Review: The Musketeers Series 3, Episode 1 (2016)

The BBC drama based on Alexandre Dumas' characters returns for its third and final series, and things are looking bleak all round...

I have something of a soft spot for The Musketeers, the BBC’s half-hearted attempt to retain some of the audience that was defecting to Game of Thrones and Sky Atlantic.

Don’t get me wrong, the series isn’t great by any means, but it isn’t a complete train wreck either. In fact, I’m really glad series one exists. It gives the 18-25 demographic an idea of what Peter Capaldi, playing the villainous Cardinal Richelieu, was like as an actor before debuting as the twelfth Doctor Who. Otherwise, they probably would’ve suffered complete tonal whiplash from his role as “that sweary government guy from those funny YouTube clips” – yes, I know it’s The Thick Of It, and if you haven’t seen that show stop whatever you’re doing and watch it right now because it’s awesome.

Series two is fine, I guess. I like it when Marc Warren gets to play a villain. It makes for delicious ham.

Series three, unfortunately, has a dark cloud over its head. The BBC announced the series’ cancellation not long after filming ended, with social media reacting with a overwhelming “meh”. So it’s fitting that its opening episode, Spoils of War, leaves any spectacle at the door and gives the series a quiet start.

The episode opens – oh, spoilers from here on out by the way – four years after the events of series two, and our titular heroes, minus Aramis, are fighting in the war between twenty men calling themselves France and thirty men calling themselves Spain while an MP4 file of shouting men pretends to be everyone else. Why yes, the budget restrictions really are that obvious from the get-go, and it’s a shame because in earlier series the show was good at hiding its limitations behind effective costume and set design. This scene really drops the ball. Returning director Andy Hay should know better. Bless Luke PasqualinoTom Burke and Howard Charles (d’Artagnan, Athos and Porthos respectively) for trying, but even their charming, if initially subdued, camaraderie can’t disguise how cheap the scene looks. Not a great start, and Hay’s directing for this episode doesn’t improve much from there.

Close-ups and scenes filmed in enclosed spaces look fine for the most part, but scenes in open spaces and especially action sequences just look disjointed. I have to wonder if this episode was shot towards the end of filming, but where Hay fails the costume and set designers do their best to pick it up. The series is set in wartime, so its costume and set changes all round to reflect a darker time and it works wonders for the episode’s atmosphere. Clothes are darker but without losing their individual flair, Paris itself is dirtier, falling to ruin under new villain Philippe Achille, Marquis de Feron (Rupert Everett), the sickly new Governor of Paris and head of the Red Guard, and night scenes are used to great effect. I particularly like Constance’s (Tamla Kari) new costume. Kitted out in a hard leather corset and heavy gloves, it complements her character’s growth from a resourceful but suppressed wife of a tailor to the confident head of the Musketeer’s Garrison. Just a pity she gets no badass lines to go with her new look.

The series has never been celebrated for its writing – villains often sound so much like villains you’d swear that the king and half the royal court must be brain-dead – but it’s very dull and by-the-numbers here. A lot of exposition delivered very dryly to explain away the four-year gap between series. There’s also a lot of repetition. The second villain for the series, creepy criminal Lucien Grimaud (Matthew McNulty), says no less than three times that Spanish spies are coming to buy the stolen ammunitions that drives the main plot. This leads the musketeers to the captured monastery where they are reunited with Aramis (Santiago Cabrera), who has become a monk after the events of series two and looks after a group of children orphaned by the war.

This is where the acting really gets to shine. While the quick re-establishment of the status quo does erk me somewhat – you know straight away that Aramis will rejoin the Musketeers – there’s no denying that Cabrera, Pasqualino, Burke and Charles have an irresistible chemistry. After a period of sulking, Aramis’ and Porthos’ bromance returns and their shared dialogue and ease with each other almost makes the final action scene tolerable to watch. The other actors do what they can with the writing. Kari sells Constance’s more hardened personality but leaves room for doubt as she takes petty revenge on the Red Guard in the episode’s Paris-centric B-plot, and McNulty is effectively creepy and ruthless, portraying his character as teetering on the edge of insanity despite some on-the-nose, crazy dialogue.

Surprisingly, I was most taken by Everett, an actor I’m not particularly fond of. His character has a lot to balance. He’s the illegitimate brother of the king and has an ego the size of the royal place, but suffers from a crippling illness and is addicted to an unidentified drug – given the time period I’d assume opium. Everett portrays all of these wonderfully, especially when compared to Capaldi and Warren’s out-and-out villains. I actually felt sorry for his character at some points, but that doesn’t mean that he’s to be taken lightly. His “I don’t care about your big guns so stay out of my way” speech to Athos, Porthos, Aramis and Captain Treville (Hugo Speer) towards the end of the episode sold him as a threat to me and was one of the few times the writing worked.

More moments like that could’ve been used in this episode. I don’t mind quiet opening episodes. A lot of shows are better off for building momentum slowly, especially those containing political intrigue, but overall this episode feels like a dull, wet blanket draped over several actors who clearly love the show and are trying their best to heat up proceedings. Hopefully, with the return to a familiar setting next week, the show can get back into its usual groove. For now, this is an opening episode that, although solidly establishing a new status quo, feels damp and uninteresting in places.

It’s a block of Tofu. A Tofu episode.

I can use that as an analogy right?

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