Inside No. 9 Series 9 Episode 4 Review: CTRL/ALT/ESC

How do Jason and his family fare trapped in The Killer’s Lair? Spoilers.

Maddie Evans, Steve Pemberton, Katherine Kelly and Kalli Tant in Inside No. 9 episode "CTRL/ALT/ESC"
Photo: BBC Studios/James Stack

Warning: This Inside No. 9 review contains spoilers.

He woke up, right? He opened his eyes, the light went from red to green and the door noise sounded, which means that he woke up. Didn’t he? Jason opened his eyes, the exit light went from red to green and the door noise sounded, which means that he definitely, definitely woke up. For absolute clarity, what we just watched in the final moments of that tense episode was Jason awaken from his coma to reunite with his family, and what we absolutely didn’t watch was his brain making desperate attempts to cling on to life while his devastated loved ones unwittingly killed him. Right?

Good. Phew. Imagine! The alternative would have been so sad. Who’d write something as dark as that?! 

Inside No. 9’s Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton would, of course, and would likely crack a rib laughing about it too. To some extent, they already did write a story as sad and dark as that in celebrated series two episode “The 12 Days of Christine”. That saw a dying woman’s memories elliptically return in her final moments while a post-road collision reality bled through her hallucinated present in fits and starts. 

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“CTRL/ALT/ESC” revisits similar territory but from a different perspective, with the added fun of layering over the escape room trappings plus the added reveal of the hospital room. And, importantly, this time with a happy ending. (Right?)

Shearsmith and Pemberton must have grinned from ear to ear when they realised what an immaculate fit that hoary old ‘dreaming in a coma’ twist would make with this escape room premise. The potential for double meanings and clues, the visual metaphors, that final panicked rush to beat the most literal of deadlines… It must have been irresistible to a pair of devilish tricksters like these two. 

Before our first glimpse of Jason in the hospital bed arrived around the 22-minute mark, the clues were there in abundance, but unobtrusively so. The biggest indication that Something Weird was going on (aside from the simple fact of this being Inside No. 9) were Amy and Millie (Maddie Evans and Kalli Tant) appearing in the in-game photographs as Dr Death’s victims Sammy and Bella-Rose. 

To revisit the episode after learning the twist, hints were embedded everywhere you look – in the story, in its characters, in the dialogue… Jason was shackled to the bed and able to hear his family in the next room but they couldn’t hear him. Millie said that she’d been talking to him but he didn’t listen, and joked that Lynne (Katherine Kelly) kissing him was “necrophilia”. Jason said that losing his daughter would kill him. They’d played a rival escape room in Chester at “Endgame”. There was a casual reference to Jason having dated a girl named Georgina (another of Dr Death’s victims), explaining that everything in that room was an invention of his subconscious. 

The overlay continued right down to the décor and props, from Dr Death’s scary goggles being inspired by the round spectacles worn by Dr Morton’s (mort = death in Latin), to the gamemaster’s spooky effect torch being used by his real-world counterpoint to shine into Jason’s eyes. The star shape Jason used to solve the SOS puzzle was a picture frame around a photo of a younger Millie ice-skating (explaining that “let go of the sides” memory). The vial of pink liquid in the bread bin and the gruesome-looking syringe became the bolus delivered via intravenous drip. The computer, like Jason, had been in sleep mode so long it had gone dormant and needed a manual reboot…

There were so many hints that it’s a wonder there was room at all for any character work, but the family’s outline was just about sketched in, and there was something real in Millie and her dad’s scenes. It was a nice touch too, to have former army man Jason automatically add an “over” to every message he spoke on the novelty walkie talkies. 

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There was even a spot of slasher-genre peril, courtesy of director George Kane (The Bones of St Nicholas) and Dr Death, when the tone shifted from tetchy gameplay to panicked menace before the big reveal. 

It was clever stuff – cleverer, due to the limited time we spent with the ‘real’ characters, than it was emotional – and another precision-engineered game from the unbeatable makers of Inside No. 9. They took a familiar screen twist and added a context that absolutely made it work.

And just to put a cap on it: we all agree that Jason’s ending was CTRL/ALT/ESC and not CTRL/ALT/…DEL?

Good. Phew.

Inside No. 9 series 9 continues on Wednesday June 5 on BBC Two with “Curse of the Ninth”.

Learn more about Den of Geek’s review process and why you can trust our recommendations here.

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