The Musketeers - The Challenge

BBC1 16/03/14
Written by Susie Conklin / Directed by Farren Blackburn

A contest taking place between the Musketeers and the Red Guards becomes personal for D’Artagnan.

Ah, tournaments and challenges. Sooner or later every historical based drama gets round to this plot so credit writer Susie Conklin with putting an  interesting spin on the story by tying it in with D'Artagnan’s ambition to become a fully-fledged Musketeer. In an amusing display of childish showing off the King and Cardinal end up agreeing to a tournament in which a champion from each of their respective militia will battle it out to decide which is the best. This is after a brawl breaks out over which group should transport Labarge, a corrupt superintendent to gaol. As Labarge is played by Vinnie Jones all parties are lucky not to have injuries in more private places!
"Don't run away, I'm a pussy cat really"


Actually Jones is perfect for this role which requires him to bristle with anger and knock people about a lot. He proves a convincingly powerful presence which means that when D'Artagnan and later Captain Treville face him they really do seem to be in danger. However Labarge goes from being a prisoner to an officer of the Red Guards thanks to Richelieu’s patronage and determination to beat the Musketeers. A wiser counsel would perhaps advise the King that he’ll run short of people to guard him if he encourages these sorts of events but the scenario is merely a backdrop for us to dip back into D’Artagnan’s story.
Since the first episode he has behaved like a Musketeer and indeed been trusted with some important work so it comes as somewhat of a surprise to discover he’s still not been commissioned. Now he is also penniless since Vinnie Jones burned down his farm. Oddly none of the other Musketeers can afford to enter the contest either despite presumably earning what you’d imagine are substantial salaries so have to woo widows to gain favour, a venture that Porthos enters into so convincingly that he actually falls for the woman. Anyway D’Artagnan ends up being given the money by MiLady whose allegiance to the Cardinal appears to be wavering. Looking at each other suspiciously Maimie McCoy and Peter Capaldi are excellent as they chat through veils of barely concealed mutual distrust. Visually Richelieu can often be found ensconced in an enormous room mostly devoid of furniture save for his desk at one end and various directors have used this space to emphasise his relative isolation from everyone else.
Refreshingly the series seems happy to move plots on with rather than draw them out so Constance’s husband this week starts spying at the Cardinal’s behest and ends up discovering his wife’s true feelings for D’Artagnan. She, too, has managed to acquire the money for D’Artagnan but her husband has spent it once he knows what’s going on and he tells her she must end the relationship. This adds quite a strong emotional element to the episode and is written with some finesse to emphasise that despite this betrayal he still loves Constance and she also does have some guilt about what she has done. Another sterling performance from Tamla Kari seals the impact of this development as she tells D’Artagnan they are finished though of course we know they’re not!
Having kept the Musketeers and us waiting to see who he’ll choose Treville elects to take on Lebarge himself but when he’s hurt the climactic duel ends up being a second Labarge versus D’Artagnan showdown , the first having concluded with the latter taking quite a pasting. This time it is D’Artagnan who slightly improbably wins. Sheer bulk alone suggests that Labarge could take on all-comers and we’ve already seen him hold off several guards at once. Perhaps it’s D’Artagnan’s hatred of him alone that wins the day.
It’s one of three slightly untenable aspects of an otherwise strong, busy episode in this increasingly impressive series. It’s a shame Labarge is killed at the end as Vinnie Jones suits the show and adds a danger element. With two episodes to go The Musketeers has developed with aplomb never standing still long enough to allow elements to become over familiar and containing enough in each episode to keep our attention. The critics remain sniffy but there are signs of a thaw. Those who do watch are now looking forward to each week’s episode.

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