Warning! Spoliers follow
First of all, MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW. This is because, while still finding the time for a slightly forced ‘romance’ on the sidelines, involving Porthos (it was his turn again, I believe, according to the rota), and a challenge between the Musketeers and Richelieu’s Red Guards, this episode directly tackles many crucial ongoing threads. D’Artagnan loses his farm in Gascony and becomes a Musketeer; Constance’s husband finds out about their affair and blackmails her into nastily breaking it; Milady comes back with a vengeance.
The Musketeers has certainly seen a steady and remarkable improvement, since the pilot: ‘The Challenge’ is one of the best episodes to date. Although sadly limited by the usual tv time constraints, it contains some very fine swordsmanship sequences, and Murray Gold’s score manages to make them rather epic even in the handful of seconds he is allotted. Also worth mentioning is the great acting, from everyone but especially from Luke Pasqualino: he might seem overly emotional at the news of the destruction of his farm, but we should actually consider what it meant, for a young man, to suddenly lose all his property and status, to which his very honour was linked. Peter Capaldi with his deadpan sarcastic reactions makes you laugh when you least expect it, and Tamla Kari is excellent as usual.
Admittedly, the story has some weak links, and the dialogues don’t stand out in terms of originality. Even if handled quite well, overall, there also remain a few clichés sprinkled here and there, like the sword-training of the brilliant but too emotional disciple (D’Artagnan). There are, anyway, some great moments, like the splendid finale: faced with the temptation of the dark side, for now our hot-headed Gascon Skywalker firmly refuses it, leaving behind a rejected Milady whose face would make for an exceptional ‘fail’ meme. Unfortunately, a question mark remains pending over the future, particularly given what has happened to his very short-lived, half-episode-long romance with Constance.
And here we come to the most painful issue. Good storytelling of course includes making the audience occasionally uncomfortable, and if everything always works for the best the narrative tension risks petering away. The ‘splitting up scene’ in this episode is excellent, and comes as a surprise, albeit resting on yet another trite cliché – the irritating ‘if you don’t break his heart I will have him killed’ blackmail. Other, more interesting alternatives were probably available to complicate the picture: the characters could have questioned their adultery, for example. Either way, the writers had better sort out this mess within the next couple of episodes, or they will have a popular revolt on their hands. Splitting friends and couples apart, creating barriers of lies and secrets between them on the basis of mostly preposterous constraints, is a storytelling device that grows old very fast, as Merlin’s creators clearly failed to grasp. There is a very fine line between suspense and stress, and certainly one does not sit down to watch a Sunday-evening swashbuckling romp in order to get stressed. As things are now, the poor, cuckolded Mr Bonacieux has been awkwardly turned into a villain, presumably to be killed off in the near future; D’Artagnan hates Constance, love and the entire female gender, and Constance spends her days crying at the window, while the ‘Constagnan’ ‘shippers’ (unfortunately such a thing exists, judging by Internet forums) will soon besiege the BBC studios with torches and pitchforks. Everyone is happy, in short.
The brief preview to the next episode promises an interesting plotline, with a nice setting in a countryside nunnery, lots of fighting, and the Queen being protected by the Musketeers – which will probably give some leeway to her beloved admirer, the gallant Aramis. And yes, if you check the rota, next week happens to be his turn for a love story. They must have some kind of algorithm.
Best Historical Accuracy Moment: the captain of the Musketeers is about to announce his chosen champion, who will represent the regiment in the challenge. From the back ranks some joker, evidently still under the effects of the Oscars buzz, breaks out: ‘And the winner is…’
Living Legend Prize: once again, it has to go to Ryan Gage’s Louis XIII. While the Musketeers’ captain is vocally complaining with Richelieu for the devastations his man caused in Gascony, Louis turns around, perfectly serious, and gives his precious contribution to the conversation: ‘I went to Gascony once. It is full of sheep and hedges.’
What did you think to the latest episode of The Musketeers? Let us know in the comments below