The Musketeers (1×01) “Friends and Enemies” – Review

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BBCMUSK_0768-2 - CopyBBC America’s swashbuckling historical drama burst onto our screens this week. But will The Musketeers be our friends or our enemies?

The Musketeers opens strongly. The dazzling visuals of the opening sets up the series perfectly, the scope and ambition of it, culminating in a great shot pre-titles. D’Artagnan cradling his dying father as the rain clatters down. But it’s more than that – it’s a great story hook too; it’s an emotional climax that we are invested in and engaged by. It’s a textbook opening.

If that sounds like a criticism, I’m not sure that it is meant to be. The Musketeers is another of the BBC’s recent swashbuckling, historical, ensemble dramas, like Ripper Street, like Copper, like Peaky Blinders. They all have the same title music. (I keep humming the Musketeers theme, though, it’s catchy.) They all have scruffy hair. OK, so these are different historical periods and places, but let’s be honest: chickens, mud, peasants. The past is the past is the past. They are all very good dramas, they do what they are trying to do well. But they are all undeniably the same. We will consider to what extent this is a problem later.

So, a strong opening. Just like Ripper Street’s.

“Why fight fair when you might lose?”

Paris, 1630. We are introduced to our heroes by showrunner/writer Adrian Hodges steadily but deftly. Initially our expectations are even subverted by being introduced to them as the baddies! The men who shot D’Artagnan’s father. A spine of the series emerging here, it’s a nice subversion of the good vs bad narrative we have come to expect. (Like Peaky Blinders…)

We meet Athos (Tom Burke) waking up. We meet Aramis in bed with a lover, which is not a problem when he is played by Santiago Cabrera. Adele tracing his scars and helpfully filling in his backstory is effective, although her “He’s early!” exclamation is a bit on the side of melodrama. Through this scene we are also neatly presented with our enemy: the Cardinal, played by Peter Capaldi. Since filming this, Capaldi has been announced as the new Doctor Who, and his turn in this shows why he is a suitably accomplished leading man. His first scene, with the lover Aramis hanging out of the window, is a fun old romp, which proves one important thing: that The Musketeers also has a sense of humour. (Just like Ripper Street!)

When we meet Howard Charles as Porthos, our final musketeer, it’s eight minutes into the show and we are already witnessing our second brawl. The swordfights are obviously integral to the series, but when does it become too much? They still have to be integral to the story and dynamic. At the end of episode 1 our fight count stands at: 4. To be added to next week, I’m sure.

But we are never in doubt that Luke Pasqualino, D’Artagnan, is our hero. He is sexy, young, sharp and at times vulnerable, with those haunted eyes after his father’s death.

THE MUSKETEERS“One less musketeer… Who cares?”

Underneath all this, there is a plot surging on, which is rightly kept to the background in favour of introducing the series that will enthral us for ten weeks. We cut to a gorgeous stately home and introduce the King and Queen at a shooting party – and here the dialogue sparkles. “There is something about shooting that makes one feel fully alive.” “Unlike the birds I suppose.” “They are born to be shot like rabbits. And poets.”

A succession of good scenes follow, mostly in the first half of the story. The confrontation of D’Artagnan with the musketeers is nicely shot and staged, a significant point in the series, and it’s all very fast moving. We’re going to court. Cut to: the court. That’s the pace of drama now and it suits the recklessness of this drama.

It isn’t without insight either. This isn’t clever drama but it’s not stupid either. “Is that why you hate them so much?”, the Cardinal is asked of the musketeers. “Because they’re beyond your control?” “Nothing’s beyond my control!” It’s economical but sets up the villainy for the next ten episodes. It also dovetails into an illustration of another crucial part of these types of series: sex. The Cardinal says to Adele: make me feel better by undressing for me. Sex is the solution to these characters’ problems in every sense. For example, that great sequence where D’Artagnan grabs a passing (married) woman off the street to have a smooch with as a diversion. It’s woven in clearly, just like Peaky Blinders.

This all builds to an exciting if unoriginal climax, but then episode 1s aren’t really about the climax. It’s slightly predictable – we know Athos will be saved from the firing squad at the last moment – but the crucial fact is Tom Burke, the actor, doesn’t for a moment act like the character is aware he will be saved by the plot. His performance stands out here and helps us believe in the drama more. And then the Cardinal’s murder of Adele! A stunning scene, the realisation dawns on us only shortly before it does on her, to which Hodges also adds the nice touch of her speaking the name of her musketeer lover with her last breath. So the Cardinal is on the warpath!

If I had to find issues it would be principally in the over-explaining of some of the dialogue. At times the series feels like it doesn’t know how to differentiate itself from an adult genre drama and a more family-oriented piece like Merlin or Atlantis. The denouement scenes, also, were slightly overblown, as we’ve already seen the Cardinal ruthlessly dispatch Adele! But he’s tying up loose ends and looking to the future, I suppose, which is what the series is doing too.

Final verdict

There’s more than three musketeers here, and they are all worthy of our attention. The musical score is gorgeous. The visuals are stunning, in particular the snowy vistas and rain scenes. The plot solid. I’ve been probing its similarities to other dramas but we could just as easily view it as a replacement for Copper, a compliment to Peaky Blinders. Does it matter that we’ve seen it all before? Not at this stage, no.

Next week: gunpowder!!!