Holding out for a hero – Representation at just the right time

I’ve been totally obsessed with Vigil for its whole duration. It’s no secret that I love a good police procedural drama, with my past viewing history including Inspector Morse, Lewis, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Sherlock, Death in Paradise and the first two series (so far) of Line of Duty. I was drawn into the first trailer for Vigil that I saw:


The premise is that DCI Amy Silva is put onboard HMS Vigil, a fictional Trident nuclear submarine off the coast of northern Scotland, to investigate the sudden and mysterious death of crewman Craig Burke. She receives a less than warm welcome, which only grows frostier as it comes to light that the death needs to be treated as murder.

DCI Silva, like every good fictional detective, comes with far more complexity than first meets the eye. Before the airing of episode one, I came across articles critiquing the arrival of ‘yet another traumatised detective’. At first, I was prepared to defend the cause purely from the standpoint that as a viewer, I love a bit of angst, so a ‘traumatised’ detective is never a character I’ll turn down!

Amy Silva’s complexity endeared her to me quickly. She’s an intelligent woman, a driven professional at the top of her field. A strong career-woman will always be a winner with me (see also: Elle Woods, Precious Ramotswe and Kate Henderson.) But what really stunned and impressed me was the dawning realisation that although Amy is at the top of her game professionally, she also wrestles with some pretty significant mental health issues.

By the end of episode one, we know that Amy’s claustrophobia on the submarine is neither feigned, forced nor unfounded. Within an unknown recent timescale, she was involved in a car accident with her partner and daughter that saw the car plunge into a loch, with devastating consequences. In episode two, there’s a very short scene that took my breath away: Amy loses one of her pills in her bunk room, and it’s the submarine doctor who retrieves it and enquires as to what drug it is. Paroxetine, for anxiety and depression. It’s such a tiny scene, but it was incredible to hear a conversation that’s become quite normal, although still difficult, for me over the last five years. I can’t quite explain what it means to have mainstream media representation of my normal (a ‘normal’ shared by millions of others!) All kudos to Suranne Jones, for perfectly capturing the tentative uncertainty that comes with ‘confessing’ to taking medication and the unspoken hope that the listener will still look at you the same way once those words have left your lips.

Things do not run smoothly for DCI Silva once the truth is out. Part of her investigation is derailed when The Stigma comes into play and briefly, she is accused of and widely seen as being mentally unsound because of her medicated status. It makes for uncomfortable viewing as a fellow medicated professional, even one in a very different field.

It means a lot to me, and no doubt to others too, that Amy’s mental health or lack thereof is an important part of her story, but nonetheless a subplot rather than the main event. Because that’s how life is for those of us on meds: we’re still the person we were before we started the meds, which arguably make us the person we were meant to be in the first place. Importantly, we’re still the same person we were, before you found out we were medicated. In Vigil, you see Amy for a whole episode, investigating a complex case alone, before there’s any indication of antidepressants, which is another very real representation of medicated life! People on meds don’t wear flashing beacons to identify themselves to the wider population, and we do just trundle along, living our lives like everybody else, until it happens to become relevant to mention the meds, if this ever happens.

While of course we need stories about characters whose mental health becomes front and centre, for example in periods of crisis (see: the brilliant OCD storyline done a few years ago on Casualty) it’s also vital, as the discourse around mental health continues to become more mainstream, that we have representation in the form of characters who are personally and professionally successful despite their mental illness. Partly as proof to the shame brigade who fuel The Stigma and seem to think that a few pills is enought to reserve a spot in a padded cell…

But actually, as someone with anxiety and depression myself, I’ve loved Amy’s subplot of trauma/anxiety/panic beacuse even though she’s fictional, it’s strangely lovely to see someone vaguely like me reflected back at me from the media. Okay, so I’m not a DCI, even with my extensive viewing history and associated investigative tendecies, but I’m a driven woman in a (sometimes) high-pressure career, juggling my profession with a side-order of anxiety. It’s not as simple this, obviously, but if Amy Silva can get on with it on a nuclear submarine, having run out of pills (rookie error there!) then I can keep on keeping on at what I do best, too.

Ever since I was a little girl, there have been fictional characters I’ve looked up to. Matilda, Hermione Granger, Cather Avery, Rory Gilmore (in the early seasons!) As a chronic overthinker it’s not uncommon for me as an adult to still deeply consider the fictional characters I encounter in terms of their similarity or difference to myself. To find one that I can draw so many parallels with and get behind wholeheartedly has meant the Sunday 9pm TV slot has been a very enjoyable one over the last month. Let’s have more characters like Amy Silva!

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