The premise of “Thirteen,” about a woman fleeing after being held in captivity for thirteen years, immediately brings to mind recent Oscar-winning film “Room” and acclaimed TV show “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” among others. The novelty of its subject matter wasn’t what won me over, but when I heard “Thirteen” was originally broadcasted on the young-adult oriented BBC Three channel, my interest piqued. What about this show made BBC believe it would be best received by a teenage audience? Add the fact the show was created by Marnie Dickens, recognized as a writer for the influential teen soap opera “Hollyoaks,” and I was eager to give “Thirteen” a chance — and it doesn’t disappoint.
Jodie Comer (“Doctor Foster”) brings to life the ghastly predicament of 26-year old Ivy Moxam. After being held in a basement since the age of 13 in Brighton, England, she returns home. The strong directing and natural colors make the sad story human. Unfortunately for Ivy, the world has moved on since she disappeared. Focusing the show on what happens to an abductee after surviving sets it apart from the aforementioned works on the same topic. The way the show refuses to use flashbacks to tell Ivy’s past makes its writing feel all the more dedicated to its goal.
Life is hard for Ivy after escaping captivity, a side of the abductee narrative that’s rarely explored in such grim detail. Her own sister Emma (Katherine Rose Morley, “Last Tango in Halifax”) demands a DNA test when Ivy comes back out of pure disbelief. This is after detectives interrogate and thoroughly inspect her body to be assured she is not another “fake” Ivy before being reunited with her family. After hearing family members of missing persons in real life describe having passionate faith in seeing their loved ones again — years after their disappearances — this unwelcoming reception was shocking but made for excellent drama. Additionally, Ivy must work with detectives to find the person who kidnapped her, no matter how difficult it is. The emotional strain it produces is palpable, thanks to Comer’s nuanced performance.
Love is a prominent theme in the show, and it proves to be another difficult element in Ivy’s life. Not only have her parents separated, but her childhood love Tim (Aneurin Bernard, “War and Peace”) has grown up and married another woman. Dealing with so many changes while coping with the effects the abduction has had on her makes for a very compelling plot, even when the elements of the story are so familiar from years of hearing about such victims in the news.
The show deals with Ivy’s trauma tenderly and does not attempt to romanticize or infantilize the mental damage she has received from her abduction. As someone who is passionate about mental health awareness, I commend the solid representation shown in “Thirteen.”
Another well-done element is how the show uses mundane details to create suspense. There are many closeup shots of what would otherwise be daily objects and occurrences that instead put me on edge. Out of context the technique would be laughable, but the music manages to incorporate the setting into the story effortlessly.
In spite of its apparent marketing to young adults and its dark subject matter, “Thirteen” is easy to watch. It avoids revelling in the horror that Ivy experienced in the Brighton basement, following her path to recovery instead. This promises an uncommonly sobering but worthwhile journey for the rest of the mini-series.