to play the piano, maybe the viola, sing.

I want to listen to more music, spend more time with friends. Enjoy my life.

I want to live.


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Anthony O’Grady d.19 December 2018

Update: I am humbled that Anthony’s sisters Sharyn and Suellen have invited me to read a section from this at Anthony’s commemoration, Thursday 27 December 2018. I am honoured to contribute.

Anthony O’Grady with Bryan Ferry – RAM

One day late in 1979 I was walking along Glebe Point Road in Sydney with my new friend, Stuart Coupe, and Stuart suggested I should write for RAM, Rock Australia Magazine, my bible. He said he’d introduce me to the editor. So I went along to the RAM offices in Crown Street, Darlinghurst, to meet Anthony O’Grady.

The RAM offices were on the second level of a converted terrace building and were kinda funky. People who looked like they belonged in rock’n’roll were fugging up the space. Behind a large desk, with his back to a window overlooking Crown Street, sat Anthony.

Now Anthony had a very soft voice and pretty, feline features. He leaned back in his chair, with a guarded manner. He was watchful and maybe a bit irritated. I did not look rock’n’roll even slightly.

I could not hear a word AO’G said to me above the noise of traffic through the open window. I just kept smiling and nodding, hoping my timing was ok. Then I genuflected and backed out, cautiously.

That evening Stuart phoned me, to check that I was ok. He told me Anthony O’Grady had apologised for being rude to his friend. Anthony had, apparently, told me to fuck off. I had, apparently, just sat there, smiled and nodded.

Anthony said, “Anyone with skin that thick should be a rock music writer.”

Between them, I owe Anthony and Stuart the life I’ve led.

As a writer, I owe incalculably to Anthony.

My first few articles he tore up. Then he took to slashing them with a red pen. He told me what to dump. He told me what to expand. He told me when it pleased. Eventually, he smiled.

About 10 years later, Anthony took several public transport connections from the north shore of the Harbour to visit me in Kings Cross. He was delayed, by about an hour, and we didn’t have cellphones, so he couldn’t text. Back in my first floor, terrace-house apartment, I grew antsy waiting. I went out.

I was not home when Anthony arrived and he was disappointed. It was a hot day. He’d travelled hours, at some inconvenience. He did that, he told me, because he rated me.

Have I mentioned how highly I rate Anthony?

Love, lots of. From me to you, AO’G.

From Anthony:

I met Elly in 1979, in my capacity as founding editor of the rock magazine RAM. Of the many writers who appeared in the magazine during my seven years as editor, I regard Elly as amongst the most outstanding. Her writing was always perceptive, it embodied the attitude that music could be more than satisfactory entertainment, it could be emotionally fulfilling.

She is that rare individual who combines sensitivity with pervading intelligence. I have never ceased to be impressed by her talents as a writer and the vivaciousness of her personality.

Anthony O’Grady
Founding editor, RAM Magazine

Pics sourced online – on the right, cropped from a photograph by Bob King, in a blog post by Debbie Kruger