Review: THE MUSKETEERS, Season 2

You probably haven’t been watching BBC America’s The Musketeers. Here are three reasons why you should catch up.

We don’t need praise or glory.

–Athos

Praise and glory are two of my favorite things!

–Porthos

You know Doctor Who, obviously, and you know Orphan Black. You know Broadchurch. You may even know Luther. But BBC America has another fun series that has likely escaped you (it has certainly flown under the radar in my circles): The Musketeers. It just ended its second season last night, with a finale so marvelously tense and rewarding, I’m compelled to write about it.

Remarkably faithful to Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 classic, the first season of the series tracked the journey of D’Artagnan (Luke Pasqualino, Snowpiercer), whose mission of revenge — his father was killed by men belonging to the nefarious cardinal, Richelieu (Peter Capaldi, Doctor Who) — brings him into contact with the legendary regiment, and three Musketeers in particular. Like the novel, he challenges Aramis, Porthos, and Athos in combat, whose respect he earns despite being humiliated. Ultimately, by the end of the first season, he’s granted a place amongst them protecting the King of France and his interests, and the Three Musketeers become Four.

The Musketeers deftly balances court intrigue and romance with old-fashioned swashbuckling — the jaunty theme that plays over the credits alerts you that the series is most of all meant to be fun, not a grim, plodding historical (or un-historical) fiction. If you’re not convinced, here are three reasons why you should catch up on its first 20 episodes before its return in 2016:

1. The Cast. The rapport between the Musketeers is tremendous: Tom Burke (The Hour) plays Athos, the quartet’s unspoken leader, a thinker with a dry sense of humor; I’ve caught my wife (and, if I’m truly being honest, myself) more than once getting lost in Burke’s soulful eyes. Santiago Cabrera (Heroes) is Aramis, the dashing romantic with facial hair the envy of every man in France. Howard Charles, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare company, is Porthos, the quick-triggered brawler with a deep, throaty laugh. Obviously, none of them pass as French (including Pasqualino, half of them are more believable as Spaniards), but it doesn’t matter — the chemistry is outstanding, as they’re able to tell more about their long-standing partnership through cheeky glances and shrugs than through dialogue.

The supporting cast is equally great, from Hugo Speer as the Musketeers’ respected commander, Treville, to Ryan Gage (last seen as the sniveling Alfred in the Hobbit films) as the flamboyant and affable — but weak-willed — King, Louis XIII. There’s also a powerful trio of women who take their turns at center stage: Queen Anne (Alexandra Dowling, Game of Thrones), whose soft features mask a steel spine; Constance (Tamla Kari), an intelligent draper’s wife who falls for D’Artagnan; and the infamous Milady de Winter (Maimie McCoy, The Libertine), an assassin and thief with a surprising connection to Athos. Shifting alliances and outside threats keep the narrative moving from week to week, but its the reliability and charm of its cast that keeps me tuning in.

2. The Production Value. Creator Adrian Hodges has managed to create a sumptuous and detailed world with a budget dwarfed by its premium cable brethren — much of that owed to its filming on real locations in the Czech Republic. The palaces and gardens are stunning, as are the elaborate costumes. The show just looks great. Furthermore, as it has continued it has gotten better and better at staging thrilling action sequences (a chase across a pulley bridge in the second season premiere is a real highlight). The cast prove themselves to be adept swordsmen, dueling with Red Guards and criminals alike with panache and flair. And while their titular muskets never run out of ammo, it’s most often their cleverness that wins the day.

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3. The Storytelling. With only ten episodes a season, The Musketeers makes them all count. That’s not to say that there isn’t the occasional “filler” episode, with one-off villains hammy in both writing and performance, but each installment (running a full hour, or 1:15 as broadcast here in the states) plays like a mini-movie, allowing depth and controlled pacing that ultimately benefits its overall arcs. It’s largely made great use of its guest stars, from Vinnie Jones, to James Callis (Battlestar Galactica), to Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones). Most impressively, it’s adapted well to changes out of the series’s control — the loss of Capaldi when he became the Twelfth Doctor could have been a death blow; what can you do when you’ve lost the novel’s primary villain, one that The Musketeers had gone out of its way to humanize and occasionally ally with its heroes?

Rather than re-cast the part, Hodges and his writers took a bold risk in introducing a new antagonist, Rochefort, exquisitely played with silky menace by Marc Warren (Band of Brothers, the upcoming Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell). It’s the Musketeers’ honor (and bad luck) that puts the realm in incredible danger — vague spoilers ahead! —  after rescuing Rochefort (who had been imprisoned for years by the Spanish) from meeting his end at a commoner’s noose, they allow him to ingratiate himself to the King; he becomes the Wormtongue to Louis’s Theoden, poisoning his mind while pursuing his own ulterior motives, hanging the Musketeers out to dry over and over again.

This pattern eventually became wearying — how many times must we see the Musketeers stave off a crisis, only to have Rochefort convince the King it was their fault to begin with? — but it nevertheless culminated brilliantly in the season’s final two episodes, and a fist-pumping comeuppance on the level with, say, Dolores Umbridge getting carried off by centaurs. The path there may have been aggravating and painful, but the destination was intensely satisfying. Warren’s terrific performance, with his reedy voice and expressions barely masking his contempt for our heroes, made it all the sweeter.

It’s also a good sign that Season 3 — set to begin filming next month — will be taking the show in an entirely new direction, as Louis has declared war on Spain. (Not England, like the novel, I suppose for obvious reasons.) A departure from palace politics is something I’m totally on board with, since there’s no way they can keep retreading the themes of the first two seasons; instead, it can lean harder into its area of greatest strength: valiant derring-do in exotic locations. The Musketeers is a series that’s comfortable in its own skin, and doesn’t try to be more than it is: a handsome, entertaining swashbuckler, slowly building a loyal following. And if you catch up through DVD or streaming, you’ll be happy to be in the club.

Season Grade: B+

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