The show also succeeds in its use of River’s manifests as key characters with fully formed personalities that help to move the plot forward, doing more than simply adding an eerie edge to the story. In fact, the show’s best moments are the ones happening inside River’s head. By framing these manifests as part of River’s mind, the series is able to explore the intricacies of mental illness in a way that feels fresh.
Among most peculiar of River’s manifests is that of Dr. Thomas Cream, who appears to River while he is reading a book about the killer’s life. Cream is distinct from River’s other visions and has an otherworldly quality to him, with his 19th century clothing and twirl-worthy moustache. Rather than giving us insight into River’s character or helping him make sense of evidence, Cream acts as more of an allegorical figure – evil incarnate, and unafraid to address himself as such. This type of character is closer to something you’d find in a morality play and feels a little out of place in a primetime drama, but he triumphs at bringing the darkest parts of River’s brain to light.
As the series progresses, we learn that these manifests are permanent fixtures in River’s mind, yet their relationship to him wavers depending on his mental state. When River is at his worst, his manifests are violent and antagonistic, with Cream gaining more power. Yet, when he is at peace, his manifests do not evaporate. Instead, they simply behave in a more manageable fashion, allowing River to go about his daily life without incident. This portrayal of mental illness – as something in flux and yet always there – is more realistic and mature than most attempts to tackle the subject matter on TV.
River’s melancholic portrayal of mental illness is mirrored by the show’s aesthetic, which leaves River at the center of a world that is both intrinsically and externally grey. River’s universe is decidedly urban, taking the audience inside subway cars, dimly lit investigation rooms, down back alleys, and out the back door of beaten-down Kebab shops. No sleek skyscrapers or marble-ridden corner offices for this drama. It’s a choice that works – not only to establish tone but to reinforce River’s isolation. He is alone in even the busiest of public spaces, with only the fickle manifests of his own brain to keep him company.
This choice also gives River bit more credibility in terms of the social issues it depicts. Whether he is trying to track down Somalian immigrants or trying to contain a hysterical young black woman who is afraid the government will take her child away, River (and therefore, the audience) continually bears witness to the systemic race, class, and gender biases that exist within the health care and criminal justice systems. By exploring these matters in the worlds in which they occur, rather than simply having brilliant law enforcers save the day from the top floor, the series is able to make substantial commentary on social issues without coming across as preachy or tone deaf.
However, even in its strongest moments, River cannot be fully saved from erratic pacing and scattered storytelling. The series starts off strong, setting up season-long and episodic arcs that move its first episode along at a brisk pace. But the show loses its momentum quickly. With each new episode, more time is spent on character development than tending to its mysteries.
In some ways, this shift is a positive thing. It lets us experience quiet moments between Stevie and River and provides time for Chrissie and Ira to transform into fleshed out characters rather than simple archetypes (Rosa, unfortunately, is never really given this treatment). However, the lack of consistency in pace takes a lot of life out of the show and doesn’t leave the viewer desperate for more – a particularly damning quality for a show airing on a streaming service.
Perhaps River’s biggest issue is that it’s a crime drama without much interest in being a crime drama. The more procedural aspects of the show, such as the Case Of The Week and the investigation into Stevie’s murder, often take a backseat to the emotional, social, and familial traumas the characters are experiencing. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing –the emotional lives of the characters Morgan has created are rich. But, if River is more interested in being a character-driven piece, why even bother with the crime format?
In this sense, the series seems to struggle with one of the most basic storytelling principles: set up and resolution. If you set up an intriguing, gritty mystery, it better have an equally intriguing resolution. Instead, the series’ big reveal comes in the form of exposition and is jammed in the middle of the season’s final episode, leaving even our hero as a reactionary figure rather than the proactive character we began this journey with. In doing this, the show wastes any momentum it did manage to build, leaving the audience feeling exhausted but not satisfied.
If you’re looking for a crime drama with elegantly plotted twists and turns, excitedly charging towards resolution, River probably will not fill that void. However, for those interested in jumping inside the mind of a tormented man? Go right on in… River is waiting to speak to you.
Intelligent and eerie, River manages to push past its deflated premise to become a captivating exploration of mental illness and the widespread effects of trauma.