For as much as she never shied away from racking up massive bodycounts, there was always a certain sense of safety to the novels of Agatha Christie. Sure, Dame Agatha tended to be pretty liberal when it came to the stabbings, shootings, poisonings, etc., but she also worked in universes that trended, more often than not, toward justice. By the end of the vast majority of the 66 mystery novels Christie penned across her legendary career, you could be reasonably certain that culprits would be caught, dark secrets brought to light, and parlor scenes suitably parlored—almost always at the hands of The Detective, an impartial, perfectly observant third party who somehow managed to unravel things just in the nick of time. Whether arriving in the guise of fastidious Belgian Hercule Poirot, Jessica Fletcher forerunner Miss Marple, or a wide assortment of one-off sleuths, The Detective is a fixture of Christie’s moral universe: someone working to see the truth come out, no matter what, and backed up with the skills to see it through.
The genius of Sarah Phelps’ periodic series of BBC Christie adaptations—including, and maybe especially, Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse, coming to the States this Friday on Amazon Prime, after running in the U.K. in February—is in the way it takes a bloody hammer to that bedrock of literary security. Unlike its 1961 source material, Phelps’ adaptation presents protagonist Mark Easterbrook (Rufus Sewell, looking, as usual, like a snake who’s smugly satisfied to be slipping inside his very expensive human suit), not as a bystander to a series of mysterious deaths all linked to a trio of possible witches operating out of a small-town fortuneteller’s shop, but rather as a man up to his neck in grisly events. From the jump, Easterbrook displays an uncanny knack for surrounding himself with dead women, even before the police (represented more as an external threat than an investigative body, courtesy of Sean Pertwee’s gravel-voiced Inspector Lejeune) find his name on a list hastily hidden in a dead woman’s shoe. There’s nothing impartial, then, to Easterbrook’s hunt for the truth; when he injects himself into the investigation, it’s with the clear air of someone trying to get out from under something, rather than an outsider observer on the hunt.
But even without the trail of corpses that seems to follow him everywhere he goes—and despite the fact that it’s his viewpoint we follow as he unravels the crimes—it would still be difficult for an audience to fully put their trust in Mark Easterbrook. As adroitly piloted by Sewell, the character is established from the moment we see him as a perfectly coiffed, precision-manicured nothing, a human void substituting exquisite tailoring in place of a soul. Despite being a grieving widower who’s ostensibly the target of at least a frame-up—and possibly a full-on murderous magical conspiracy—Sewell’s performance defers sympathy in favor of alpha male sangfroid. When confronted by unwanted questions (most notably from new wife Kaya Scodelario, giving a wonderfully unhinged performance of her own), he lies with the casual confidence of a man for whom consequences have typically been little more than an abstract concern; when a character describes him, late in the series’ run-time, as a man upon whom “nothing snags,” Sewell’s face registers confusion at the idea that it could ever be any other way.
Who better, then, to drop into Phelps’ mystery-forward riff on The Wicker Man? While it jettisons large swaths of the plot, The Pale Horse shares with the original novel its key hook: The question of whether there’s actual magic happening at the root of all these deaths, or simply the usual cocktail of human desire and greed. In Christie Land, a truly supernatural outcome always seemed unlikely—while she occasionally flirted with the paranormal, the author’s sense of fair play typically kept her plots grounded in the real world. But the sweat-soaked approach favored here by Phelps and director Leonora Lonsdale opens up the possibility that there really is something uncanny afoot, especially since self-described “rational man” Easterbrook keeps loudly declaring that there isn’t. As a detective, Sewell’s character leaves much to be desired; as a goat, he’s borderline perfect.
Where The Pale Horse falters, then, is in knowing when, and how hard, to jam down on the gas and drive the entire enterprise gloriously off a cliff. The series shares with its protagonist a tendency to spend too much time and energy on maintaining the look of normalcy, leaving large portions of its first installment feeling just a tad too restrained. There are early signs of life—Scodelario does some amazing eye acting, even as she plays a character who asks the hypothetical question, “What if Betty Draper was really into knives?” And Bertie Carvel appears to have wandered on to the series’ set from the broadest sitcom imaginable, injecting life into every scene he and his overly exaggerated, mangled teeth make their mark upon. But it’s not until the back half, when Sewell lets the mask start to slip, that The Pale Horse stops futzing around with classiness and finds its sense of nasty, brutish fun.
The worst thing you can say about Phelps’ Christie adaptations, really, is that they often only barely qualify as mysteries—something The Pale Horse is equally guilty of. (When Easterbrook does manage to puzzle out “the case,” said resolution functions almost as an afterthought to the psychodrama we’ve already seen unfold.) But that’s as much a reflection of the unreality of the form as anything else. In the real world—and even in the lushly shot ’60s milieu on display here—The Detective is more often than not merely a mythical figure, an unreality imposed on the world in order to make a story feel more neat. The Pale Horse is not a neat story, and it has no Detective. Just a man wading brusquely into waters far too deep for him, blindly confident that the world hasn’t let him drown just yet.