This review contains spoilers.
1.8 The Challenge
Last week’s episode saw The Musketeers triumphantly return to the form seen much earlier in their season, winning back some spark and fun and more importantly, not fumbling the eventual pay off of weeks of flirting and smouldering between D’Artagnan and Constance. Hopes were therefore high that as we continue to move closer towards the end of the season, plots threads would resolve and stakes would escalate to give us an entertaining end to what has been, at times, an impressive show.
The Challenge sees the Musketeers face off against the Cardinal’s Red Guards, precipitated by an impromptu scrap caused by Vinnie Jones’ Labarge rampaging through the streets of Paris. However, this episode was never about who has the best troops, nor who would be the Musketeers’ champion. This episode was about D’Artagnan, his commission, and his relationship with Constance. There was also a little Porthos romance and some Milady and Cardinal antagonism thrown in for good measure.
One of the continually frustrating elements of The Musketeers is that it’s inconsistent, especially when it comes to plotting. Last week’s A Rebellious Woman is a good example of what happens when real thought goes not just into what story they want to tell, but how it’s told. The Challenge suffers in that the story – the commission of D’Artagnan and the deterioration of his relationship with Constance – is good, but its execution is contrived and ham-fisted. The Musketeers get in a fight over a prisoner, which happens to be a catalyst for a challenge, which just happens to be a way in which D’Artagnan can get his commission, and the prisoner just happens to be a good fighter, who then ends up being the guards’ champion who, just happens to be responsible for burning D’Artagnan’s farm, and then they fight and D’Artagnan wins, gets his commission and can now continue to live in Paris despite his farm burning to the ground. We already have reason enough for D’Artagnan wanting to be a Musketeer, so the farm and Labarge subplot wasn’t really needed. Also, hasn’t D’Artagnan done enough already for the King to be considered worthy of a commission? The on-the-nose nature of the plotting detracts from what should have been an important episode in the development of The Musketeers and felt forced and unnecessary, especially in comparison to the way in which the creators had shown restraint and patience in building up the D’Artagnan and Constance relationship.
Another interesting plot device, and when I mean interesting, I mean it just plain didn’t make sense, was the need of an entrance fee for the competition. This was a competition for honour, not money and if the best Musketeer couldn’t afford the entrance fee would they just not let him compete? I don’t think so. Of course, having the Musketeers need to find this money meant that they got into various other adventures. The strangest of these was Porthos finding love in what only could be described as a Seventeenth Century French version of Tiger Tiger – albeit, in a church. This was actually a great scene and a highlight of an episode that for the most lacked the liveliness of the previous week. Having said that, the camaraderie between actors and therefore characters alike has grown as the season has gone on. The show really hits its stride not just in the sword play, but in the interaction between the main cast.
Following that theme – there were some good bits, indeed – overall The Challenge was enjoyable and fun, it just fell apart when you spend some time thinking about what’s going on. I did think, and was surprised (indeed, considering the signposting of everything else, I was surprised that I was surprised…) that the creators decided to split Constance and D’Artagnan so quickly after waiting so patiently to put them together. But it many ways this added to the brutality of the separation and reaction of both characters to it. Tamla Kari was superb, giving a heartfelt and honest portrayal of Constance’s predicament – her window sob the perfect antithesis to her ‘say it again’ from last week. I now it’s obvious, and needless to say, but… I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Constance and D’Artagnan. As with other adaptions of the Musketeers, Milady might yet have a hand to play in how the relationship between these two will play out – for better or worse (and yes – it can get worse).
Although throughout the season we have had some recognisable actors, none felt like stunt casting until now. Vinnie Jones simply plays Vinnie Jones. Although he shouldn’t shoulder the blame, the plot clearly calls for a man who is capable of offering a real threat to the Musketeers but in the end it was simply brute force versus skill. When you need someone to play a thug, there’s none better than Vinnie, but that didn’t stop his character from being a cliché in a hackneyed battle between strength and finesse. The outcome was a predictable one: Labarge’s fate was sealed well before he set foot in the ring and the final competition lacked excitement for it.
Despite my problems with the plotting, now that The Musketeers has been unshackled and can focus on adventures other than back story and development the possibilities of where the show can go are exciting. A Rebellious Woman reaped the reward of being a cohesive story with quality execution and as such was a season high. For the show to really move forward it just needs to calm down, focus and take a couple of deep breaths.
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