Death Comes to Pemberley

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that…. there’s been a murder?!”

In fairness, there have been much more bizarre ideas for Jane Austen genre mash-ups – zombies or sea monsters anyone? – but I did approach this particular one with a considerable degree of suspicion, since I’m fiercely, probably slightly insanely, protective of both “Pride and Prejudice”, the novel, and “Pride and Prejudice“, the BBC adaptation from 1995. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just about perfect, and people who think they can do better usually need to check themselves before they wreck themselves: a case in point being that awful film from 2005. I hated that film. Oh, the many ways I loathed and despised that film… But I’m getting side-tracked. I’m not saying it can’t be done – see the glorious Bride and Prejudice or the iconic Bridget Jones’s Diary for successful examples – but my point is that messing with Austen’s masterpiece tends to be a tricky business. I was surprised and delighted then that the BBC’s version of Death Comes to Pemberley (from the novel by P.D James) did it so marvellously.

The story picks up a few years into Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage; it’s clear that love each other very much, but, like any couple, they have their flaws and troubles. Still, generally speaking, they’re getting on splendidly, till a murder takes place in nearby woods and the wretched Wickham bursts back into their lives as the prime suspect, re-opening old wounds and resurrecting old resentments for both Elizabeth and Darcy, as well as threatening the good Darcy name. And giving us a terrific bit of telly over the holidays, too.

Some of the language in the script is a little modern for the time period but I don’t mind that too much since the characterisation is more or less perfect, with Matthew Rhys and the superb Anna Maxwell Martin leading a superb cast; not only could I believe these were the same people we first met in Austen’s novel, but I could believe they were the same people we watched in my beloved tv adaptation as well. And the story may be a relatively basic whodunnit at bottom, but it’s executed with such care and respect that it fits perfectly into the world of Regency society and manners that Austen made so recognisable and so captivating. The first two parts were just fantastic, the last one is on tonight, Penelope Keith is going to turn up playing Lady Catherine De Bourgh and I can’t wait. I’m LOVING it.

The Americans s1 ep 11

More personal/political interface this week. The undeclared war between the USA and the USSR continues, and one of the casualties is top KGB’er Zhukov, taken out in Moscow by the Americans. (I’m possibly showing my ignorance of a period I actually lived through, but was this sort of thing actually going on?) Anyway, Zhukov was mentor, father-figure – perhaps something more? – to Elizabeth, so when she finds out about his death she wants to avenge it by going after the person who ordered it, CIA man Patterson. Claudia tells her not to, in a way which makes it pretty clear that she expects Elizabeth to go and do it anyway.

I’m not convinced, though, about the sequence which ensues: would a CIA rough-stuff expert really be so keen to fall into a honey-trap, even if it’s Keri Russell doing the trapping? And would he, in turn, be able to get under the skin of a highly-trained KGB operative so easily, to the point where she takes what would be a significant risk, having already abducted him? (At one point Elizabeth accuses him of having ordered the deaths of “innocent people”, which is going it a bit, I’d say.) It’s all worth it, though, to set up the final scene in the car with Claudia and Elizabeth, who very clearly hate each other. I’m starting to think that the climactic conflict at the end of the season will be between them, rather than the USA and the USSR. Certainly the latter ultimately proved to be capable of negotiation, and I’m not sure that there’s much room for that with Claudia and Elizabeth.

Elsewhere, there was a feeling that the characters were being moved into place for their own season-end arcs: Philip (as Clark) is entertainingly introduced to Martha’s parents; Martha is so transparently decent and infatuated that all of her scenes with Philip are overwhelmingly sad. Philip, meantime, has decided to move into an apartment, just as Elizabeth was starting to work round to inviting him home. Stan tries to break it off with Nina, but understandably changes his mind when he sees her in her underwear. Sandra suspects something. Entertaining, but a little less compelling than I’ve come to expect from this show.

The Americans s1 ep 9

This week we’re dealing with the fallout from the last couple of episodes. Elizabeth and Philip have decided to separate, which needs to be explained to the kids. While watching this episode, it occurred to me – no doubt long after it’s occurred to every other viewer –  that the way in which the personal lives of the characters is handled is not unlike The Sopranos: Elizabeth and Philip, for example, live complicated and violent lives which require a significant amount of public dissembling, in much the same way as Tony Soprano. At the same time, though, there are spouses, children, social networks, and so on, which need to be dealt with, and which may well need to be prioritised. Thus a fair amount of this episode is devoted to the increasing estrangement of the Jenningses, and the way in which it affects their children.

But the personal collides with the political in a far-reaching way early in the episode. Philip has been staying over at Martha’s – it should be said that this character is exceptionally well-cast and acted – and when he leaves in the morning he is accosted by Amador who, as we noted last week, has been taking an increasing interest in Martha. Now, there’s considerable room for debate about whether Amador’s approach to Philip was purely because of his feelings towards Martha, or whether he suspected that there was something more suspicious going on – I lean towards the latter, if only because his intention seemed to be to take Philip to the FBI office, where presumably his fellow officers would take a dim view of someone being arrested just for sleeping with Martha.

What Amador doesn’t know, of course, is that he’s trying to arrest a highly-trained KGB operative, and he comes off worst in the ensuing fight, whereupon Philip and Elizabeth take him captive. And, once again, there’s much to admire about the machine-tooled way in which the plotting of The Americans is structured – yes, there might be plot holes, but overall there’s a feeling that the writers know where they’re going and how to get there. It’s particularly impressive because, not for the first time this season, an essential aspect of the plotting is that the FBI and the KGB don’t actually know what’s going on – it would be easy for this confusion to spill over into the plot arcs but, as ever, the storytelling is impressively clear and linear. Even more impressively, we learn that The Americans isn’t scared to kill off key characters.

Stan’s ultimate reaction to all of this – excluding, of course, the Soft-Mouthed Dog speech, chilling or risible according to taste – is one which draws deeply on the mythology of The Partner – just like the wife who doesn’t understand your job, The Partner is an essential component of the American cop drama: he’s your best bud and, of course, he’s got your back. This applies even if you’ve only been his partner for like five minutes or so, as might well be the case here. But Stan, who earlier in the episode was reluctant to join in with the extrajudicial killing of a KGB agent, finds that his respect for the rule of law is trumped by The Partner. Whether he’s crossed a line which can’t be uncrossed could depend depend on how everyone else reacts: if Gaad is all, he was a KGB agent, and they killed some of ours, then the pooch might remain unscrewed. You have to feel, though, that Stan has, in his clean-cut all-American way, gone just the tiniest bit rogue.

Public Service Announcement 21 of 2013: The Americans

This season’s other 1980’s-set drama The Carrie Diaries may have tanked in the US, but there was much more to that decade than just the (admittedly memorable) fashion. Since we’re old enough to remember the Cold War and that challenging time before mobile phones and the internet, then, unpopcult HQ is abuzz with excitement over tomorrow’s (Saturday) UK premiere of The Americans – 10 pm on ITV1 – an FX drama which sounds a lot like a prequel to Little Nikita, seeing as it’s about two Russian spies posing as an American husband and wife in 1980’s Washington.

No Sidney Poitier or River Phoenix, sadly, but the cast includes Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as the “couple” in question, with appearances from none other than Margo “Mags Bennett” Martindale and Richard “John Boy Walton” Thomas. Billed as smart, dark drama for grown-ups, it’s been a hit with both viewers and critics in the US, a second season has already been commissioned and it has Fleetwood Mac on the soundtrack so unpopcult is ALL OVER IT. Weekly reviews as soon as we can manage them.