Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 2 of Patrick Melrose. Not seen Episode 2 yet? Catch up with our spoiler-free review of Episode 1.
After Benedict Cumberbatch’s arresting turn as the eponymous depraved, drug-addled Patrick Melrose in the TV show’s opener, Episode 2 marks a striking change of pace, as Cumberbatch takes a step back – and the script takes an even bigger step back to his childhood.
It’s a smart move for the mini-series, after putting Bad News, the second book in Edward St Aubyn’s run, in pole position. That hour gave us a chance to soak up the jet-black comedy of Melrose’s tragic existence, before turning its attention to St Aubyn’s initial novel, Never Mind, which charts the formative years of young Patrick’s life – and the abuse that was embedded within it. We got a hint of that mistreatment from Patrick’s remarks in Episode 1, not to mention his pleasure at the discovery his father had finally kicked the bucket, but that isn’t quite enough to prepare for what we witness here, even off-screen.
The scene is France, 1967, and we join Patrick (Sebastian Maltz) on a family holiday to Lacoste. He, his mother Eleanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and father David (Hugo Weaving) are relaxing in their rural chateau, surrounded by ravishing countryside and colourful, sun-dappled architecture. Director
Edward Berger brings it all to languid life, with a slow camera to keep the mood and tempo mellow. But there’s darkness beneath the vivid surface, and that lethargic pace is revealed as an oppressive sense of stasis – a limbo of torment.
For those who found Cumberbatch’s performance a lot to take in, this episode marks a notably quieter affair. For those who relished in his unrestrained dive into twisted depths, rest assured: there’s just as much Acting on display here, thanks to Hugo Weaving’s insidious patriarch looming over the whole household.
Sebastian Maltz is fantastic as the small boy who feels distinctly unloved by his parents. A solemn child with nobody to play with, the only time we see him move with any energy is away from his father, following a particularly nasty scene. His quiet, timid terror is matched by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is heartbreaking as Eleanor, a wife so sickened by her husband’s behaviour that she has retreated from family affection into the comfort of the nearest bottle. It’s when friends of the couple come round for dinner that we really see them with full clarity. Leigh’s housewife is largely absent from any table discussions, leaving Pip Torrens’ despicably sycophantic schoolfriend, Nicholas Pratt, to agree with everything David says – even as he lecherously hits on Nicholas’ trophy date, Bridget (a subtly scene-stealing Holliday Grainger).
Hugo Weaving, though, dominates the screen whenever he’s on it, drawling his sharp dialogue slowly like a knife being pulled from a wound. He smiles and sneers with a loathsome cruelty, sinking his teeth into David Nicholls’ barbed script. He’s even worse when saying nothing at all: one nerve-jangling moment sees him standing at a first-floor window in a silk dressing gown (foreshadowing future Patrick standing at his own wealthy window looking out on the world), reducing the maid to a quivering wreck with only a hard stare. The sound of the rattling crockery in the tray she’s holding gets louder and louder, echoing around the chilling estate.
As the dinner chat takes a turn for the seedy, and Patrick hides in a room nearby, the stench of morals rotting in the ripe, festering sunshine becomes pungently poignant, building to the foul stench of an inevitable, but no less shocking, instance of abuse. By the end, it becomes even more harrowing as we get a slight suggestion of conscience beneath David’s bullying smirks, a pang of possible regret and awareness that is already far too late to reverse the damage done.
Bridget, tired of the private-school preening and privileged assaults, takes it upon herself to flee the estate – with no help from a potential young suitor she meets on her way to the chateau. Outside, she finds Eleanor, a broken figure, sat hunched in the car on her own. “It’s not as easy as you think,” she slurs. A cut back to adult Patrick in the 1980s, trying to go cold turkey in retching agony, proves that’s still true decades later. An intentionally jarring contrast to the entertaining immorality of Patrick’s grown-up life, this second episode reinforces the tragedy underlying his eventual behaviour – a promising demonstration of how varied this mini-series can be, while tying it together with a permanent line of abuse. Where can Patrick Melrose go from here? It’s anybody’s guess, but redemption currently seems sadly out of reach in a life where trauma and family legacy are one and the same thing.
Patrick Melrose premieres at 9pm on Sundays on Sky Atlantic, but is available on-demand before then, following a simulcast at 2am. Don’t have Sky? You can also watch Patrick Melrose online on NOW TV, which gives live and on-demand streaming access to Sky’s main TV channels, including FOX UK (Legion) and Sky Atlantic (Westworld, Billions), for £7.99 a month – with no contract and a 7-day free trial.