It’s 1894. Nathan Appleby has returned home to rural Somerset, accompanied by his very cool, modern-woman wife, Charlotte. Nathan, too, is a modern man, a psychologist who’s just returned from a trip to Vienna, where he gave a talk about psychological trauma. He’s back in Somerset to see his mother, who’s dying. It’s the summer solstice, and while Nathan and the locals see to the usual traditions (lighting and dancing around a bonfire), someone goes to Nathan’s mother’s room. We don’t see who it is, but she tells them to leave her son alone, and then dies.
Her body is respectfully prepared for burial by women of the village and the housemaid, Gwen. While they’re doing that, we learn that Nathan had a first wife, who died, and they had a son together, Gabriel, who also died.
Now it’s time to decide what to do with the family farm. Nathan’s not so keen on taking up farming in the middle of an agricultural depression, when he’s got a full life back in London, but Charlotte’s gung-ho so they eventually decide to stay. Charlotte seriously commits, spending her inheritance on a traction engine she’s convinced will help them get ahead. The farm workers aren’t exactly excited by this new mechanised beast, but they’re not hostile the way they’re usually depicted in programmes like this.
As Nathan’s settling in, the local vicar, Denning, comes to see him and asks for help with his teenage daughter, Harriet. Harriet’s gone from being a sweet, cheerful, intelligent girl to being the type of person who sets a duckling in a pigpen and watches it get trampled to death. So…yeah, she needs some help. Nathan says he’s not in that line of work anymore, but then he finds Harriet standing in his pond in the middle of the night and decides he just can’t overlook this young woman’s distress. Charlotte’s not very supportive of this decision, because they’ve got a farm to yank out of the red now, but she’s not going to stop Nathan from doing what he has to do.
Nathan talks to Harriet, who tells him there’s a man who comes to her, and he told her to go to the pond. He can’t get any more out of her, so he goes to the vicarage and checks out her room, finding some phonographic cylinders hidden in the windowseat.
He takes them home and plays them. The first one’s harmless, a recording of one of the farm workers, Gideon, chatting about his life. Charlotte thinks this is delightful, how they can now record people’s lives and voices for posterity. But then things get serious when the next cylinder features little Gabriel asking, ‘Where are you, daddy?’ Oooh, man. Nathan, understandably, can’t listen to it for more than a few seconds at first, but then he gathers himself and restarts the recording. Charlotte looks distressed, unsure how to comfort him.
Once he’s gathered himself again, they try another cylinder, and now things get really creepy. It’s the voice of someone named Abel North, and he has a voice with ‘evil’ stamped all over it. Even if this guy looked and acted like Santa Claus, you’d be terrified of him. And he’s definitely not Santa Claus, because he gleefully talks of the local girls as ‘ripe fruit waiting to be plucked.’ As they turn off the phonograph, Harriet appears in the doorway, growling, in Abel’s voice, ‘The river for the likes of you.’
Nathan goes to talk to Gideon and another one of the workers, John, to find out who this Abel North was. Gideon tells him he was a seriously nasty piece of work. The son of a Baptist preacher who treated him horribly, he apparently did not follow a godly path. John says that Abel once confessed, while drunk, to having killed a woman from the workhouse, but there was no evidence, so it was never pursued.
Nathan thinks that Harriet is freaking out about her budding sexuality and manifesting or adopting this alter ego as some sort of coping mechanism. But Harriet’s dialling up the creepy by exponential levels. She spies on Gwen having sex with her boyfriend (though, to be fair, they are having sex outside in broad daylight), and starts imitating Nathan’s son from the recording and his mother (parroting her ‘Leave my son alone’ line) before planting a kiss on Nathan, basically begging him to go ahead and have sex with her, and punching him in the face when he pushes her away. He and Charlotte decide it might be time to unload this particular patient.
Meanwhile, a couple of things happen. First, someone sabotages the new machinery. Charlotte, frustrated, lashes out and accuses one of the farm workers of doing it. John insists that, while they know this thing will take their jobs and dislike it accordingly, they’d never do anything that might harm the farm. These people have worked the land for generations. It’s as much theirs as it is Nathan’s family’s. Charlotte apologises immediately, but there’s a definite dampener on the mood.
Everyone heads out to the fields, where John hitches some horses to a plough and stands in front of them, urging them on with an apple until they run him over and then slice his throat open with the plough. My God, what kind of crazy horses do they have on this farm? I don’t know any horse that would keep calmly walking forward while trampling over a human being. They don’t actually like doing that. And they don’t even have the apple in front of them to encourage them. I will say that the whole scene is bizarrely beautiful.
That night, while the locals raise a solemn glass to John, Harriet begins cutting, and draws something in her own blood on the wall. After cleaning and bandaging her up, Charlotte insists it’s time to give this girl back to her parents but Nathan doesn’t want to do anything that night. He agrees to send for her parents in the morning, and if they want to take this further, he’ll write to his colleagues in London.
The following morning, Charlotte is surprised and relieved to see the workers all returning to their jobs. She’d thought the whole incident with John would have caused them to stay away, but as one woman tells her, this is what they do. Charlotte’s a city girl, so she doesn’t know—doesn’t really know—what it’s like for these people. This land is them, it’s in their marrow, they love it, they love the family, they take pride in it, and they want to see it succeed. They won’t stand by and watch it die. That’s not what they do.
Back at the house, Harriet convinces one of the farm boys to let her out of her room, and once she’s free, she goes and starts waterboarding poor Gwen. Luckily, her parents, Nathan, and Charlotte see her and intervene before she manages to kill the woman.
Nathan suggests the total Hail Mary of hypnotising Harriet. Her parents reluctantly agree because it’s either that or an asylum at this point.
He takes Harriet into another room, locks the door, and puts her under. He asks to speak to Abel North, provoking a reaction by suggesting Abel is a coward, or something that doesn’t exist. She sits up sharpish and spits in his face. Nathan asks why Abel chose Harriet: because she seems weak, like the workhouse girl? He asks about Abel’s father, continuing to needle. Harriet writhes, starts talking in the various voices, growling as Abel that Gabriel was lonely, but he has Abel now. She knocks over furniture and her parents and Charlotte start to panic and rush to unlock the door. Nathan shouts for them to stay out, and then tries to bring Harriet out of her hypnosis. In Abel’s voice, she says something about baptism.
Nathan grabs her and hurries out to the pond, followed by her parents and Charlotte. As he gets into the water, he explains that Abel North was never baptised. He asks Denning to perform a baptism now. He does, and when Harriet resurfaces, she seems all better. Except we have several more episodes of this to get through, so I doubt this’ll be the last we hear of Abel North. Unless this little rural village is insanely rife with unsettled ghosts.
Jon is laid to rest. Right in the middle of the hymn, Nathan starts singing a local song. Could that have not waited until after the hymn, Nathan? This seems a bit rude, not to mention it makes things really awkward, as half the people there tried to continue with the hymn while the others joined in the other song. But finally they all abandon the hymn, even Denning.
That night, Nathan’s awake in bed. He hears a noise and goes to investigate, and what he sees seems to shock, horrify, and confuse him. And well it should: what he sees is a young woman, in modern dress, walking around with a brightly lit iPad.
Well. I didn’t see that one coming.