Seville is shut down this week in historical crime drama The Plague when the illness forces the council to close its borders as La Peste rages through the city like a wildfire; amidst the dead and dying a serial killer is still on the loose and unlikely duo Mateo and Valerio must find the murderer before they strike too close to home. Meanwhile, Teresa’s obsession with Eugenia has disastrous consequences for the widower whilst Luis’s quest for power knows no bounds as he sinks ever lower to reach higher on the social ladder.
But first, an apology. I made the assumption at the end of episode two that the body washed up on the shore was Azuaga’s lover, Carmen Galvez. It turns out this wasn’t the case – in fact it was the completely random (or so we think) body of Lucina Utrera, a prominent Captain’s daughter. So much for my deduction skills! Poor Lucina has gone the same way as Azuaga before her – impaled from groin to shoulder, this time dressed in a ‘virgin cape’, then drained of blood and dumped on the beach. A very hungover Mateo is called to the scene directly from the tavern, where he finds some non-human hair between her fingers, leading Valerio to believe the ‘black beast’ is responsible for the crimes.
When Mateo digs a little deeper into her past, it turns out Lucina was a bit of a charlatan – reading fortunes, casting cards and shifting fake silver coins to clear her massive debts. But her relation to Azuaga seems minimal at best – and so the former Inquisitor turns his attention back to the hunt for the printer of the documents found at Carmen’s house. However there’s a twist – it turns out the reason Mateo was deemed a heretic in the first place was because he was helping protestants publish books banned by the Inquisition – and it’s his printer that’s being used again to produce blasphemous works. A tip-off from the local child catcher leads Mateo and Valerio to the secret underground lair (aren’t they always?) of the printer, an illiterate slave who works for a shadowy figure called Ledesma.
Mateo is called to meet with with Grand Inquisitor Celso de Guevara who fills him in on their mutual suspect in the church’s ‘chamber of secrets’ (Harry Potter this is not – unless that chamber was also full of wooden dildos ‘carved by prisoners’ and deformed fetuses in jars). Guevara explains Ledesma has never been caught by the Inquisition ‘despite how much we torture people’ – but the figure (or pseudonym) has been responsible for the publication of a huge number of blasphemous tracts. Amongst that work is the printing of a work central to his beliefs – ‘The Four Truths’, depicted in four drawings that Mateo already has the first of – each depicting a violent death by different means – crucifixion, impalement, beheading, ravaged by animals (ouch). Ledesma – or somebody beholden to his ideals – is killing in the manner of his scriptures, and they are already halfway through their endeavour.
Elsewhere, Teresa is trying to track down Eugenia who has given her the slip from their painting sessions to revert back to prostitution. Teresa’s obsession with ‘upgrading’ Eugenia’s lifestyle is a bit perplexing – none more so than for Eugenia who mistakes Teresa’s kindness for sexual desire only to be physically rebuked. In a bid to normalise her life, Teresa marches up to her deceased husband’s factory to demand Eugenia work there – something which doesn’t exactly sit well with the all-male staff. After the foreman and his staff try to rape Eugenia in the factory, they refuse to work with her anymore, forcing Teresa to sack them all despite the protestations of her own counsel that it won’t end well – hiring in prostitutes to do the work instead. It’s a brave thing to do in a frustratingly masculine world where even the higher social standing of an aristocratic woman means nothing in terms of control, power or respect – something horrifically illustrated later on in her own brutal sexual assault at the hands of her former employees.
Control, power and respect are three things that dominate Luis’s life as well – especially when his mentor on the council succumbs to the plague. There are some unintentionally hilarious scenes where Luis forces Morata on his deathbed to sign his seat on the council over to him, then happily chooses which furniture and ornaments he’ll have as soon as his friend dies – “take the bed but burn the clothes”. Luis is clearly aiming to be the Frank Underwood of his time and actor Paco León seems to be having a blast in the role – a twinkle in his eye as he demolishes his opponents one by one. He’s not above caring for his own though – as Mateo begins to physically fall apart from hallucinatory insomnia he wheels him over to Monardes who diagnoses a bad case of ‘melancholy’ and prescribes a hearty bowl of opium every day to ward off the visions of death (or “your sadness without a soul” as the good doctor puts it). Unfortunately for the close friends, you get the feeling Luis’s thirst for power will clash with Mateo’s quest for justice before the series ends.
With the hunt for Ledesma reaching a dead end, Mateo and Valerio double down on trying to find the ‘black beast’ who seems to be at the epicentre of the killings. Their investigation leads them to the slave quarters of Seville and their description of the alleged culprit matches that of a slave called Nubla, who was bought by a sculptor called Martin del Valle. Unfortunately for the sleuthing duo, del Valle was committed to the local sanatorium stricken with plague a few days ago and has subsequently died. It’s here in the scenes of the rich having their huge beds moved into the upper floors of the hospital whilst the courtyard below is a fetid pit of poverty-stricken wretches that you truly get a sense of the all-consuming madness that afflicted the era – and the irony that despite clutching on to their expensive heirlooms, the rich perish in as much ignominy as the poor.
An icon amongst del Valle’s belongings lead the pair to the Brotherhood of Slaves, and from there to the location of Nubla’s house. Whilst the man himself is missing, the instruments of his work definitely are – including his trusty impaling poles. After a little digging around they also find Carmen Galvez – chained to the floor in an underground pit. Carmen comes complete with a big bag of exposition – Nubla was acting on the orders of Ledesma, and whilst he should have killed her along with Azuaga, he kept her as his sexual slave. Although Carmen had never seen Ledesma, she could recognise his voice (something I suspect that will play into the final two episodes). She also reveals the connection between the killings – Azuaga was in a circle of friends with Lucina, a German by the name of Alejandro de Dresdner – who also happens to be the treasurer of the mint – and finally Mateo’s recently deceased friend, Germàn. All four were secretly protestant and held clandestine meetings – but why would Ledesma, a committed protestant himself, kill others of his faith?
With Dresdner clearly the next target on the list, Mateo and Valerio hot foot it over to his house – only to find his head in a trunk and the rest of his body missing – fitting the decapitation theme of Ledesma’s scriptures. Elsewhere, Luis is informed of the same man’s death and it’s clear from his reaction that the investigation and his machinations are going to collide very soon, or at least put his own life is in danger. Meanwhile, Teresa faces danger head on to exact a terrible revenge on her assailants after bravely standing against them in a local tavern, before both her attacker and the foreman who paid for it are both brutally murdered.
It was another involving two hours spent in this evocative era and again the murder case only made up a fraction of the drama – it’s the fascinating tapestry of secondary and tertiary characters that makes the narrative sing and draw you into a time expertly reconstructed. With only two episodes to go it’s anybody’s guess where it will go – the sign of any good crime drama – and it was heartening to see this week the show is to be recommissioned for a second series.
FOR OUR REVIEW OF EPISODES 1 & 2 CLICK HERE