BBC America’s Harrowing ‘Thirteen’ Focuses on the Psychology of Abuse

The series paints an appropriately complex picture of how prolonged abuse works to break down the mind of its target.

The premise of BBC America’s Thirteen sounds a lot like Room: A 26-year-old woman escapes from the cellar where she had been held captive for 13 years. But Thirteen, which premieres on Thursday, is more interested in exploring the aftermath of this brutal attack than the experience of captivity itself. The series paints an appropriately complex picture of how this kind of abuse works to break down the mind of its target.

Thirteen opens with Ivy Moxam’s (Jodie Comer) escape from the ordinary-looking house in the ordinary-looking English town where she grew up. From the very start, the direction (split between Vanessa Caswill and China Moo-Young) emphasizes Ivy’s point of view: When her bare foot touches earth for the first time, we see it in close-up, slowed down. At the police station, we see glimpses of her bruised body, her mouth being swabbed, fingernails clipped for samples.

The first few episodes focus on Ivy’s experience of a world she hasn’t seen for half her life. Her parents (Natasha Little and Stuart Graham) have split since she left — her father’s left home and taken up with a younger woman — but when they hear Ivy’s back, they attempt to rebuild their home as it was before she was abducted. But things have changed. Her younger sister, Emma (Katherine Rose Morley), is engaged; her old sweetheart, Tim (Aneurin Barnard), is married.

Created and written by Marnie Dickens, Thirteen is hyper-sensitive to the tiny, mundane details that loom large for Ivy. She’s eager to see Tim, but when he puts his hand on hers, she pulls back and runs off. Comer plays Ivy like a wounded fawn, nailing both her shaky, post-traumatic state and her stunted development. She lets a half-smile pass across her lips when a kind detective, Elliott (Richard Rankin), tells her that her life isn’t on pause anymore. When she’s in the presence of Elliott or Tim, she reflexively touches her hair. Ghostly pale, she appears sapped of color, much like the series itself; a grey, cold natural light infuses the interior spaces, as if to mirror Ivy’s inner numbness.

Thirteen plunges into the turmoil that Ivy’s return causes for her family. Her arrival at her childhood home isn’t a heartwarming homecoming, but an awkward affair: Her mother is anxious for everything to be nice again, the way it was, but her eagerness and worry is stifling to Ivy. “She’d happily keep me in my room,” Ivy mutters to Tim. She finds comfort in the company of her sister, but their closeness causes a rupture between Emma and her fiancé, Craig (Joe Layton). Her return is a relief, of course, but it’s also incredibly stressful for everyone involved. The reaction is totally believable — everyone is a mess. Like Transparent, the show is attuned to how one person’s circumstances shift the balance of an entire family. “Everyone stop saying sorry,” Ivy cries.

To make Ivy’s adjustment more complicated, she has to endure repeated questioning by Elliott and his detective partner, Lisa (Valene Kane), who’s skeptical about Ivy’s story — and worried that Elliott is becoming too attached to Ivy to do his job right. As the five-episode season progresses, Elliott becomes increasingly frustrated with his superiors, convinced they’re handling Ivy insensitively. “Poor girl,” he murmurs. “Elliott, she came in a girl,” Lisa corrects him. “She’s a woman now.” Lisa may come off as cold in the beginning, but it’s increasingly clear that she’s right to doubt Ivy’s story, although not for the reasons you may think. Thirteen demonstrates how ill-equipped the justice system can be to handle an imperfect victim.

When a ten-year-old girl, Phoebe, goes missing — and the police still haven’t found Ivy’s captor, Mark (Peter McDonald) — it’s clear that she’s a much easier victim for the police to sympathize with than the emotionally damaged, untrusting Ivy. “Save your empathy for Phoebe,” a Scotland Yard detective tells Elliott. Thirteen is unflinching in its examination of the hierarchy of victimhood that even police can’t help but create.

We never see gruesome flashbacks to Ivy’s time in captivity, finding out about the circumstances of her kidnapping through police interviews. Nor do we find out much about Mark other than a few basic details, like the fact that his mother kicked him out of the house when he was 16 — and, horribly, that he was an employee of Ivy’s school. Instead, Thirteen focuses on the psychological abuse that Ivy’s endured, which is the very thing that makes her such an unreliable witness to the police.

Ivy’s return isn’t all rainbows and kisses because, to her mother’s sorrow, her physical escape doesn’t mean all is well again. Despite their vast differences in genre and tone — not to mention color palette — Thirteen shares a great deal with the Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, another story about a woman who flees from captivity and attempts to adjust to life on the outside. Like its comedic counterpart, Thirteen understands how psychological abuse changes a person forever.