I am not a forgiving person. Several times a day I will take against people based purely on their choice of shoes. To watch me struggle with a door and a buggy without helping is to earn yourself several generations’ worth of silent curses. Plus, recently I may have audibly cackled while declining a Facebook request from the bitchiest girl from my class. Mercy isn’t really my bag.
However, this morning, when my two-year-old son kicked me hard in the chin, I laughed it off, wiped away the tears that had sprung from my eyes with the impact, and gave him a cuddle. Because he’s my son, and I’m his mother, and I would forgive him anything.
Born to Kill is more chilling, because the central struggle isn’t that of Sam and his potential killerdom, but of an ordinary mum doing her best
Or would I? Would I really forgive my son anything at all? This is one of the questions facing Romola Garai’s character in the new four-part drama Born to Kill, which starts tonight on Channel 4. From the writers of Line of Duty and Silent Witness, this tense drama focuses on single mother Garai as she starts to come to the horrible realisation that her teenage son, Sam – to all appearances popular, affectionate and kind – may be a psychopath.
Born to Kill is an unsettling watch from the start, with Sam collecting sinister souvenirs and practising convincing smiles in the mirror, all the while doing his best to make his mum smile and protecting his classmates from bullies. Meanwhile, the background tension is ratcheted up with a pyromaniac teen love interest and a series of devastating family secrets coming to light.
Which is the real Sam, we are invited to wonder. The thoughtful son, or the dead-eyed loner? And, just like We Need to Talk About Kevin, Born to Kill explores what makes a psychopath – genes? Environment? Stress? Or a combination of all three? But, whereas in We Need to Talk About Kevin you can almost see the pieces that make up Kevin’s psychopathy coming together, Born to Kill is more chilling, because the central struggle isn’t that of Sam and his potential killerdom, but of an ordinary mum doing her best.
Garai plays Sam’s mum, Jenny, with an everyday honesty and vulnerability that’s alarming - because really she could be any of us. She could have been me if my relationship hadn’t worked out, and if I’d decided to go into nursing. She’s flawed and tired, she loves her son, and she’s just trying to get on while feeling eclipsed by circumstance. And that’s a very universal feeling.
Of course, the truth is you can’t compare a toddler’s accidental kick in the chin to a psychopath deliberately indulging their desires. But can you when you’re a mum? I can’t imagine not loving something my son does. He is tiny and soft and blond. I’ve known him for two years and I still marvel at his little fingernails, and the little turns of phrase he comes out with (“Mummy no willy! Mummy sad yes?”) I’m so proud of his achievements - I’m so proud of his poos, for god’s sake - that, god knows. Who’s to say I wouldn’t be proud of a murder if he planned and executed it well?
It sounds like I’m being flippant, but I’m not. Your perception gets turned on its head when you’re a parent. Your kid is your world, your world is your kid, and your day is marked in the minutiae of them. Every new behaviour, every time they work something out for themselves, show compassion, or smile.
And that’s what makes Born to Kill even more disturbing. Garai plays every mum so well that you buy her story totally, and equate it with your own. So you assume that she, like you, has been through all this with her own son. And yet she missed it. Which means you might, too.
Born to Kill, starts on Thursday 21 April, on Channel 4.