Veering between bluntly wraught melodrama and a satisfyingly personal conflict with a slave trader, ‘Commodities’ is an episode of varying quality.
On the downside, there’s a thankless task given to Tom Burke as Athos and some odd choices from guest star James Callis (Gaius Balthar in the recent Battlestar Galactica). On the plus side, most of the characters have now been successfully fleshed out. Let’s start with the negatives first:
Athos spends most of the episode trying to imbue drama into the task of repeatedly walking through double doors, or looking moody after a washed-out slow motion flashback. The dialogue can be, as with the previous two episodes, bludgeoningly simple when dealing with a character’s emotions, causing accidental hilarity, and making you wonder if Trey Parker was involved as a script consultant.
Athos’ past relationship with Milady de Winter is explored in these flashbacks, and it’s a departure from the source material. It currently (twists and turns may yet be afoot) seems that de Winter is less sympathetic than the Dumas version. Certainly, here she appears to have actually committed a serious crime to push Athos to hang her, and is less wronged as a result. Then again, some residual affection is still present, or else it’s a mystery why Athos is still alive after their confrontation. If she was in a hurry, she could have just stabbed him in the eye.
However, for the most part this episode is an improvement in terms of dialogue, and Callis’ guest villain Emile Bonnaire is paired off with Porthos to great effect. Howard Charles wins this episode, his ever-present charisma combined with a fleshed out background (including explaining – for the benefit of the one angry bloke on The Telegraph comments’ section – why we have a black Musketeer). Porthos, after sustaining an axe-wound, is intrigued and appalled by Bonnaire’s business schemes.
Combining Bonnaire with Peter Capaldi’s Richeleu (given more to do this week) also works well. There are some great, well-written and performed scenes in this week’s episode, especially the one in which Bonnair buries his wife. This plot strand, rather than Athos’ one, is great, and more of the same would be appreciated.
There is just one more teensy, tiny problem with this episode:
James Callis’ voice has gone weird.
It appears that someone bet James Callis that he could do an entire episode of a serious drama while using the voice of Duane Benzie from Spaced. As it turns out, he can’t. He can only do it for about seventy percent of the episode, and it’s not a coincidence that the character is most effective when Bonnaire’s voice isn’t ludicrously deep. It may be put on to reflect the character’s bravado, faltering along with his front, but any plus point from that is lost in the fact that it’s pretty hard to take Bonnaire seriously when he sounds like an anthropomorphic tree’s got wasted on sherry.
Still, in terms of writing overall this is an improvement, and the show looks as good as ever. It’s just unfortunate that a key role has been overplayed by an otherwise fine actor. Hopefully next week’s episode won’t lend itself quite as well to a drinking game.
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 2 February 2014 on BBC One.
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