The final episode of The Escape Artist was its weakest, relying on implausible plot twists more suited to a continuing entertainment series than a supposedly intellectual three-part drama. The show never lived up to the early promise of the opening episode, with that episode’s strongest elements discarded and its plot holes proving not to be forgivable missteps but harbingers of things to come.
Episode three began with Liam continuing his streak as the luckiest person in history, getting away with the murder of Will’s wife thanks to some dodgy practice at a crime scene lab and incompetence on the defence’s behalf (incidentally, why is Will, the UK’s number one lawyer, working for such an inept law firm?)
The show’s writer probably thinks that making Will and Maggie the best lawyers around – capable of helping obviously guilty men walk free – covers up how preposterous all these events are, but for this to work, the show needed to effectively present the lawyers as outstanding and clever. Instead, they both won their respective cases thanks to fuck-ups from other people. ‘A consummate performance; first class,’ a colleague told Maggie. Er, no actually, she won by default, thanks to other people being rubbish.
A chunk of the following 15 minutes felt like padding – long shots of people’s faces all screwed-up and deep in thought. I like dramas that slow down, but this felt unnecessary, and I think the writer really only had enough material for two episodes.
The poor plotting continued as Will put in place his plan to kill Liam and get away with it. First, Maggie conveniently showed up – at a back door, in an alley – as Will picked up Liam’s medical records he had asked a criminal friend to steal. Will then took a trip to Scotland under the pretence of a job interview but really to follow Liam to his isolated cabin in the woods. After creeping around for a bit – completely unnecessarily seeing as he planned on confronting Liam anyway – Will stabbed Liam with a knife, resulting in Liam having an allergic reaction to the sea food on it, which killed him, despite Will’s best efforts to save him.
At the end of Will’s trial for murder, Maggie turned up and revealed – via an inappropriate flashback that was like something from an episode of Poirot – that Will had deliberately killed Liam using a poisoned EpiPen. With Liam’s body cremated and thus no chance of Maggie’s theory being proven, the jury returned a not proven verdict and Will walked away scot-free.
This ending is flawed for many reasons. First of all, the showdown between Will and Liam was anti-climatic. It lasted a very short time and nothing interesting was said bar a half-assed lion in the jungle analogy and a brief call-back to episode one’s exploration of legal ethics.
Then there’s all the incredibly fortuitous nonsense: Liam having a life-threatening allergy; Liam travelling to a remote location in Scotland; a law firm existing nearby to give Will a plausible reason for being in the location; Liam travelling to a country with the not proven verdict that Will was relying on to get him off. It’s almost as if there was some intelligent creator, watching over Will and ‘scripting’ everything to go in his favour…
There’s a common flaw in UK ‘serious’ drama of scripts filled with plot holes, with the BBC’s What Remains being a particularly egregious example. If the viewer can ‘see’ the writing, can tell how events in a TV show are being structured to bring about a conclusion or a specific plot point, then it ruins the show. Everything becomes transparently artificial.
The Escape Artist’s writer David Wolstencroft previously created Spooks and he needs to realise that the implausible scenarios you can get away with in an explosive spy thriller you can’t get away with in a three-part legal drama. Wolstencroft also got carried away with his final twist – showing Will as humorously discussing his master plan with Maggie and revelling in victory – and forgetting that, with Will’s wife brutally murdered and his profession shown-up as inherently flawed and unethical, the show’s conclusion should have been downbeat – Will at best quietly satisfied.
It’s also problematic that the final theme of the drama seems to be that the legal system doesn’t work and that it’s okay to take the law into your own hands and kill someone as long as he’s a Disney villain and you are a clever lawyer. I’d say that’s a theme built on weak foundations but, really, I don’t think it was a purposefully built theme at all, but more an unintentional consequence of Wolstencroft’s desire for a twist ending. By this point, any purposeful attempt at theme or intellect in the show was discarded in the desire for a complex and exciting final episode.
The acting in the show was good and it had an interesting premise, but ultimately a show stands on the quality of its writing. The Escape Artist was lacking in this area and it won’t I think live long in anyone’s memory.
- The gift Liam sent Maggie was the special tea she drinks – something it took me five minutes squinting at the iPlayer to work out.
- The reveal that Will was purposefully following Liam to Scotland was nicely handled and unexpected. The fact that his efforts to help Liam were all part of a master plan to get away with killing him were, to me anyway, easily predictable, and contributed to my dislike of the ending. Viewers who didn’t work this out might, I’ll concede, have enjoyed it more.
- Maggie and Will must have wandered the entire Royal Mile during the big reveal at the end. Will’s lucky he got back to court on time.
- I wonder why David Tennant hasn’t made the jump to being a primarily film actor. Presumably he’s getting plenty of offers, given his Doctor Who prominence and critical praise. Maybe he just prefers TV.