From Lionel Shriver’s gripping novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, whose protagonist is often described as one, to Jon Ronson’s bestselling book The Psychopath Test, our society has something of a fascination with psychopaths and the devastating, often violent, crimes they commit.
We are particularly gripped by murder cases involving child perpetrators, many of whom display psychopathic traits. The media attention these cases attract frequently outweighs their relevance to most of our everyday lives, yet we can't help but read on. Partly, it's the dissonance between the abhorrence of the acts described and the killer's purported innocence that has us hooked. How could someone who looks like my harmless little brother/ sister/ niece/ nephew/ son/ daughter be so dangerous?
This chilling discrepancy, and the reasons why some of us develop psychopathic tendencies while others don't, is the subject of Born To Kill, Channel 4’s latest psychological thriller. The four-part drama, from the makers of Line Of Duty, explores one teenager's dark, murderous, psychopathic desires and will have you hiding behind your sofa and second-guessing the inner lives of even your closest friends and family. The show has already attracted critical praise, having been favourably compared to the film adaptation of Shriver’s award-winning novel in the way it depicts domestic life, examining how psychopaths can emerge and whether they are born or made.
The show’s protagonist is Sam, played by rising star Jack Rowan, a serial killer in school uniform whose behaviour aligns closely with that of someone who has been diagnosed as a psychopath. (The word is never used directly to describe him in the show, however, and young people aren’t diagnosed as psychopaths because their brains are not yet fully formed. Not every child who exhibits callous, unemotional behaviour will go on to become an adult psychopath.)
There is no definitive definition of psychopathy but, traditionally, it is described as a personality disorder associated with particular traits. A psychopath will routinely engage in antisocial behaviour and lacks any trace of empathy or remorse for his or her actions. They are fearless, arrogant, egotistical and, while they don’t generally care about people's feelings, they can be adept at worming their way into other people's minds to manipulate them through deception. A psychopath may be superficially charming, polite and seem like a "good" kid – like Sam – but, unbeknown to those around them, be a pathological liar who cannot form genuine relationships with anyone, even their closest family.
Sam's mum is the stoical Jenny, played by Romola Garai, of The Hour and Suffragette, a single parent and geriatric nurse who is forced into turmoil as her painful past invades her present. Jenny and Sam are both survivors of domestic abuse at the hands of Sam's estranged violent father, who is in prison and nearing his parole date – unbeknown to Sam, who was brought up believing he was dead. Knowing this about Sam raises the question of whether his murderous desires are a product of his biological makeup or his first-hand experiences of violence as a young child – the age-old nature/ nurture debate. And as ever, there's no clear answer.
Speaking to The Observer, Garai said it was the fullness of her character that drew her to the role: “I would never do a show like this if the victim didn’t have a life and a job and lines. The writers did enough to put the violence against women into context.” She added that, while "a strong female character is usually written as an emotionless woman – a cold bitch, with no feelings," Born To Kill's writers haven't done that. "I play a woman with a full and rich emotional life.”
Early on in the series, Jenny is brought together with fellow parent Bill, played by Daniel Mays (of Made in Dagenham and Line of Duty fame), and the two begin a friendship that turns into something more. Further complications arise when Sam strikes up a heady relationship with Bill’s rebellious teenage daughter Chrissy, played by newcomer Lara Peake, a like-minded soul with a similar disregard for authority.
Jenny and Bill bond over their mutual lack of understanding of their teenagers and the difficulties of parenting today. Granted, their kids are rather more disaffected and troubled than the average teen, but it’s a dilemma with which many parents will wrestle at some point. “Do you ever wonder what they’re doing when we’re not there?” Jenny asks in one scene, as she grapples with whether to start checking Sam’s room and going through his phone. To which Bill replies matter-of-factly: “Every parent does that and the ones that say they don’t, they’re lying.”
It would be easy for a show about the complexity of psychopathy and teenage serial killing to oversimplify or completely misrepresent the issues, but the team behind Born To Kill took pains to ensure they dealt with the subjects responsibly. Female writing duo Kate Ashfield and Tracey Malone, along with the show’s director Bruce Goodison and producer Jake Lushington, undertook meticulous research on the condition and met clinical experts in psychopathy.
Dr. Richard Church, a forensic psychiatrist specialising in children and adolescents, who worked on the show, revealed he has tended to decline TV work throughout his career until now. Writing in The Telegraph, he said: "Advising on reality shows and providing soundbites hasn’t held much appeal, and often the nuances involved in my work disappoint those looking for anything sensationalist." But the idea behind Channel 4's latest offering "struck [him] as brave new territory – and a serious challenge" and he accepted the production team's invitation.
"If Born To Kill can go some way towards fostering an awareness of the nuances in this challenging field of child psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience, as well as providing enthralling entertainment, then it will have done something of real value," added Dr. Church.
But perhaps the thorniest point raised by the show is the question of how we, as a civilised society, should respond to and treat psychopathic killers like Sam. It’s a moral quandary that harks back to the nature/ nurture debate – should we show compassion because their behaviour may stem, at least in part, from the way their brain is wired? Or do we show psychopaths the same callousness they show us? Having empathy for those who lack it is no easy proposition.
Born To Kill airs tonight at 9pm on Channel 4 and will be available on 4OD.