Saw the first half of the four-hour CBC miniseries H2O yesterday evening, and was pleasantly surprised to be thoroughly surprised. It’s not unusual that the latest effort of Paul Gross (of Due South, Men With Brooms and Stratford fame) should feature some excellent acting; but that Paul Gross could put together a Canadian political thriller of the calibre of A Very British Coup is enough to question the claimant’s sanity, if one didn’t see it for himself. I mean, just put the words together: “compelling” “Canadian” “political” “thriller”. One of these words does not belong. The life and death of the world is decided in the corridors of Washington and London; what business does Ottawa have being here?
But H2O starts to tell a decent political tale in its own Canadian style. The story is intelligent, compelling, and full of lighter shades of gray. The story begins when Trudeau-esque Prime Minister Matthew McLaughlin is killed in a Northern Quebec canoeing accident. His son Tom McLaughlin (Paul Gross) is launched into the national spotlight when he delivers a stirring eulogy at the funeral (another Trudeau touch). He initially rebuffs offers to draft him to the leadership, but then agrees to run, facing off against the deputy prime minister, a former Quebec separatist named Pierre Lavigne. While tying up loose ends, the investigator on the accident, Shannon Collins (Leslie Hope from 24), unravels the beginnings of a conspiracy to sell Canadian water to a parched United States, a conspiracy that may have led to the assassination of Prime Minister Matthew McLaughlin, and the responsibility for which may ultimately rest with his son.
H2O is a study in second guessing and defying expectations. You’d expect that Prime Minister Paul Gross would be the hero (he’s played the babyfaced Canadian so often), but like a Shakespearean villain, he could well be committed to the business conspiracy that brought down his father. You would expect, coming from the CBC, that the United States would be the one behind the ploy to end Canadian sovereignty over its water, but it’s not; rather, it’s just a big, thirsty force of nature driving the international businessmen behind this scheme to make a deal before the inevitable strikes. And you’d expect the Quebec separatist would be the villain, but Pierre Lavigne may well be the one politician who can save Canada.
There is a lot of grey, here, but it is light grey. Pierre Lavigne is a good example of this. He loses the leadership when he shows himself too eager for the position. He slips into an embittered slumber. He wakes up when he smells a rat, and becomes progressively more alarmed as events proceed. The businessmen behind the deal to sell Canada’s water are motivated by greed, but also by the sense of inevitability. “if your neighbour is thirsty, would you deny him a glass of water?” And then there is Prime Minister Tom McLaughlin himself.
I don’t know how this story turns out (part two is tonight), but so far the story has kept me guessing. At the end of part one, Prime Minister Paul Gross learns that his father was assassinated and he confronts the businessmen responsible. He does not say that he will expose them; he says instead that he is taking control. He then goes on national television and uses the assassination as a pretext to invoke the War Measures Act (another Trudeau touch), suspending civil liberties for 120 days and incidentally delaying an election campaign that may have hampered his ultimate plans.
Is Prime Minister Tom McLaughlin moving against the killers of his father, or is he carrying out his plan to sell out Canada’s water supply? Pierre Lavigne and Shannon Collins know of the assassination and of the plans to divert the Great Lakes into the parched American midwest, and Tom McLaughlin knows that they know. Will they try to bring down the government? Will they be able to? All we can do is tune in tonight.
The actors are on fine form, and the direction keeps the story flowing and interesting. Ottawa looks big, mysterious and sinister — a capital worthy of rubbing shoulders with All the President’s Men in Washington and Harry Perkins in London.
How cautionary is this tale? Well, so far, it’s been effective, mostly because the miniseries has stayed away from blatant moralizing. You get flashes of parched farmland and intrusive news reports on the growing drought, but these are (thankfully) kept to a minimum. The description of the scheme to move Canadian water into the American West (by creating a freshwater lake out of James Bay) is based on fact, as is the state of the American aquifers and the likely future of America’s breadbasket. So, H2O makes some interesting points, that health care may be just a distraction, and the real third-rail of Canadian politics is our water supply in a drying out world and it’s worth thinking about. But there are still two hours left to go. Whether or not the story succeeds as a cautionary tale depends on how subtle they can remain, and they’re on the knife edge now. It all depends on the climax.
Plenty of movies and mini-series have started with initial promise and failed to live up to them. However, the first two hours of H2O surprised me and intrigued me enough that I will be tuning in for part two. If the show plays its cards right, we may have another classic political thriller for our library — and possibly the only one made in Canada.
Update: Part Two
Part two managed to live up to part one, I think, although I thought they stretched credibility somewhat, getting Quebec and the Cree to deteriorate so quickly while the War Measures Act was on. This may have been the result of the breakneck pace of this production, however, which was hard to follow at times.
The climax worked, and the whole thing was very A Very British Coup. So, overall I’m pleased.
And (spoiler warning!) I was pleased that, while the Americans do take over at the end, their threat was not the Big Evil (tm) of this story. Prime Minister Paul Gross really did leave them with no alternative. You don’t think America’s just going to stand by while Canada goes all to hell, do you?
Still, if the ending was somewhat unsatisfying, I think it was in the fact that the collapse of the Prime Minister’s plan wasn’t adequately prepared. He did seem very much in control, and he had accurately measured and predicted the actions of all of his obstacles. Except the Americans.
Of all the things he had to consider, you wouldn’t think a man as intelligent as him would underestimate the Americans. Would you?
Final Rating: three and a half stars out of four.
My condolences to Alberta premier Ralph Klein on the death of his mother. That’s a nasty thing to happen at any time, much less during an election campaign.