The Musketeers series 2 episode 1 review: Keep Your Friends Close

With Peter Capaldi otherwise engaged, The Musketeers welcomes Marc Warren as its series two villain. How does the show fare on its return?

This review contains spoilers.

2.1 Keep Your Friends Close

So The Musketeers return for another 10 episode run, albeit switched from a Sunday to an unusual Friday night slot (which I can’t help feeling is something of a dump from the Beeb as the Sunday slot seemed much more appropriate and higher profile). The first season saw some highs, some lows and too many middles but was sufficiently entertaining to deserve another go-around. Indeed, as I sat down to watch Keep Your Friends Close it was certainly with a sense of optimism, as unencumbered with having to perform the necessary back stories the second season should zip along with stories focused on the team, action and the humour. At least that’s the theory.

Director John Strickland (his first foray on The Musketeers) and writer Adrian Hodges (the show’s creator), both had a Capaldi-sized hole to fix as their first challenge. Although his Richelieu was at times side-lined by the ‘getting to know you bit’ of the other characters, he deservedly hogged every second of limelight when he was centre stage. Towards the end of the season, Capaldi’s portrayal of Richelieu’s machinations and cunning became the highlight of each episode. So at first, the swiftness and almost second-handed nature of his death was jarring. However before you could accuse the writers of doing a ‘Fincher’ – we were off on another adventure. Which wasn’t a bad way of coping with the loss of such a big influence and by the end of the episode the best of the endings (which I will come onto…) was knowing that we hadn’t seen the end of the Cardinal’s influence and spite.

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Marc Warren’s Rochefort takes over villain duties, but his introduction was unfortunately undermined by Hodges’ all too on-the-nose depiction of his nature. Within the first five minutes we were told that he was bad, we then got his backstory which told us he was the Cardinal’s man – so therefore bad, and then he shot a man – so very bad. The good thing was that Warren seems to be enjoying playing it straightforward evil and as a consequence is eminently watchable. If the writers stick close the source material, D’Artagnan’s and Rochefort’s relationship could make for an interesting arc.

But what of the plot? Well, as hoped, we don’t spend long on reintroducing the characters and we’re straight into a men-on-a-mission action and adventure. The quartet were tasked with rescuing a French general (who looked to be in pretty comfortable prison to me – he even had the prison governor apologising to him) and return him to France. The problem is, said general’s stuck in a heavily fortified (albeit comfortable) prison behind enemy lines. That sounds like an excellent premise for the opening episode of a second season. However Keep Your Friends Close strangely doesn’t quite unfurl that way. The rescue plot and the men-on-a-mission premise plays second fiddle to the introduction of Rochefort and his many failed ways in shafting the Musketeers. Unfortunately the episode plays all the worse for it.

Lets look at that. The problem with the Musketeers is that it’s the Musketeers and unless the show’s creators make some very bold moves, the series will start and end with all four Musketeers largely intact. This means that barring some scrapes there isn’t any mortal danger to the main characters therefore the show’s tension must come from elsewhere, otherwise the action becomes toothless. We have to rely on the threat to others and the peril in which they are placed must be real or integral to the plot. Herein lies the problem: there’s nothing in Keep Your Friends Close that feels like there’s anything at stake. Granted, it’s difficult to grow that in the first episode of a new season with all the re-establishing of the old and establishing of the new but it still doesn’t get around the fact that it feels like a great concept that’s just a little wasted at this point.

Not all the plot focused on the rescue, with some threads leading back to unresolved issues from the first season. Some of the strongest scenes in the first season came from the Constance/D’Artagnan relationship which, although maybe didn’t end how some may have wanted, was refreshing in its take (spoiler – boy didn’t get girl). So it was good to see that Keep Your Friends Close moved the relationship on without undermining what had gone before. What I really liked is that they made D’Artagnan out to be a complete sex pest. His response to Constance’s passionate plea for understanding was immature and selfish which is an interesting direction to go for their principal hero. How long they hold out before the return to more traditional fare is anyone’s guess – but let’s hope that their arc is as interesting as their story was in the first season.

I’ve already said that I liked the fact that Keep Your Friends Close wasted no time in launching sword first into the action, but the ending was less easy to enjoy. It seemed that the rescue plot finished about ten minutes early and we had to go through several endings, as if each was offering a tease of things to come. It was almost as if the writers had little faith in the story they’d just told and were telling the audience, ‘hang on –if you didn’t like that, then don’t worry there’s always this, and that, and a bit more of this – oh and remember that’s still to come’. Laying out your intent so early can be effective – certainly if your writing is strong enough to rope-a-dope the audience from the off. Here however it just seemed like an extended teaser for the rest of the season, so we know that we’ve got the Porthos backstory, the Cardinal from the grave, the Aramis and the issue of the heir, the love triangle between Constance and D’Artagnan’s new beau, Lucie de Foix – not to mention the expected return of Milady to look forward to. Yep – that fills about 10 episodes’ worth. Some may like their entertainment served up to them on a platter, me – I believe the strength of a narrative is greater when it has the freedom to surprise and entertain, if something is too straight forward and pedestrian then interest will wane – but  lets hope I’m wrong.

Overall, was it the greatest return of a show? Not quite. However it was certainly watchable and enjoyable enough. I don’t want to damn The Musketeers with faint praise, but it is a show that you could quite happily classify as mostly harmless. The problem it has, and will continue to have if this episode is anything to go by, is that in a competitive, crowded genre marketplace – will people look for more, elsewhere?

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