This review contains spoilers.
“Punish me” said Mark to that hospital corridor statue of Christ – the challenge of a man who believed he had the untouchable power of a god. He’d already got away with one murder and looked to be getting away with two more. Curse lifted. Obstacles removed. Bring on the champagne and the dancing girls.
He clearly hadn’t reckoned on being part of the Sarah Phelps-Agatha Christie universe, a place where scheming murderous toffs get the rope, or locked in a bunker, or condemned to a looping purgatory nightmare in which they’re stalked by a 1950s doo-wop hit and a giant turnip king.
Mark Easterbrook, you gutless, wincing turd, consider yourself punished.
Whether it was down to the Almighty or otherwise (this ambiguous ending invites a few interpretations, see here for a breakdown), Mark was made to suffer for his crimes. And so The Pale Horse was revealed to have two baddies: Bertie Carvel’s cartoonish serial killer Osborne and Rufus Sewell’s suave grieving husband.
Of the two characters, The Pale Horse clearly found Easterbrook far more compelling. Beyond a vague misanthropy, Osborne’s psychology or motive barely came up. He was a two-dimensional plot point, memorable for all the wrong reasons. Mark’s tortured subconscious was where it was at, and his shift in our eyes from hero to villain was episode two’s true twist. Osborne popping up in his jim-jams to congratulate himself was merely garnish.
We should have spotted Mark’s true character sooner. From the moment he covered his tracks and abandoned his mistress’ corpse to the rats, he should have been pegged as a wrong’un – before then even, due to the very fact that he had a mistress. Wealth + good looks + charm though, often throws a veil over guilt. Sewell’s elegance combined with the romantic image of the handsome, grief-struck widow made it easier to believe that acidic, tightly wound Hermia was a jealous obsessive than to see Mark for what he truly was.
Episode two pulled the curtain back on that in a few telling scenes, the first his willingness to hurt Thomasina’s stepmother mid-interrogation, and then his slipperiness when a raging Hermia confronted him about the discarded suit. Deflecting her (valid) questions, he deftly painted her as the unreasonable party, making her question her sanity with that insidious “You’re still taking your tablets aren’t you?”. Then the couple’s nightcap, in which the newlyweds reached a level of antipathy usually reserved for those decades into a sour marriage, was unspeakably nasty. “God, you sound like such a wife,” he told her, promising that he would win.
He didn’t, but Rufus Sewell did. Impeccably cast, he made Mark an extremely compelling kind of bastard. As our sympathies shifted from pitying his mental torture to enjoying it as justice done, Sewell’s performance remained magnetic.
Kaya Scodelario too, who had the short end of the stick in episode one, went through a similar transition in reverse as Hermia, going from unlikeably brittle to sympathetic. So chic and so miserable, she was like a catalogue model for 1960s gloom (vibrating exercise belt plus cigarette is a look. Eat your heart out, Betty Draper). The moment Hermia dreamed about picking up that leg of lamb to brain the insufferable Poppy, she started to seem like a character one could love. Good luck to her. I hope she spends all of Mark’s money on foreign travel and pool boys.
Chicness abounded in this adaptation, from the beautiful Hermia, to Mark’s flat (thanks to production designer Jeff Tessler, no murder scene has ever looked so desirable) to director Leonora Lonsdale’s elegant frame compositions. This nasty, exaggerated story played out against a backdrop of understated taste – the only understated thing about it.
The ending and its various ambiguities will doubtless rankle those who prefer solid answers, but if you’re happy to live in tantalising uncertainty then this fresh update on the Christie original, twisted into a seamy tale of a man who cared only about himself, will more than satisfy.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here.