A neat little thriller set within a magician’s studio that rivals ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’ as the show’s tightest and most alluring genre piece yet. It’s a delightfully nasty script from the pair, as Shearsmith’s Griffin steals an elusive (and densely presented) trick from a waning magic performer in Pemberton’s Willy. Director Guillem Morales uses precise tracking and pulling shots to build appropriate tension and mysticism in such a confined space, the complete opposite to his work within ‘Love’s Great Adventure’.
Not only that, but the space itself is littered with references and call-backs to magicians and tricks of the past – this is easily the most densely-packed set of the series so far and the production design adds not only to the narrative but Griffin’s hubris. After murdering Willy in the pitch-black opening, we’re shown his success nine years later as an awkward student journalist (Fionn Whitehead) attempts to conduct an interview with him, whilst slyly working towards his own agenda.
Much like the episode’s namesake, the script is possibly one of the densest of the entire show. Whitehead’s Gabriel, Griffin and director Morales all perform their own tricks surrounded by misdirection. Griffin’s tactical one-upmanship leaves him to believe he has the upper hand, as his wife Jennie (Jill Halfpenny) sits in a hotel room elsewhere oblivious to her role in Gabriel’s plan. The plan in question is fiendishly elaborate and simple in execution, allowing Morales’ tight direction and some clever editing whips to keep the audience on their toes right up until the prestige itself.
Somehow within all this the duo even found the time to be ridiculously funny too. A known magic nerd, Shearsmith’s Griffin is obviously a character he’s always wanted to play, and his own disdain for contemporary street magicians at times seems too real and evocative to be anything other than his real thoughts on the subject. Fionn Whitehead plays Gabriel with a palpable sense of unease too, though his character’s actions end up making a more significant impact than his character at times. It’s classic Inside No. 9 – with murder, mystery, secrets and some delightfully wonderful writing that doesn’t rely on CGI to create a sense of magic (looking at you Now You See Me). Everything down to the foreshadowing of Gabriel’s ‘fake’ tarot card reading is utilised here, and it’s difficult to think of how long the duo can continue to keep surprising us like this.
Thinking Out Loud ★★
Taking a simple concept and weaponizing it seems to be a common trope for the duo, but ‘Thinking Out Loud’ is perhaps going to go down as one of the more divisive instalments of the series. In the style of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, five different characters spew five monologues to the camera telling an intricate story as their behaviours and details slowly overlap and converge.
As Phil Davis’ Bill walks up to a semi-detached London home (number 9, obviously) we’re thrown into a video where he alludes to a troubled past with his wife Doreen and how, after having the company of men for so long, he’s looking for a woman to keep him company in his later years. Maxine Peake’s Nadia meanwhile details the feisty gossip of her delight at the divorce of an upper-class couple down the road, and Ioanna Kimbook’s Angel is the peak of shallow ‘online influencers’ seen across platforms like Twitch and YouTube. Steve and Reece however play Louisiana criminal murder Galen Landry being interviewed during his incarceration and terminally ill father Aidan in a poignant and subdued performance that contrasts from caricatures elsewhere. Aidan’s recording video messages to his future daughter in the aftermath of his diagnosis, and Shearsmith’s performance is among his best across the entire show. The entire thing is underscored by a beautifully sombre blind choir singer in the form of Diana (played by Sandra Gayer) who chillingly echoes the underlying themes with renditions of ‘Amazing Grace’.
The only thing is… even over halfway through the episode the audience is still kept in the dark as to the connection between these people. The writers cleverly drip-feed us common subjects like ‘Doreen’, ‘rabbit’, ‘stained glass’ and ‘pig’, and wordsmiths will be overjoyed by the anagram usage for the names, however it’s a rare example of Inside No. 9’s misdirection perhaps skewering the narrative too much. As the characters converge and blend into one-another, we’re told by an offscreen therapist (Sara Kestelman) that Nadia is actually suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder – a split personality – and that these different elements of her have created a new narrative in the wake of her father (Bill’s) gruesome murder of her mother Doreen when she was younger.
It’s a bold story to tell. And it’s only the closing moments that rely on some exposition that dampen the experience; otherwise there’s a whole host of details and small laughs to be had. Pemberton’s Galen Landry is a scenery-chewing piece of work, whilst I couldn’t help but cringe at the overbearing familiarity of Angel’s online persona. Most monologues don’t cut away either and the elongated takes put extra pressure on the actors and place all the entertainment on their shoulders. Even when its impact is softened the show continues to impress in other departments.