If you managed to get acquainted with the eponymous character in Sky Atlantic’s bizarre Patrick Melrose, then you’ll know just how funny, witty and rather irritating he can be. For some, one episode might have been enough — I mean, he is pretty intense. If you are one of those people who found him a bit full on, then you’ll be pleased to hear that you have a bit of a reprieve in this week’s episode.
It was always going to be tough to follow such a wonderful opening episode, which is what makes writer David Nicholls’s decision to practically remove Benedict Cumberbatch from the second extremely brave. We should’ve known that the Sky series would dare to be different. I mean, if we learned anything from the first episode, it’s that Patrick Melrose isn’t your average drama. But if Cumberbatch’s award-worthy performance was one of the main reasons you were tuning in then, before your tear hair out in frustration over his absence, allow me to tell you why, even without the star of the show, the second episode of Patrick Melrose is every bit as good as the first. And perhaps even better.
You still with me? Okay, good. Let’s start with why this is episode is perhaps the most pivotal part of Patrick’s story. Last week, we got the impression that our central character was dealing with some internal struggles, but it wasn’t explored in detail. In fact, it wasn’t really explored at all. That’s what this episode is for. The second instalment of the David Nicholls–penned series takes viewers back to the source of Patrick’s problems, and it proves to be another intense hour of the show — but in a completely different way.
Set in the South of France during the summer of 1967, we’re introduced to the highly dysfunctional Melrose family. From the outset, there’s a tense atmosphere in the family home, and it’s clear who’s in charge. The patriarch, David (Hugo Weaving) thinks he is somebody, and looks down his nose at everybody else. He possesses an arrogance that makes him instantly unlikeable, so it’s pretty easy to understand why his wife Eleanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh) avoids spending time with him. A young Patrick (Sebastian Maltz) shows a lot of affection for his mother, something that she discourages in case David gets jealous. It’s an odd thing for a mother to do, and the subtext suggests that she’s afraid of David.
We’re not sure if he physically abuses her, but there is certainly some level of emotional abuse in their relationship. She offers to pick one up David’s friend Nicholas (Pip Torrens) from the airport as an excuse to leave the house. He grants her that request, so she takes her friend Anne (Indira Varma) with her. While Eleanor never explicitly states anything, her conversations with Anne — and her reliance on alcohol — are enough to pick up on the fact that she’s far from happy. Leigh is superb in these scenes, with her nuanced performance highlighting Eleanor’s conflict beautifully.
As Anne and Eleanor take in the lovely summer’s evening, it’s hard not to admire the splendour of the French backdrop. Edward Berger does a wonderful job as director. The first episode was aesthetically pleasing, and the second one is perhaps even more so, with the beautiful French surroundings coming to life on the screen. I imagine it will look even better to those viewing it in 4K, as the vibrant colours and picturesque landscapes steal the show on more than one occasion. Moreover, the beautiful setting is juxtaposed nicely with the melancholic tone of the episode. Externally, everything is warm and bright, but internally, our characters are anything but.
While Eleanor is away, Patrick stays with David, and this is where things start to go wrong. Using his arms to support himself, Patrick lets his father pick him up by the ears. David tells the boy to let go so that he can put him down and, after some persuasion, Patrick complies. However, David doesn’t put him down, and Patrick screams in agony as he’s being held up by nothing more than David’s grip on his ears. David tells him that he’s learned an important lesson: to never let others make important decisions for you. It was an incredibly harrowing scene — one that was very uncomfortable to watch. At this point in the narrative, David is becoming the monster that the present day Patrick spoke of. But this was only the beginning. Later, David spots Patrick telling the maid that he wants his mother. The maid comforts him, and David gets jealous. As Patrick starts destroying the fruit that has fallen from the tree, his father yells at him from the window to come to his room. Patrick has no idea what he’s done wrong, but as we’ve come to learn from his David’s behaviour, there doesn’t need to be a reason for him to get angry. Following this, It’s implied that David sexually assaults Patrick.
Patrick makes several attempts to tell Eleanor, but he doesn’t follow through because he’s terrified of his father. During a dinner party, Anne finds Patrick sitting on the stairs and picks up on his distress. He won’t tell Anne what’s wrong, but he’s pleased when she promises to get his mother. But Eleanor won’t come to comfort her son. She is also terrified of David. Nobody comes to see what’s wrong with Patrick. He just sits there, alone. Maltz does a terrific job of conveying Patrick’s loneliness. Before retiring to his room, David threatens to snap Patrick in two if he ever tells anyone what happened. As the episode concludes, everything about the present day iteration of Patrick Melrose — including his odd behaviour — makes sense. His father’s abuse ruined his life. And perhaps he speaks to himself internally now because he wasn’t able to talk to anyone then. Who else can he communicate with if not himself?
Considering Cumberbatch is a large part of Patrick Melrose’s acclaim — and, for many, the series’ main draw — it was an extremely brave decision to have him absent for most of the episode. But it was absolutely the right call. No amount of dialogue could make us understand just how terrible David really was. We needed to see it first-hand in order to comprehend how much Patrick detests him. As any great screenwriter would say: show, don’t tell. And that’s exactly what Nicholls did. The humour we’ve come to expect from the eccentric character is non-existent in his younger counterpart, and the uplifting, fast-paced world of Episode 1 is nowhere to be seen. Instead, a heart-breaking story of a young boy with no-one to talk to takes centre stage in this beautifully-shot episode. I’m extremely interested to see where the series will take us next. As Patrick deals with his withdrawal, what other memories will come to light? I guess that’s a question that Episode 3 will have to answer for us.
Contributed by Stephen Patterson
Patrick Melrose continues on Sundays at 2am and in a more regular slot at 9pm on Sky Atlantic.