Warning: contains spoilers for Inside No. 9 series 6 episode 2.
The online petition to ‘Remake Game of Thrones Season 8 with competent writers’ currently has over 1.8 million signatures. Despite the series having ended two years ago and HBO politely declining the opportunity to bin its $100m first attempt and have another go, people continue to add their names. Call it love or call it entitlement, some fans can’t move on.
That’s the context for ‘Simon Says’, a dark story about the writer of a fictional fantasy TV epic with a famously unpopular ending. When fans Simon and Gavin (Reece Shearsmith and Nick Mohammed) blackmail Spencer Maguire (Steve Pemberton) into remaking the season seven finale of The Ninth Circle, they unexpectedly end up starring in finales of their own. After their scheme goes badly wrong, Maguire murders one, and then kills the other to cover his tracks.
With its heightened tone, scheming power-grabs, characters coming back from the dead, multiple twists and violent deaths, ‘Simon Says’ overlays the fantasy world of The Ninth Circle onto this episode’s real-world setting. By the coda, Pemberton’s unrepentant, gloating screenwriter has become a villain worthy of the Iron Throne, from his to-camera line about ‘doing it for the fans’, to the rising music by Christian Henson, which cleverly mimics the bombast and scale of a fantasy genre score.
Familiarity with fantasy conventions (both in the ‘trope’ sense and the ‘paying £60 for a selfie with Michael Maloney because he played an advocate in season one’ sense) really makes the episode work. As a fictional world, The Ninth Circle feels entirely plausible. From its logo and merch and coffee table art books, to the character names, punning fan-podcast title and plot points scattered all over the dialogue (the seven trials, the severed head of Thaxos, the flame of aurora…) it’s a convincing imitation.
As is the fact that arrogant, self-serving Spencer is left standing, while Nick Mohammed’s sweet, nerdy Gavin meets a (thankfully off-screen) bloody end. Game of Thrones prospered on that kind of moral ambiguity, where innocence is rarely rewarded and villains often enjoy the spoils. It would have felt too cruel to actually watch the murder of lovely Gavin – a gentle, talented writer with an endearing awe of his hero. It was enough to cut from Spencer picking up that National Television Award – seeded as a murder weapon by Simon with the line “They’re heavy aren’t they? Smash someone’s brains in with this” – to his ‘joke’ about stealing fans’ ideas and throwing their bodies in the Thames.
Simon’s drawn-out suffocation was nasty enough, and – believed to be Gavin’s deranged killer at the time of death – he was a less uncomplicated victim. The final shot of Simon’s dead face, glasses askew, after the music-free murder, was a very dark note, made even darker by the revelations to come.
As the brains behind the blackmail scheme, Simon was a Littlefinger figure who advanced through lies and manipulation. Reece Shearsmith has a talent for switching from beta to alpha, meek to malevolent in the course of a single line, and made excellent use of it here. As the character’s power shifted in relation to that of his hero across the episode’s first half, his language changed to match: Mr Maguire became Spencer became ‘Spence’.
Symbolically, you could see Simon and Gavin as the two sides of fandom; one deranged, toxic and entitled, the other adoring and creative. Simon’s smug assumption that he always knows better (“Presumably you didn’t set out to write a terrible ending?” – what a line!), his unhealthily intimate personal knowledge of Spencer, and desire to literally insert himself into the narrative with the starring role of the Baron, make him everything wrong with a certain kind of fan. Gavin though, provided the balance. If Mohammed’s character hadn’t been written in to this story, it would have felt like an outright attack on nerdy fans, only mitigated by the unflattering ‘self-portrait’ of Spencer as the dismissive and ultimately murderous creator.
If the BBC sold themed episode collections of Inside No. 9 on DVD, ‘Simon Says’ could be packaged up with series three’s ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’ and series five’s ‘Misdirection’ – all three directed, not coincidentally, by Guillem Morales. They each mine a classic Inside No. 9 seam: nasty, twist-filled three-or-four-hander stories that end in grisly murder, about a power balance inverted when a low-status interloper schemes to takes the upper hand. Mining the same seam doesn’t mean repetition. From cryptic crosswords to stage magic to the fan-writer relationship, each iteration has plugged its plot into a fully realised world inspired by Pemberton and Shearsmith’s personal experience. A growing and welcome Inside No. 9 tradition, I’m already looking forward to series seven’s.
Inside No. 9 series 6 continues on Monday the 24th of May at 9.30pm on BBC Two.