BBC One’s The Pale Horse: explaining the ending

Still have questions about how The Pale Horse ended? We have the answers. Major plot spoilers ahead…

The Pale Horse cast poster cropped
Photo: BBC

Warning: contains major plot spoilers.

As one might say after watching any of Sarah Phelps’ brilliantly nasty Agatha Christie adaptations for the BBC, well that wasn’t all cakes, vicars and contract bridge. Two-part drama The Pale Horse was a heady, grimy, occult-tinged story about one man who killed for money and another who did it out of possessive, jealous anger.

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Here’s our review of part two, and if that slippery ending left you wondering what you just saw, below is a handy breakdown of events…

What happened to Mark in the end?

There are two options: a not-particularly-satisfying one is that the scene of him returning to his apartment, reading about his own death in the paper and then getting stuck in the scene of Delphine’s death was just another one of his feverish dreams, brought on by guilt and mild Thallium poisoning at the hands of Osborne.

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Much better is the suggestion that Mark really did die in his apartment, as reported in the paper. Either the Thallium poisoning killed him (though Osborne told him that he’d be fine as he hadn’t intended to murder him with it, just fuel his paranoia), or the witches were real and actually did curse him to death, or (the preferred choice) he was killed by Hermia. The Mark we saw at the end was therefore in the afterlife and trapped in a kind of hell or purgatory where he was being punished for his guilt.

Why might Hermia have killed Mark?

When the ‘witches’ came to visit her in hospital, off-screen they told her that Mark had hired them to kill her (giving her “I just woke up” comment to the nurse a double meaning as she’d literally awoken from her coma and also from her illusions about Mark, the man she’d loved for years.)

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There’s an extra possibility too, depending on what you believe. After Mark pays the witches to curse Hermia and Lejeune, they tell him to close his eyes, and we’re shown his memory of having jealously killed Delphine and covered it up. If the three women really do have supernatural powers, perhaps they ‘saw’ that memory too, and got rid of him themselves or also told Hermia that Mark was responsible for Delphine’s death.

Are the witches really witches?

If you mean did those three women actually curse any of the list victims to death (possibly Mark aside), then no, that was all Osborne’s doing. Osborne used them as a cover for his money-making murder scheme, anonymously sending his clients instructions to visit The Pale Horse and ask for the fortune to be told of the person they wanted dead. Until the women noticed that the people whose fortunes they told kept ending up dead, they had no idea they were being used in this way.

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The women may well have just, as they said, delivered babies, read fortunes and made salves for wheezy chests, but a few things hint that they did possess some kind of supernatural power: Sybil’s on-the-money prediction to Delphine that Mark would be married to somebody else by the autumn, Sybil mentioning the girl with the red handbag standing next to Mark at the Lammas Fair (though Delphine had the handbag when she came to visit them, which might explain that), and the way they all appeared to detect Mark spying on them at the same time.

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BBC One's The Pale Horse witches

There’s also (see above) the possibility that they read Mark’s mind and discovered he had killed Delphine, and then helped Hermia to kill him in revenge, but all that’s kept nicely ambiguous.

Why were the witches at Tommy and Clemency’s funerals?

Because they’d spotted a connection between their repeated visitor Jessie Davis and the deaths connected to their other clients. They realised that Jessie was visiting The Pale Horse to keep tabs on Osborne’s and her clients. When Thomasina Tuckerton and Clemency Ardingly were reported as dead, the three women attended the funerals to investigate.

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Who left the corn dollies and dead hare for Mark?

That was all Osborne, doing it to fuel Mark’s paranoia about the witches’ curse. He wanted to manipulate Mark into burning down The Pale Horse, to rid him of the women who’d started to uncover his game.  

So nobody had placed a curse on Mark?

Nah. Osborne just wanted him to think that so that he could manipulate him into killing the women at The Pale Horse: “We need a cleansing, a purifying. We can only answer them with fire.”

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How did Mark realise Osborne was the killer?

With Hermia in a Thallium-induced coma, Mark has a sleazy party with dancing girls from Thomasina’s club. It’s there he makes the startling realisation that Osborne is guilty because he slipped up when he banged on Mark’s window and shouted that everybody on the list apart from him, Mark and Ardingly were dead. At the point Osborne said that, Thomasina Tucker’s body hadn’t yet been discovered and her death wasn’t public knowledge.

How did Osborne’s system work?

He would read the newspaper, find a case where somebody would benefit from somebody else’s death and then write to them offering to remove their “obstacle”. Those interested would write back and he’d tell them to go to have that person’s fortune read at The Pale Horse, then to send the money via a banker’s draft. He’d send his colleague Jessie Davis to check up on them at The Pale Horse. The three women had no knowledge of what was going on or that they were being used, until they rumbled the plan when the deaths of people whose fortunes they’d read were reported in the paper.

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Bertie Carvel in BBC One's The Pale Horse

What Osborne was spending the money on we never found out, but it certainly wasn’t dentistry.

How did Osborne administer the poison?

Through drinking water. He owned a hardware and repair shop, so under the guise of a handyman, Osborne spiked his victims’ water supplies with undetectable Thallium.

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How did Osborne poison Hermia?

We’re not told, she’s just found unconscious on the floor. The more important question is why he did it. As far as Osborne knew, Mark was off to burn down The Pale Horse. He knew that Mark thought he was cursed by Hermia, but it’s not clear why he felt the need to kill her.

Why did Osborne poison Inspector Lejeune?

Again, it’s not clear but presumably because he was investigating the list and therefore represented a threat to his scheme. The final two poisonings seem a bit of a fudge, to be honest.

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If Mark wasn’t one of Osborne’s clients, why was his name on Jessie’s list?

When the Pale Horse women confronted Jessie about the deaths, Thyrza said “What about Easterbrook, Mark Easterbrook. His wife came here and now she’s dead, is he paying you too?” That made Jessie suspect that Osborne was doing ‘jobs’ without her, so she added Mark’s name to the list, with a question mark.

Who killed Jessie?

Osborne, twice. First he poisoned her, and then on her deathbed, she wrote the list of names and tried to take them to the police station to confess to their crimes. Before she reached the station, Osborne appeared behind her and killed her, keeping his filthy secret.

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