“That’s the point isn’t it? Making people believe…”
Let’s state this right off the bat, shall we? Episode two of Sarah Phelps’ adaptation of The Pale Horse was just about perfect; one of the best hours of crime drama you’ll ever see.
It had everything: some sumptuous production design, fine acting, some edgy, creepy moments, shades of Highsmith and Hitchcock, some really imaginative, bravura direction by Leonora Lonsdale and a classic Christie reveal at the end.
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.
We left the philandering Mark Easterbrook at the end of episode one edging into the mysterious world of Much Deeping – the bucolic, picture-postcard English village that housed three soothsayers who may or may not have had anything to do with the death of his first wife Delphine, and a list of seemingly random people who were showing up dead with increasing rapidity.
Mark Easterbrook’s name was also on that list, lest we forget. He certainly couldn’t.
What could have easily gone down the route of a folk horror – a la The Wicker Man – quickly spiralled into a vortex of Hitchcockian noir and paranoia, as Easterbrook decided the only way he was going to save himself was to investigate this curious case himself and free himself from this ever-escalating situation.
Control, control, control. That was what he liked, craved.
Except he wasn’t in control at all. He was desperate to find a rational explanation for this all, but everyone around him was telling him differently – it was magic, witchcraft and everything to do with hexes.
Even he was starting to believe it.
This internal conflict brought with it fear and loathing, desperation and paranoia. It wasn’t long before he was having dreams; lurid, hyperreal nighttime visions of totems in his hallway bearing down on him as he lay sprawled, screaming in his pyjamas on the floor. Rufus Sewell’s Mark Easterbrook was now resembling James Stewart’s Scottie in Vertigo, or Gregory Peck’s John Ballantyne in Spellbound (albeit version without any redeeming characteristics).
He was a man at the end of his tether, living wide-eyed in between two worlds, that of of the conscious and the unconscious; shuffling, terrified, through a fever dream.
After he extracted a confession from Ardingly that he had his mother killed and had put a hex on her via the women at The Pale Horse he decided enough was enough. Who could hate him enough to put a hex on him? He deduced that it must have been Hermia who had visited the ‘witches’ and put a curse on him, so he, in turn, went to The Pale Horse himself to confront the three women himself.
With repeated pressure from an increasingly panicked Zachariah Osborne and an increasingly dogged Lejuene, he was desperate. So he asked the three women to put a curse on his wife, and to put a curse on Lejuene. They were both ‘obstacles’ he said – Hermia because she was high maintenance and, in his eyes, some sort of pathetic plaything, Lejeune because he was getting too close.
But to what?
There was always the question of what really happened to his first wife Delphine, who died in the bathtub, hanging over this story. We were about to find out.
We flashbacked to that fateful evening, and saw Mark fly off the handle when he discovered the Much Deeping paraphernalia in her handbag, and the name and number of Oscar written on it. He flew into a jealous rage and swiped at the electric radio perching at the end of the bath.
Poor Delphine was frazzled.
Easterbrook had been carrying around this gargantuan secret – and the guilt from the secret – ever since. And it looked as though he was going to get away with it. Away with it all.
Hermia, who had been the victim of some terrible psychological abuse from her ‘perfect’ husband, was found in a near-comatose state when Easterbrook returned from his visit to the three women in Much Deeping. And then, while he was taking her into the hospital, Lejuene was wheeled in, blood appearing to leak from every orifice.
His plan – and the Pale Horse women’s curse – was working.
Except it wasn’t. Easterbrook, despite feeling free of his shackles and partying as if his very life depended upon it, kept seeing the ghost of Delphine. Something twigged, and he decided to pay a visit to Osbourne in his workshop.
And then it really all happened. Easterbrook found rat poison, lists and dossiers of people – on people – who had died in his workshop. He found detailed plans of their houses. Entrance points. Schematics.
It was Osbourne. There was a rational reason for all of this. Appearing from a doorway, dressed in his pyjamas, Osbourne explained that he had gone through newspapers to prey on the rich and vulnerable, used the three women at The Pale Horse as cover, and only knew about Easterbook after he had seen him leave the home of his mistress – who Osbourne had poisoned. He decided to torment Easterbrook, because why not? He knew he was harbouring secrets and wouldn’t go to the police.
Two killers faced off against each other. Who would flinch first? It was riveting.
(A note about Bertie Carvel, who played Zachariah Osborne. In Baghdad Central he’s been surely channelling Leonard Rossiter in his portrayal of the duplicitous Temple, and here, as Osbourne, there was something of the Peter Sellers about him, certainly from the Ealing Comedies era. He was greasy, awkward, nervous and stammering. Osbourne somehow reminded me of an evil version of Fred Kite from I’m Alright Jack. High praise indeed, I know, but this was a diamond little role for Carvel, who’s really been stretching his wings recently.)
In the end, Easterbrook did away with Osbourne and burned down his workshop with him in it.
He was finally free. Free of everything.
But there was one fantastic twist to come. Entering his home with a spring in his step, he looked down at his newspaper only to see a disturbing headline: Mark Easterbrook had been killed mysteriously.
It’s one of the classic noir storylines – the man who wasn’t there. Or, the man who had been investigating a case only to find that he had done it all along. Here, Easterbrook saw the ghost of Delphine at the end of the hallway. He was now trapped in some sort of purgatorial state, reliving her death over and over again.
How? Why? Hermia had woken up from her coma, to be greeted by the three Pale Horse women at the side of her bed. Even though their so-called powers had been disproved and discredited, it seemed Hermia had asked the three women to put one final curse on her nefarious husband, to make sure he finally paid for all his misdemeanours and the abuse she had endured.
It was quite the ending.
All of this amounted to a stunning hour of television – hyperreal, stylish, riveting – but let’s face it, Christie diehards will have hated it. Phelps took the kernel of the original story and changed characters, outcomes, you name it. There was no happy ending here, unlike the book. Instead, Phelps cleverly wove tales of psychological terror, flashes of melodrama and all manner of references from the period into something new, exciting and surprising.
If this is Phelps’ last Christie adaptation, she has given us the perfect end to a quintet that has traversed the early part of the 20th century, almost decade by decade, and rooted Christie’s fabled whodunits with so much more cultural and historical depth and context. And she’ll be remembered for bravely and creatively breathing new life into characters and stories that, whatever you think, really needed it.
READ MORE: OUR EPISODE ONE REVIEW OF THE PALE HORSE