The Musketeers (1×06) “The Exiles” – Review

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After weeks of calling The Musketeers, perhaps derogatorily, solid – this week the show properly steps up!

THE MUSKETEERS - BBC TWO

“Decapitating one’s mother is rarely popular with the people sire.”

Most episodes of The Musketeers so far have had an interesting pre-titles hook. Most episodes have also gone downhill relatively quickly after this hook. Not “The Exiles”! Episode six kicks off with the musketeers on a trip to collect a baby, only to have the baby snatched in an ambush. Now they must work with the baby’s mother to get it back… but how is this all connected to the King’s mother paying a visit?

Actually the best thing about this episode is the way in which the narrative is split between these two seemingly unconnected strands, because the thrill the viewer gets when the two narrative strands slam together, and you realise it’s all one story, is fantastic. The levels of deception and secrets and double-crossings work really well to maintain your interest (something I have had trouble with during previous episodes); at times it feels like an episode of The White Queen. Plus, the cast are on fine form.

“Don’t Musketeers ever knock?!”

Particularly this week’s guest stars shine – and it must be said that casting director Jill Trevellick has done a sterling job attracting great names to the series. Bring in Tara Fitzgerald (Waking the Dead) as the King’s mother! And Amy Nuttall as Agnes, the baby’s mother. Fitzgerald is glorious, beautiful, sharp, elegant, malicious, the perfect sparring partner for Peter Capaldi. She is both villain and heroine, and complex because of it, which is a refreshing change of pace for the show!

Personally, I probably wouldn’t have cast Nuttall in the role she plays simply because, whilst she plays it magnificently, it is the exact same role as Ethel in Downton Abbey, the role that made her famous. They’re both women who live for their children. But this is a small gripe when you forget about that quickly as the story is so immersive. And her presence brings to the fore an unexplored musketeer, Aramis, played by the brilliant Santiago Cabrera. The conversations about his “family” lead to him having a genuine reason for not going off with Agnes at the end. Usually guest characters are dispatched in an unconvincing never-see-me-again way, or are just killed to save the bother, e.g. Ashley Walters last week! But he’s a strong actor and it’s nice to see the macho hero side of his character wane slightly when he’s with a baby.

“Do you have a family?” “Not unless you count the Musketeers.”

There are very few problems with the episode, but most of them involve Ryan Gage as King Louis. Whilst it’s good to flesh the character out slightly by bringing in his mother, Fitzgerald has to work so hard in scenes with him. It’s not all Gage’s fault – he’s not dealt an easy hand, or a remotely likable character, but he is by far the weakest link in a strong story. It’s the King as a character that is problematic too. Actually, the musketeers are at their least interesting when they are treated as merely bodyguards for the king, and the series is at its least interesting when it depicts lazy afternoons at the palace. It is reductive and contrary to the swashbuckling notion of the series.

The conclusion to the tale, with the false ending of the baby drowning, is a slightly predictable twist only because it takes a far darker drama than The Musketeers to wrap up a story with a baby’s corpse. It’s still a lovely and fitting end, with that gorgeous scene in the foggy mountains capping off a brilliant hour of drama. It’s sentimental, but not too much.

Final verdict

With a top quality plot, and writer, director, actors, everyone giving it their all, this is the best episode of The Musketeers yet by far. It had real flair in its storytelling that has been lacking in other episodes. Hopefully the show has hit upon something golden, and will continue on this winning streak for the rest of the season.

Fight count: Previous total = 16. New total = 18