Benedict Cumberbatch is one of (if not the most) amazing and versatile actors working today. His range goes from key comic book character Doctor Strange to the Oscar nominated role of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game on the big screen, to his hopelessly fantastic portrayal of Sherlock Holmes on TV. We could go on but it’s easier for you to just check out his IMDb page and then watch as much of his work as possible.
Then just as we think we’ve seen him stretch himself as if he were auditioning for the role of Mr. Fantastic (he’s a stretchy superhero), he gives us a devastatingly brilliant performance in Patrick Melrose. We’re two episodes in to the five part limitied series on Showtime and we can already declare Cumberbatch as the odds-on favorite to win the EMMY for Actor in a Limited Series.
Episode one found a heroin-addicted Patrick learning about his father’s death. We quickly feel the animosity not only through dialogue but also through expression and cinematography, but we are not told why he hates him.
Patrick books a flight to New York to collect his fathers ashes and declares he’s giving up the junk (heroin is most prevalent but he does any drug available and washes it down with a drink). Of course, he’ll need a little something to get him through the flight, so nothing is given up.
Paying for Privilege
Money and privilege keep him in first class, in private suites, and out of trouble. But it can’t keep the effects of his addictions at bay. And it is here that Benedict takes us on his journey with Patrick. Melrose believes everyone sees him as a good-time guy. Everyone sees through him and stays with him.
The other characters because he has the cash and cache’ to make it worth keeping him around. The audience because we would be too shamed to look away, and that is a feeling that only grows deeper as the show progresses.
Cumberbatch guides Patrick through every moment of mania, every painful crash, every uncomfortable encounter. The funny, and borderline charming, moments come when he is interacting with his friends or the friends of his parents. The most telling are when he’s with his father or his father’s remains.
Signs of the Times
In the opening scene we see small blood stains dotting the crook of his arm where he’s injected himself. By the end of the episode the effects of the drugs are much more dramatic. He’s scalded his hand in bath water and is wearing an eye patch. This appears to be the rock-bottom that money and privilege have cushioned him from for so long. The pain is real. The journey is painful. The performance is brilliant.
The series is based on the semi-autobiographical books of Edward St. Aubyn and episode one is set in 1982. Episode two is primarily told in flashback, set in 1967 at the family’s chateau in rural France. We only get a glimpse of adult Patrick as he goes through withdrawal and the friends who are sticking by him. You get the feeling this isn’t the first time they’ve sat watch over him.
While episode two doesn’t feature much of Cumberbatch, it tells us much of what we need to know about why Patrick is who he is. We already realize that drugs and sex are tiny band-aids on deep wounds. We believe they could be scar tissue until we see Patrick’s childhood. It is only then we understand that these painful, gaping holes in his soul can only aspire to one day be scar tissue.
Weaving the Details
The real star of episode two is Hugo Weaving, who plays his dad, David Melrose. Watching the alcohol-fueled dysfunction is painful enough. And while we understand that Patrick never had a chance at childhood happiness, the moment we learn of the incident that pushed him towards the edge is as heartbreaking as the helplessness the audience feels. As you watch the sequence of shots in deafening silence, you cry out to help. But no one hears you.
This is one of the hardest shows we’ve watched in a while. Difficult in a The Handmaid’s Tale sort of way. Very serious subject matter where wrongs pass as right and accountability is scarce. But Patrick Melrose is even more painful to watch because this story actually happened. And for someone, somewhere, right now, it is still happening. And there is no escape from that reality.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
Some may say it’s tasteless to have a drink while watching this intense and sobering show. But we are nothing if not tasteless. So, we are mixing up a Liquid Cocaine. Peach Schnapps, Amaretto, Southern Comfort.. it’s good for taking the edge off!