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Eden – a Tragedy in Retrospect

Sophie Wilde, BeBe Bettencourt and Keiynan Lonsdale star in the Stan Original series Eden. (Stan)

In Australian murder mystery Eden (2021) writer and creator Vanessa Gazy uses multiple perspectives, with each episode centring a different character to reveal new angles to the plot. It’s a technique that can be effective in any genre, as seen in Australian dramas such as The Slap (2011)and Wakefield (2021). For a murder mystery it’s a compelling way to interweave clues, yet as the eight-part series unfolded, I found myself struggling to connect with the characters as their different stories unravelled in the idyllic fictional island of Eden. Shot in the northern beaches of Byron Bay, the lapping blue ocean, perfect sand and lush forests added to this feeling of distance – it’s all too beautiful, too unreal, like a dream.

Scout’s (Sophie Wilde) return to Eden while on summer break from Julliard is the focus of the first episode. Arriving home to her mother’s rehab centre and health spa, she passes a tennis game being played with no ball, the players mimicking the shots, and her glassy-eyed step-father muses, “It’s a beautiful game. The score’s always zero. Love, love.” This strange, dystopian vibe sets the tone for the series, heightening when Scout drug-trips with her best friend Hedwig (BeBe Bettencourt) and their friendship twists and distorts in a dream-like haze, swaying between awkward tenderness and sudden hostility from Hedwig that has no context yet for either Scout or the viewer. When Hedwig goes missing at the end of the first episode, it’s difficult to feel Scout’s subsequent distress because there is no insight into the history of their friendship. Instead we know only its fractious finale, so there is little for the viewer to mourn.

Yet the impact of tragedy can be captured in a brief moment, as seen in cult-phenomenon Twin Peaks (1990), where the discovery of a young woman’s body is the beginning of the story. The horror of this is shown through the obvious camaraderie of the detectives, and the simplicity of the devastating dialogue, “She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic.” From that moment onwards the devastation deepens as the parents, friends and the tight-knit community react to the news and the investigation begins. Eden, on the other hand, reverses the script bykeeping the fate of Hedwig hidden until the sixth episode, and nothing about it is simple. By this point the plot feels so complicated by the overlapping perspectives and characters acting aggressively without context that the mental effort of keeping track blunts the emotional effect of Hedwig’s death. Also, since things have felt off kilter from the start, there was no sense of normal to disrupt, so the disturbance her death brings feels muted within the general uneasiness already present on the island.

Things do also become mind-bendingly complicated in Twin Peaks, but the difference is that it was able to first establish a sense of a cosy community that was suddenly broken by tragedy, and kept things grounded with authentic characters, witty dialogue, and a charming detective for the viewer to grip onto as clues presented themselves – even when this happened in surreal dreams.

Murder mysteries often have a captivating detective to lead the viewer through the complex plot until the moment of crystallization when all the clues point in the same direction, such as the glamourous Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) in the Miss Fisher (2012) series. In Eden there is no strong thread to follow. With no singular protagonist, Eden is about all the characters. It is about the way people’s different motivations sometimes crash into each other, causing chaos. The layering of perspectives combined with jumps backwards and forwards in time is sometimes confusing, yet also offers some beautiful moments when parallel stories intersect with clever camera angles, or through linking devices such as a boiling kettle. It shows the messiness of multiple, competing interests, and the poignancy of characters slipping past each other, failing to connect with each other and with the viewer.

This disorientating – and at times isolating – structure helps Eden maintain its simmering undertone of unease, a feeling that comes more starkly from Twin Peaks. The scenery lacks the bleakness of Twin Peaks, with its Douglas Firs towering over the icy town,or Australian crime shows like Jack Irish (2016) where gritty streets and lonely back roads reflect the crime and killing taking place – even the protagonist looks like he sleeps in a gutter. In Eden, the cast of diverse actors are all beautiful, double-crossing and killing each other in a beautiful setting, an ironic portrayal of the inner darkness at the heart of the series. The way the beauty is displayed is what subtly hints at the true nature of the characters – overhead shots of the ocean or the forest offer a sense of vastness, reflecting the complexity of the plot, the impossibility of unravelling each strand of motive, each thread of human failing and inner ugliness that seems to splinter into infinite possibilities as we travel through the forest, sunlight filtering through the fog and trees. This dream-like quality has echoes of director Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) with its memorable haunting panpipes giving a supernatural feel to Miranda’s disappearance in the Australian bush. Hedwig, like Miranda, is a blonde, waif-like creature, but her innocence is more complicated than that of the young schoolgirl who vanished into rock.

Hedwig has been an unlikable and confusing character from every perspective so far. Her story, saved for the final episode, is a difficult one, summed up poignantly in a line from her father’s eulogy, “Bright girl from a dark life.” To emphasise her enigmatic quality, her presence in this episode is ghostly – she appears mainly in the non-physical world of Scout’s dreams, visions and memories as Scout takes on the detective role for the ultimate reveal. The truth is shocking. It is a moment of crystallization that is more emotional than a logical culmination of clues. It is insight into Hedwig’s behaviour, her struggles, her pain. This sudden understanding gives her character a pathos that was lacking until now. The tragedy is that we only know Hedwig after her death. Her story echoes back through the narrative and is only truly felt in retrospect. Unlike classic murder mysteries that hook the viewer with a death and keep them hanging on as characters reveal themselves, bit by bit, teasing the viewer with little nuggets of insight along the way, Eden uses dream-like imagery to entice the viewer. But it is slow to reveal much else, holding the important characters at a distance until the sudden revelation at the end. I wish I had known them sooner.