The Escape Artist episode 1 review

New BBC three-part legal thriller The Escape Artist stars David Tennant and has a great deal to recommend it besides...

This review contains spoilers.

It’s a crowded market for legal dramas. The same goes for crime shows tipping female corpses into TV’s charnel house by the wheelbarrowful. You can barely flick between Eastenders and Bake-Off without meeting a serial killer. Why then, should we bother with The Escape Artist? Isn’t it another depressing chapter in the same murdered-woman-motivates-man-to-revenge story that we’ve been watching for years?

Perhaps, but it’s certainly much more besides. David Wolstencroft’s somewhat schlocky premise – a barrister gets a murder suspect off only for his wife to become the killer’s next victim – is seeded with questions about the ethics of a legal profession that prioritises case wins over justice and careerism over morality.

It’s clever stuff. So well-designed in fact, it feels as if the first hour is made to be picked through and parsed. Here’s a symbol (cages, red balloons), there’s a motif (mirrors and doubles), these are the themes (the law versus justice, fate versus responsibility). You could write an essay dissecting it, but first you’d have to shake off the wretchedness of those final moments.

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The Escape Artist’s ethics project is so conspicuous that were it not for David Tennant and Ashley Jensen’s intense likeability as Will and Kate Burton, it might have come out an intellectual exercise rather than the gripping drama it is. Had Tennant not been so human as hot-shot defence barrister Will, had Jensen been less vibrant and natural as his wife Kate, and had the two of them not made such a convincing pair, The Escape Artist could have left me unmoved. But he was and she was and they were; so I was in bits by the end. Jensen is such a warm presence in the opening two thirds of the episode that losing Kate felt like just that – a loss, which is no mean feat for a character we’ve known for all of forty minutes.

A few key lines – the undergrad essay titles of the hour, if you like – set out episode one’s thematic stall. The first was Toby Kebbell’s dangerously potent Liam Foyle telling Tennant’s Will, “The more time we spend together. The more you remind me of me.” Liam’s words prompted a panic attack of sorts in Will, who was struggling with his role as the saviour of hunting knife-carrying thugs, and then, as the defender of a man who may well be the monster the prosecution is making him out to be. Imagine if you were so good at your job it was immoral. That’s the quandary in which Will finds himself.

Do Will and Foyle seem alike? Not at first glance. One doesn’t like people, is a self-confessed “not a very nice person”; the other is a loving husband and father. One lives alone amidst the trappings of a serial killer – plastic sheeting and creepy caged birds; the other lives with his winsome family in a Grand Designs London pad and weekend cottage. And yet, The Escape Artist’s direction wants us to see the mirrors and links between them. Both characters are intelligent, competitive, and introduced to us surrounded by trophies – literal rosettes and cups in Liam’s case, professional accolades in Will’s. Combine their names – Will and Liam – and coincidentally perhaps, they merge into another shared identity, two sides of the same coin. 

“What you see is what you get” is the second baiting line of dialogue from Foyle’s character that prompts the audience to chin-stroking reflection, but more crucial than that is Will’s emotional “The world is broken”, which arrives mid that desperate, affectingly delivered speech sat on his son’s bed. The really prize line though, the one you feel is shoring up The Escape Artist’s entire structure, is heard twice this week, “Everybody deserves a defence”. That’s the debate this drama is prodding us to have.

And it’s by no means the only one. The Escape Artist is also interested in whether fate controls us or we it. Director Brian Welsh tracks a solitary red balloon in the episode’s opening moments, like the one glimpsed in the background of Jamie’s birthday party in the same shot as a hefty kitchen knife, and the one attached to the shed as a glib serial killer warning after Foyle’s first visit to the cottage. The first balloon escaping outside the Old Bailey seems to show Will’s fate as already marked and his collision with Foyle inevitable. As the judge would say, “the train is already on the tracks”.

More symbolism comes into play with the way Welsh’s camera treats the heath murder case file – its legal pink ribbon ironically making it look like a gift when it’s more a curse. When Will is first thrown the file, the thump of it landing in his arms reverberates. He first tries to refuse it, almost leaves it behind, delays reading it to join his wife in the bath… all so many potential slip-roads off the path to Kate’s murder, a path he walked himself and his family down.

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For all its interrogations and strong performances, The Escape Artist isn’t above the odd cliché or logic flaw. We meet Foyle – understandably for exposition’s sake – as a news report on the heath murder plays; Kate’s death is foreshadowed with those familiar corpse-like underwater bath shots; and her insistence on going ahead to the cottage without Will was the episode’s ‘don’t go down there!’ hair-pulling horror movie moment. None of it’s grievous though, and in a genre riddled with contrivance and convention, the few low points there are barely take us out of the compelling drama.

The Escape Artist will do nothing to shift David Tennant from his ensconced, well-deserved position as British TV’s go-to lead for weighty emotional drama. He’s tremendous in it. They all are, in fact; Ashley Jensen, Toby Kebbell and brittle, bright Sophie Okonedo as Will’s professional competition Maggie (who, by accepting Foyle as her client has taken her own steps down a fateful path).

The Escape Artist has great actors, a strong script, suspenseful direction, and ideas to spare. It’s enough to forgive it having added a few more murdered women to TV’s pile. Just.

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