REVIEW: The Pale Horse (S1 E2/2)

“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.

Paul Hirons


14 Comments Add yours

  1. Elizabeth Macpherson says:

    Well after your 1st line, I’ll watch it now (literally). I’ll read the rest of your review after ;)


  2. Tom Archer says:

    pretty sure Bertie was doing a great impression of Chris Packham’s speach


  3. Keith says:

    I sincerely hope that we never see the names of Sarah Phelps and Agatha Christie linked again.

    Yes, this was a cleverly crafted murder mystery/suspense thriller, but to have taken a perfectly good book and basically ripped it to shreds and said “This is what you SHOULD have done” is something of an insult to Christie. I felt the same way about the ABC Murders but that was largely due to John Malkovitch’s portrayal of Poirot which owed nothing to the description of him by Christie.

    Phelps is clearly a talented writer but she really should be capable of creating her own original drama without taking someone else’s work and underming it in this manner.

    Oh…and returning to the continuity issues of part one (top down, top up, sunglasses on or off…), just how many cars did Mark Easterby have? I noticed both left and right hand drive, plus normal doors and reverse-opening ‘suicide’ doors…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dan Campling says:

      I completely agree. Christie’s works are exceptional and do not need re-imagining or any new life breathed into them whatsoever. I actually read an interview with Sarah Phelps where she had the audacity to state that she thought the bare bones of Christie’s books were good but, as a whole, they were overly long, dull, and showed plenty of scope for improvement. Considering that only The Bible and The Complete Works Of Shakespeare have outsold Agatha Christie, she must’ve been doing something right.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Kristin says:

        That is complete and utter nonsense, what Phelps said about Christie. Maybe she is suffering from Twitter-think, wanting everything to be digested in 140 characters, as Christie’s books are not long! Take the “dull” part out of it as that is subjective, but factually, 250-300 pages for a mystery / thriller is normal. Plus plenty of novellas. I digress.

        David Fincher has built an incredible career out of adapting books into movies that in some cases (Fight Club, Zodiac) are better than their source material, but for every adaptation of his I’ve seen, he stays faithful to the plot while adding his signature sinister, tense Fincher visuals and mood.

        Sarah Phelps is not David Fincher.


  4. Jane says:

    Just baffled by the ending which sort of negated what had gone before. Didn’t understand it and sounds like lots of other people didn’t either.


  5. bill hughes says:

    How to destroy a good novel. Hard to understand. Awful finish.
    Not going to trust your review in the future

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Elaine says:

    I can’t say I really enjoyed this adaption much-the second part was much better than the first, but whereas I did enjoy Ordeal by Innocence and And the there Were None, this and ABC Murders were slogs to watch. Don’t mind changes to the book but if there is another adaption, I will think seriously about watching it.


  7. Andy D says:

    I’ve never read this particular Christie novel so I can’t opine on any controversial changes, but I felt overall this could have been much tighter in the running, even a two-hour one-off episode preferably, as it felt overly long to me. Not everything has to be split into multiple episodes for the sake of filling a schedule.

    Refreshing to have a protagonist that isn’t particularly likable, even if his comeuppance was a bit of a head-scratcher for me (was he already dead? a ghost? in hell? I was too tired to think on that point too much). Seemed like a lazy ending to me, like they’d written themselves into a corner.

    As always with these adaptations it looked absolutely gorgeous, with the costume and the set design being the real winner here. Also some great individual performances too, with Kaya Scodelario’s angular cigarette smoking and murderous ham-wielding internal monologue being a particular highlight, as well as Kathy Kiera Clarke pitch perfect as Sybil.

    The main question for me though is, who are these adaptations really for? I know countless Christie enthusiasts who wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole, and I’d argue that they don’t really fill a need from other crime drama fans for something particularly progressive or subversive when you can find that sort of show elsewhere…I can’t imagine most casual TV watchers felt particularly engaged with them…just not sure who they are pitching to.


    1. Keith says:

      I think you nailed it Andy! For many people, Christie was Marple and Poirot and not so many realise that she also wrote other detecting series (Tommy and Tuppence Beresford) and standalone mysteries such as The Pale Horse. I’ve read all the Marple and Poirot books, dabbled with others but only read The Pale Horse when I heard there was to be this adaptation.

      To answer your valid question about who is Phelps writing for, I suspect the answer is none other than herself in order to satisfy some vainglorious belief that she could do a better job. If she thinks she’s that good then why not create something original instead of tearing up someone else’s work (which as another commentator here has already said, was a pretty successful catalogue in terms of sales)?

      If her versions of The ABC Murders and The Pale Horse had been originals then I’m sure we’d be praising her work. Sadly, I feel that both were disrespectful to the author…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Andy D says:

        It’s interesting you mention Tommy and Tuppence, as they are some of my favourite stories from Christie’s work, and after it was announced the BBC had acquired the rights to her estate I was very much looking forward to their adaptation. But sadly it was a bit of a mess, which seems to have become a bit of a theme with how they’ve handled her work ever since.

        Phelps is clearly a skilled writer but seems to have been given free rein by the broadcaster to do as she pleases (her recent work on Dublin Murders was equally questionable), and I sometimes do wonder if it is her script work that they like, or the fact she generates headlines for them in an environment that is harder to get noticed against other commercial competitors. I would be curious to see the viewing figures from And Then There Were None onwards, to see if the BBC’s faith in her is matched by their audience.

        I’m all for breathing new life into older works, but there’s a reason why Hickson’s Marple and Suchet’s Poirot are so beloved and iconic, and eminently re-watchable, and that to my mind is they respect the source material.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. marblex says:

        I’m still waiting for a faithful adaptation of N or M?


  8. marblex says:

    Sarah Phelps and Philomena McDonough are the only two writers whose departures from Dame Agatha’s original material, I allow. Ordinarily I’m a stickler for remaining true to the story just as Christie wrote it. However in adaptations by Phelps and McDonough, material changes are made, without fundamentally altering the story or the mystery.

    Yes, Esterbrook is a different character; yes, neither Ginger Corrigan nor Ariadne Oliver are anywhere to be seen; the three ladies are nowhere near as creepy as Christie wrote them and, the outcome is sunny and bright, not dark.

    Yet, Phelps manages to preserve the story and to inject new life into it. An interesting perspective, certainly, all springing from taking a different perspective on Mark. I liked consolidating the Davis/priest role, it worked very well. Overall I like this adaptation.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Akominatus says:

    “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”. I’m sorry, my opinion is the flat opposite of yours in every way possible – a miserable dog’s dinner of a whodunit thriller. Agatha Christie must be spinning in her grave, her carefully constructed story ripped to shreds and apparently reconstituted by a bunch of vandals who clearly had no idea what they were doing or where the film was going. Ambiguity and uncertainty have their place, but this adaption threw away bath water, bath, baby and all, leaving behind a shambles. Who killed Easterbrook’s first wife and why? And why on earth was his mistress killed? Why did his current wife go around with a permanently pained expression, and what if anything was she up to? Who or what killed Easterbrook and why? Never mind all of that, though – what was criminally mishandled and left in shreds was the very core of the story, namely the three weird sisters and their relationship with the poisoner, which was never explained and simply left hanging. As for the poisoner, don’t get me started! A religious homicidal maniac who not only keeps a filing cabinet full of case histories of his crimes, but who also devotes all his time to making sure the protagonist, at long last and after repeated attempts, finally twigs him? Spare me… And spare poor Miss Christie from any more idiotic adaptions by this gang of illiterates!


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