The Escape Artist is essentially a horror. Like Arlington Road or Fatal Attraction, it’s the type of drama usually referred to as a psychological thriller. This first episode was a little pulp-like and contained a few plot holes but it was creepy and tense and ended with an unexpected punch that leaves me wondering where the show will go from here.
David Tennant plays Will Burton, a top lawyer who is tasked with defending brutal murderer and all round not very nice person Liam Foyle. In this first part of three, Will got Liam out of prison on a legal technicality, arguing that the jury had been prejudiced by faulty testimony from an expert. I’m not sure how believable that is but I’ll roll with it this early on, assuming that the dodgy writing won’t become a regular issue with the series.
There were little hints at the start of the episode about Will’s faltering belief in the morality of his profession. He hesitated before shaking a guilty client’s hand, and wrestled with his conscience after taking on Liam’s case. After the trial concluded, Will walked away from Liam, leaving his client’s proffered hand outstretched, a slight you might want to avoid making with a crazed torturer. Liam took his revenge by murdering Will’s wife Kate, with a rival lawyer pledging to defend the killer in his upcoming trial.
There were some issues with the plotting in The Escape Artist. After a sinister figure appeared at the window of the Burton’s remote cottage, the family decided not to flee to a safe location but to stay in the middle of nowhere far from safety. ‘Is it possible it’s a former client?’ a policeman asked Will about the intruder. ‘Hmm, there is that weirdo murderer I just got out of jail,’ Will didn’t reply. And going forward it’s hard to believe that a double murderer would get out of prison again and be able to further terrorise Will, but seemingly that is what is going to happen.
Liam is also a little bit contrived as a character, with his clear enunciation and upper-class accent – you could see him as a villain in a bad serial killer movie. And Will’s rival lawyer deciding to defend Liam for the murder of Kate feels forced and unbelievable.
The attempts at intelligence in the writing were…okay, I’d say. The opening scene of Will talking to his son’s class about defending guilty people was a little lacking in subtlety, and Will’s talk with Liam – ‘the more time we spend together the more you remind me of me,’ – bordered on the obvious.
But I feel like I’m nitpicking because I did enjoy the episode. The horror elements I think were pretty strong. Tension was ramped up as the episode progressed, starting with the unnerving opening shot of a single red balloon floating above the Old Bailey. The blunt horror movie music over the mundane and ordinary scenes in the episode’s first half created an uncomfortable and nervous atmosphere, though the jump scares – like Liam suddenly appearing at a window – were a little hackneyed.
Near the end of the episode, Will arrived at the family home to find the door open and the lights out. At this point, one episode in, I was expecting the old movie trope were the protagonist thinks something horrible has happened but it turns out everything is okay. Instead, Will’s wife is lying dead on the floor. It’s a pretty bold move for the writers to go there this early, avoiding dragging the killer’s stalking out for another episode. And it puts the show in the difficult situation of having to work out what to do next, and avoid repeating all the same beats we just saw in this first part. I don’t know if The Escape Artist will be able to pull that off, but it’s refreshing to see a TV show do the hard thing, rather than walk the easy route.
Toby Kebbell as Liam is a good enough actor to just about carry his artificial character but it was David Tennant who impressed most in the episode. Tennant gets a hell of a lot of praise but I see nothing to suggest it isn’t deserved. He fully inhabits the characters he plays and turns them into real people from the off, and his performance here is no exception The whole ensemble in the episode was good, and it’s a shame to have lost the likable Ashley Jensen, playing Will’s wife, so soon.
It was a strong opening for The Escape Artist, and while I worry that the next two episodes don’t have anywhere to go that isn’t over-the-top and contrived, there was enough in this first part to warrant a second look next week.
- The Escape Artist is a strange title for this show. It doesn’t really fit – it’s not really about Liam getting out of jail, is it? I wonder if it was a marketing decision; an exciting sounding title.
- There were some nice shots in the episode, like the slight reflection of the murder scene photos in Will’s glasses, as he looked at the case files with horror.
- It would be good if a crime drama could for once base itself around something other than the rape and murder of woman. The BBC has made a habit recently of providing dissertation material for feminism students.
- ‘These people are so – Hi! Nice to see you! – two-faced.’
- There’s a good review of this episode over at Den of Geek that discusses the symbolism in the show.