Game of Thrones - Season 4 - Part 4Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 24 May 2014 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Reviewed by Martin Hudecek

4 - Oathkeeper 5 - First of His Name

Following the 'Purple Wedding', the ramifications are felt by many players in this top-notch medieval fantasy fare. Elsewhere in Westeros, other developments and older plot lines from years gone by are thrown into the mix. Whilst the show meets expectations on a consistent basis it is also able to conjure up surprises - even for the most ardent devotee of the written works of G.R.R. Martin. Although perhaps neither of these particular episodes are world beaters there is much to take on board and reflect upon.

Jon Snow is given a lot to do this time round - despite the malicious interference of superiors Janos Slynt and Alliser Thorne. Kit Harrington is improving his portrayal significantly and Jon has grown considerably as a result of being the 'insider' amongst the Wildling antagonists. Locke is given further development and shows a rather more charming, if ultimately manipulative side. Experienced actor Noah Taylor excels as Bolton's minion; whilst possibly a sociopath and sadist he can still pretend his reason for being at the Wall was down to a relatively small crime. The viewer can but wonder what Locke really did in his past given his true dark nature.

Although Jon seems to have a different set of problems to last season, it seems those with power like Thorne regard him as a nuisance at best. Consequently there is strong dramatic tension as Jon appears to be going on a suicide mission to Crasters Keep with the explicit goal of stopping Mance finding out key information from the estranged Nights Watch. Jon eventually musters a respectable group but there is the caveat that Locke is tagging along and clearly has his own agenda.

Bran Stark and his party were given the short end of the stick last season with few really effective scenes. This current run however has done a nice job of mixing supernatural elements that Jojen can assist Bran in mastering, with the danger that may come from Wilding hordes or from the thugs that hold Craster's Keep. The changes with Sam telling Jon about Bran's mission may upset some of the book purists, although not myself. I would agree that leaving Gilly in proximity to the Wildings who have crossed over southward is inexplicable but it is a good way to balance the kind, educated Sam with the boyish bumbler making rash decisions.

There has been a lot of other re-arranging done by the show-runners, so in addition to Jon, Daenaerys is given some material which took place somewhat later on in the original timelines. I continue to regard the 'Mother of Dragons' as a protagonist from another show, and Clarke's brand of acting is relatively theatrical. Some compensation comes in the development that Dany and her court now know of Joffrey's death. What initially appears an opportune time to retake King's Landing is actually a reminder that Khaleesi must deal with the 'here and now'; rather less welcome news arrives of Yunkai and Astapor regressing back to slaver cities.

Indeed Dany seems to be in control of events around her as much as at any point since her very first appearance, There is no cruel brother to treat her as a bargaining chip, nor fickle alpha-male Dothraki. She has a greater band of warriors and advisors and need not place confidence in duplicitous and ruthless tricksters as she did in Qarth. She doesn't need to bargain or plan risky night-time attacks as she did when acquiring the previous slaver cities. She seems to be someone born to rule - despite being originally third-in-line. The main tension is based on her decision to trust either/both of Jorah and Daario - each man loves her but has shown signs of not being truly dependable; especially in the case of Jorah who even now could still be reporting back to Varys.

Arguably the defining image of the Meereen sections presented is Dany's decree that the deposed slave masters of Meeren be nailed to a cross and left to die slowly to avenge the slave children she witnessed on her journey previously. Despite plot twists aplenty the viewer never doubts that the Mother of Dragons is someone who 'walks the walk'. Overall there is a definite up-turn in making the Khaleesi story line work as effectively as it did in Season One, although I personally do not prize it as the very best component of any given episode.

These episodes' most obvious sources of tension and excitement centre around the character of Karl and his fellow traitors, who maintain an atmosphere of sadism at the late Craster's stronghold. Karl continues to be played ably by Burn Gorman- a dependable actor in various genres - even if he is somewhat of a caricature in both script and performance. There is some nice black humour with Gorman tempting fate by saying he has remained undefeated in a fight since he was nine. Under his rule the women who suffered previously at Craster's hand are treated no better - possibly even worse. There is even a glimpse of Commander Mormont's broken skull being used to dispense some red wine - a clever reminder of the sad and violent fate that Jorah's father suffered.

Once events culminate at Craster's Keep in the final moments of 'First of His Name', it is richly satisfying that one of the female victims helps Jon in overcoming Karl. Perhaps the grotesque death suffered by the renegade is rather more worthy of a horror film - even if on-screen violence is usually justified in the show. Of at least equal controversy is the graphic depiction of how imprisoned women are being raped. Yet by the time the dust has settled there is an excellent moment of empowerment where Jon wisely concedes that these female survivors will now make their own proactive way in the cruel realms of the North.

Locke also has a very violent death which certainly surprised me in coming at this point in time. Hodor is horrified to see his hands bloodied - the result of Bran using his Warg powers to avoid being carried away to certain doom. This also works as a strong moment showing how tough Bran really is - even bearing in mind the battles fought by his older brothers and late father. Even more unexpected is the brand-new material featuring a White Walker converting one of the male babies banished from the Keep into one of its own kind. Whether this intermittent story line will be picked up by season end is no doubt a deliberate mystery thrown into the mix by the showrunners.

King's Landing continues to provide much of the meat of the show. There is an amusing but purposeful bedside visit made by Margaery Tyrell to imminently crowned Tommen. Whilst he is clearly too young to consummate a relationship just yet, it is obvious that Margaery is someone he trusts and likes. The viewer know just how manipulative and yet warm the Tyrell noble is, and should take note that she herself is acting on the and the wishes of grandmother (and supreme game-player) Olenna - who is now moving back to Highgarden.

Once Tommen is crowned proper there is a smart litle scene where Margaery seems to redress the balance of power between her and Queen Regent Cersei, Some may recall the stern threat in the last season over the younger woman's wish to be 'sisters'. For now Cersei is rather less threatening, appreciating the value of allies in these troubled times.
This approach is also demonstrated when Cersei later on decides to be liberally affable and diplomatic when meeting with Oberyn Martell. The Red Viper of Dorne is not given the most compelling of material in comparison to beforehand, but it is clear that he is making the most of his position of influence in being around the royal court. The reminder of middle child Myrcella being relatively 'safe' in Dorne is also a welcome counterpoint to other scenes involving the innocent in these episodes.

Episode Four's title 'Oathkeeper' points out the touching moment where Jaime passes on the sword that Tywin gave to him recently. This is an excellent scene for those who have bonded with Jaime over the course of Season Three - a fine counterpoint to his description of saving the capital from wildfire and the 'Mad King. As Brienne and Pod ride off in search for Sansa, Tyrion is conspicious by his absence. In fact the 'Imp' has but the one scene in 'Oathkeeper' where he is all too aware of the less than judicious court proceedings he can expect to be subjected to very soon, and how his sister is putting emotion above all other thoughts with the goal of silencing him once and for all.

As serious, disturbing and plot-heavy as the show is, there are still some very enjoyable lighter moments. Pod and Brienne have both been improved markedly in television format; providing some distinctive moments of modesty and valour. However when put together, it would appear that Brienne now is demonstrating a sense of superiority - owing to Pod's awkwardness. Once they have spent some time together on the road, there is a lovely moment where Brienne realises that Tyrion owes his life to the quick-thinking, surprisingy powerful squire during the chaos that was 'the battlle of Blackwater'.

The Hound/Arya sections which worked well last time round, is perhaps lacking in real direction. There is no real changes to their status quo except for the addition of Beric and Thoros on her 'kill list' - owing to their siding with Melisandre Syrio Forel is praised to the heavens by Arya (in a call-back to season one), that unsurprisingly features Sandor showing little admiration for a man who trusts his life to a wooden sword. One feels that a confrontation must come between this odd couple, and of course the show has a strong theme of alliances not being bound to last.

On the other hand, Arya's sister Sansa is given some rather strong material - with actress Sophie Turner continuing to improve her range. The audience is made to think that the older Stark girl will at some point become more proactive. Perhaps there is some degree of capability and decisiveness which so clearly exudes from Arya, but up to now the machinations of the Lannisters have been too strong. Her brave defiance of jealous Aunt Lysa accusing her of being sexually active despite her truthful denials is a fine scene which is played just right. The confirmation that Jon Arryn was killed by his wife Lysa at the behest of Baelish, and that the Lannisters took the blame is done in a low-key manner but is ample reward for viewers left scratching their heads since 2011.

Demented Lysa, and her son Robin - unseen since the middle of the opening season - are such memorable grotesques that viewers will be almost transported back to those proceedings as if the had happened recently. Furthermore the sequences with just Littlefinger and his 'ward' talking to each other are well done in both these episodes. Clearly the wife of Tyrion is wondering whether she has leapt from the frying pan into the fire. The viewer however is confident that Littlefinger prizes Sansa above anyone else as an asset, so even if he doesn't have her own interests at heart, he would never let harm come to her.

Watched together these episodes complement one another nicely and set up some potentially intriguing story lines for later on. On an individual basis they are rather routine by the show's lofty standards, with episode Five being static and talky - if necessary in terms of exposition. The books may be more complex but this is still a very dense show with a lot going on at once.

The program continues to make the majority of rival evening fare look pedestrian and routine, although it clearly expects loyalty from viewers dating back to events in the very earliest episodes. There are many elements of the show that have been retained after judicious adaptation of very dense source literature and they for the most part come across crystal-clear to the viewership. Some television shows cynically play out the same old formulas and rest on their laurels. 'Game of Thrones' takes chances and rewards loyalty and emotional investment in the actions of its characters.

FILTER: - Game of Thrones

In The Flesh - Series 2 - Episode 2Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 18 May 2014 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Reviewed by Tom Buxton

Written by Dominic Mitchell
Directed by Jim O'Hanlon
Produced by John Rushton
Broadcast on BBC Three, 11th May 2014
In increasing the episode count of their second season twofold, the In the Flesh writing team must have realised early on in the drafting process that the expansion would come at the cost of the more concise, tightly-woven narrative which made their original run such an instant success with its viewership. As pleasant as it is to be following the exploits of Kieran and the gang in Roarton for a further six hours, it’s simultaneously difficult to deny that some of the inevitable negative ramifications of the enhanced running time are beginning to come to light two weeks in, and coming to such a realization after having praised Season One to the high heavens (and beyond, given the death-transcending nature of the supernatural genre) was a melancholic moment for this reviewer.

Where should the blame lie for the gradual yet unequivocally notable drop in quality, then? Perhaps the metaphorical finger should be thrust in the direction of Dominic Mitchell, whose handling of the character who was seemingly intended to take centre-stage in his second script of the run is underwhelming to say the very least. Much as Harriet Cains visibly does her utmost to enrich her portrayal of Jem Walker during the additional screen time she is afforded this time around, the structure of Mitchell’s screenplay is such that her construct’s overall role in proceedings from a causal perspective (barring the episode’s tonally consistent yet somehow jarring climactic moments) is minimal.

Far from enabling progress for her previously compelling character arc, the vast majority of Cains’ dialogue depicts Jem as a walking cliché, whereby she appears to drop all loyalties towards her sibling at the moment she gains attention at school and in doing so reverts herself (albeit inadvertently) to a uncharacteristically shallow self-representation. As ever, Cains sells this transformation perfectly (indeed, we’ve yet to encounter a performer who isn’t ideally suited to their designated role on the show), but Mitchell can’t be forgiven for descending into well-trodden territory when the show-runner has generally maintained a subversive, refreshingly innovative approach to his script-writing in the past.

Such a fundamental shortcoming as this would be far easier to overlook if it represented the only structural and representational misstep of the season so far, but sadly, Episode 2’s issues don’t end there. Wunmi Mosaku’s troublesome MP Maxine Martin, for instance, may well be one of the most blatant structurally-subservient plot devices we’ve come across in recent years – rather than presenting any signs of becoming a layered and engaging construct who’ll take the series into unexpected territory (and lord knows, In the Flesh could benefit hugely from taking a walk on the wild side in weeks ahead if its creators hope to see it back on the air come Spring 2015), Maxine currently exists solely to place obstacles in Kieran’s path so as to ensure that the viewer can no longer question the protagonist’s motives for staying put in Roarton. Much as Mitchell would have us maintain the illusion that her presence ups the stakes for PDS-sufferers and in doing so moves us towards a more cinematic rendition of his supernatural conflict, the illusion itself will soon become a mere translucent shroud if she continues to simply antagonise the village’s reborn residents rather than contributing to the ongoing narrative in any meaningful manner.

It’s not all bad news, though. Whilst the seeds which are being sewn for the season’s climax are taking that much longer to bloom (this reviewer sincerely hopes that Emmett J Scanlan’s Simon will find new linguistic variations on his recurring assertion that to have “rise[n] in Roarton” is to somehow be “special”, else his character will grow old rapidly), they’re most certainly receiving a nutritional dose of water each week in order to ensure their eventual growth, with Jem’s startling act of manslaughter in the episode’s closing moments sure to have captivating moral consequences for both her own psyche (as if it wasn’t already fractured enough) and the Walker family overall. That the sequence depicting Kieran’s entry into an undead-exclusive rave was handled brilliantly by director Jim O’Hanlon didn’t hurt either, since the sight of the oft-socially inept character standing at the centre of a gathering which at once resembled both a Rocky Horror Picture Show-themed do and a standard student-laden club on a Friday night was amongst the most striking images of the night.

We’re left with an uneven instalment of tonally sketchy drama, one which likely marks the series’ weakest instalment so far. For the sake of the programme’s future, whether it be on live TV, a digitized BBC Three service or otherwise, this had better well mark the low-point of Season Two as well, since with just four instalments remaining until the already-slim viewership’s attention shifts elsewhere for the remainder of the year, Mitchell’s once-seemingly infallible series cannot afford to waste any more time in pushing forward its currently creatively dented narrative further than ever before, lest the critical tide turn out of its favour and rob the show of what credibility it still clings onto (the BBC evidently have faith based on their extensive marketing campaign, but Ripper Street and The Paradise are both fine examples of the studio’s not-so-occasionally rash approach to evaluating the need for further seasons). In the Flesh inhabits an industry in which a ‘kill or be killed’ mantra decides the victors and the fallen, after all, and if it continues on its currently underwhelming trajectory, Mitchell may begin to find his fans empathising with Roarton’s PDS-opposers in questioning the need for it to rise from the symbolic grave of its twelve-month hiatus in the first place.

FILTER: - In The Flesh

Game of Thrones - Season 4 - Parts 1-3Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 8 May 2014 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
1 - Two Swords 2- The Lion and The Rose 3 - Breaker of Chains

This HBO production is one of the highest rated shows on the TV channels it graces on both sides of the Atlantic with a remarkable IMDB rating and lavish DVD/ blu-ray box sets that sell by the shed load. By now 'Game of Thrones' is well and truly embedded in popular culture. There is much to treasure: believable dialogue furthering story lines and deepening characters, well-choreographed sword fights, stunning locations,elaborate sets and costumes, convincing CGI in the form of three young dragons that are Danaerys Targaryen's trump-card, terrific music and punchy direction, and silky smooth editing. Even the opening title sequence, which tests patience by running for two minutes with a vast map being zoomed in and out of as dozens of names quickly flash by, somehow comes off impressively.
This show is the worthiest of adaptations of a remarkable set of novels whose readership in yesteryear was committed but still niche compared to the more mainstream big hitters put out by publishers. Yet in the wake of the show's great success, creator George RR Martin has enjoyed a far greater impact in specialist bookshops, high street shops, online, and on electronic devices. Quite deservedly too, as this keen reader can attest. But how is the adaptation faring in the here and now?

After a strong third season with one of the most devastating set pieces to startle viewer - namely 'The Red Wedding' - the hope was that at least the same consistency and confidence would be maintained. In fact the early signs are showing that season one may lose the crown of best overall season in about two months time. These opening entries are assured, fluid, full of incident and clever dialogue, and have a company of established actors totally making the most of their varied roles in the affairs of Westeros. The pre-credits sequence that opens the actual events of season four is sinister and yet oddly graceful. Tywin Lannister grimly reforges Ned Stark's long sword 'Ice' into two new swords which contain precious Valyrian Steel. Despite being a hand short compared to this time last year, favourite child Jaime is one recipient of the new weapons.

Sean Bean may have only starred in nine episodes of the entire show, but his gallant alter-ego Ned has not been forgotten. Indeed the Stark children - with betrayed Robb the exception - are alive and trying their best to make the most of their precarious situations. The various child and adult actors that play this generation of Starks all continue to build on their prior good work. I particularly welcome the portrayal of Jon Snow from Kit Harrington after a bland show in season two and a respectable effort last year, that nonetheless was overshadowed by romantic interest Ygritte. A wonderful scene where he confronts Alliser Thorne and Janos Slynt is both intense and amusing - partly due to the welcome inclusion of the savvy exile Maester Aemon. Jon has quickly grown into a man during his time away from Castle Black and seemingly will make some strides up the chain of command before long.

Arya continues to 'bond' with fellow black sheep The Hound. Their pairing during 2013's later episodes continues to work here - the actors are clearly having a ball. Maisie Williams is a gem of a performer, whose expression and range are first-rate. Rory McCann as the Hound is also improving as time goes on. His stare down of weasel Polliver in the brilliant closing scene of episode one is particularly good. The coda of 'Two Swords' is a study in both suspense and pay-off, rewarding long-term viewers who make an effort to remember the more minor characters. There is a rather dark side now to Arya - which did not entirely get translated when season two was adapting her Harranhal adventures. After the cataclysmic 'Red Wedding' this girl is as ruthless as anyone, knowing that her bigger adversaries underestimate her at their grave peril. Come episode three, there is a rather more light-hearted scene where Arya and Clegane seek shelter with a father and daughter, and seem to be putting on an effort to look chummy with each other. This however is quickly negated by Clegane eventually riding off with Arya - and the last remaining money that their temporary hosts had been saving. There is an inevitability that these two companions can only be a team for so long before one betrays the other. Loyalty rarely lasts in the land of Westeros.

Joffrey is played well by Jack Gleason once again. The young king is somewhat deluded in believing that he actually has the power he wanted, now Robb is dead and Stannis is nowhere in sight. He states that the 'war is over' and also seemingly was convinced by Tywin that the news of Daenerys' dragons is is of little consequence. With Margaery now his bride, things then rapidly take a turn for the worse for Joffrey. The closing image of 'The Lion and the Rose' is a truly powerful one, and is surprisingly mirrored in the opening frames of the following episode. Tyrion (the incomprable Peter Dinklage) is the one caught 'red-handed', with wine the apparent method of dispatch. All the clashes with Joffrey over previous seasons have made this turn of events more powerful. Two major examples include Tyrion's brilliant monologue just before the use of wildfire in the Blackwater battle,and then there was the tense yet amusing confrontation during Tyrion's own marriage banquet. Though he is prime suspect in Joffrey's murder, anyone with common sense could point out that this smart man would not openly kill the boy king and dawdle patiently for the guards to escort him to a dark cell. But most viewers have become used to the absence of rationality in this brutal medieval; world. Tyrion most likely will lack the allies he requires, as he awaits trial and probable punishment. In fact he is commendably loyal to his squire Podrick, and selflessly insists that the youngster leave King's Landing for his own safety.

The scheming of Tywin - who has been exemplary in the role of King's Hand -continues unabated. Charles Dance puts in a predictably strong turn, as the elder Lannister bolsters his hold over the monarchy, and simultaneously educates his younger grandson about rulers of Westeros in previous times. Newly crowned Tommen, who did not even have a minute of screen time last year, has grown up three times faster than one would expect. This is a small concern however and Dean-Charles Chapman has enough basic acting experience behind him to at least put on a respectable display in the company of Dance.

The Tyrells' ambitions also continue in much the same vein as before. Season three brought in Diana Rigg as Olenna - she of the amusing cynicism and precise manipulation. In these installments,the veteran Tyrell is still pulling strings despite the outward appearance of frailty. Also Natalie Dormer's Margaery is a very interesting portrayal that builds on a reasonable but unspectacular character from the books. She clearly enjoys connecting with the great King's Landing populace and seemingly this interaction is somewhat heart-felt. Naturally she also wants to be 'The Queen' and displace Cersei from her seat of power. With the vicious Joffrey no longer a participant, there is now a period where once again the widowed Margaery has to put out feelers for the next in line to the throne. She may be youthful, but is also an experienced player in the 'Game'.

There are some new movers and shakers this season in the form of Dorne's dignitary Oberyn Martell. He is a quick-thinking, assured, if rather ribald man. He also has an alluring paramour in the form of Ellaria Sand. Their relationship - along with some extras lacking items of clothing - is rather unconventional even for this show, but the actors are always engaging and blend with the established company very smoothly. My very first reaction to Pedro Pascal's Oberyn was a little wary as he seemed to be all accent and energy, but by episode two's tense feast sequences I was more than convinced he had the right blend of gusto and gravitas after all.

Roose Bolton played his part in redefining the political map of the realm last season as he oversaw the final moments of Robb and Catelyn. He has but a few moments confined to the second episode, where he asserts authority over his twisted and evil bastard son Ramsey. Also making a return is the Alfie Allen as the pitifuleunuch Theon - alias 'Reek'. I have mixed feelings over the show spelling out the fate of the treacherous Greyjoy during season three, when some mystery would have been effective at this point in proceedings. Having said that, the sequence where Reek stumbles behind his 'master' in the woods during the hunt of a defenceless woman is incredibly well-done, and reminded me of the best scene of the movie 'Moonraker'. Also an exciting new plot line has been set up for coming episodes as Locke - who is a character specially created for the show - is sent up to the Wall/Far North to deal with Jon Snow and retrieve his younger half-brothers Bran and Rickon. Although I despised Locke for his treatment of Brienne and a mellowing Jaime last year, I do admit the actor showed skill in making the two-bit warrior compelling and hope he will provide some more dramatic moments.

What of Littlefinger - truly a selfish and self-serving player in the game? Despite a notable absence in the final few episodes of 2013, he is back with a vengeance in the 'Breaker of Chains' episode. And still seemingly with two swirling moustaches. Petyr Baelish continues to exert more influence in the scheme of things than pompous figures like Joffrey, Stannis, and (for now at least) Danaerys. Over the years Aidan Gill's variable accent has sometimes distracted from an otherwise strong portrayal. However Gill still enlivens any scene he is in. His pet project Sansa Stark learnt little of the game, despite being based in King's Landing for the vast majority of the show's run. By the looks of things she will soon be equally hapless wherever Littlefinger plans on taking her next.

There is some concern thought that such a confident production team have struck themselves in the foot because of one loose decision in episode three. Jaime and Cersei's resumption of conjugal relations is scripted, shot and acted in a rather unpalatable manner. Jaime forces his sister down despite her protestations and offers no comfort. Cersei could in theory threaten Jaime with prison, banishment to the Wall or even death but even so her subjugation does not feel anywhere near consensual. A lot of long-time readers criticized this sequence and those who saw Jaime evolve in Season Three are also aggrieved. Given how he apparently developed in the company of the gallant Brienne, this feels like either a backwards step or a very badly misjudged attempt to provoke reaction.

A more commendable production choice is the recasting of Daario in the Meereen sections. Michiel Huisman is far more subtle whilst still being effortlessly charismatic. Emilia Clarke and Iain Glen as Ser Jorah continue to make a fine pairing of determination and prudence, as the Targaryen queen and her chief adviser look to make gain further influence in these lands. There still is little urgency though in comparison to how the other protagonists connect with those many miles away from them. The sequences away from Westeros almost could belong to a rival TV show of the same genre. And in all honesty I had the same problem in the original Martin text. Hopefully come the end of the actual series, this will be rectified somewhat, and Danaerys will have fully played her part - be it victorious or otherwise.

On the basis of this opening batch of thrills, spills and chills, 'Thrones' is still must-watch TV. It provides viewers with stories of political scheming, battles and plots, mysticism, exotic locations, and a host of characters that all are trying to survive. Refreshing the shades of grey are as much in evidence as ever - and the viewer can but wait impatiently to see what sort of deeds the characters will be involved in come future instalments.

FILTER: - Game of Thrones

In The Flesh - Series 2 - Episode 1Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 4 May 2014 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Reviewed by Tom Buxton

Written by Dominic Mitchell
Directed by Jim O'Hanlon
Produced by John Rushton
Broadcast on BBC Three, 4th May 2014
A lot can change in one year. For BBC Three, the twelve months or so which have separated the premieres of the first and second season of Dominic Mitchell’s breakout supernatural drama In the Flesh have been crucial so far as determining the channel’s future. As we step back into Roarton for an extended run of six further instalments, we’re burdened with the simultaneous foreknowledge that the show’s days may well be limited if it isn’t one of the select few programmes which make the transfer to a non-primetime slot on BBC One or BBC Two before its current broadcaster’s digital conversion. In the time that the series has been off air, the territory on which it previously stood has changed exponentially, such that everything appears to be up for grabs this time around.

For the residents of Roarton, however, life hasn’t changed nearly so substantially. Indeed, despite ongoing tensions involving the heightened emergence of the extremist Undead Liberation Army movement, fans would be hard pressed to recognise many elements of the village which have altered to any noteworthy extent in the first half of Season Two’s debut episode. Mitchell (who we’ll presume is back on scriptwriting duties for the season in its entirety until the BBC says otherwise) evidently knows the risks that come with shaking up a critically lauded ongoing production’s status quo too rapidly, yet still manages to inject several new and intriguing components into the mix through the introduction of a pair of previously unseen players in his fictitious living-deceased conflict. As anyone who followed the series in its freshman run will no doubt gladly attest, its scribe’s handling of the increasingly topical moral dilemma at the heart of the show’s increasingly generically subversive narrative is remarkable. Naturally, without the correct cast members to convey the intense emotional ramifications of the sustained presence of the undead in the village, these efforts from the show runner to deviate from the now-clichéd conventions of the zombie sub-genre would be for nought, but by the time that the credits roll here, newcomers and seasoned followers alike will be left in no doubt as to the strength of both the central stars and the supporting cast’s performances.

Whereas the vast majority of portrayals of God-fearing religious leaders in productions of these ilk tend to become dated clichés unto themselves, Kenneth Cranham’s work as the ever-diligent Vicar Oddie is memorable thanks to the combination of the reality-grounded dialogue afforded to the actor by Mitchell and the accuracy with which Cranham hits each of the metaphorical dramatic notes which are required of his subversively tragic construct here. To see the character make his sudden departure at the episode’s climax was a shock to say the least, although that Maxine Martin (Wunmi Mosaku), a newly-elected MP for the undead-opposing Victus party, plays such a key role both in Oddie’s demise and within the structure of this week’s instalment overall suggests that any pathos evoked by the former event will soon give way to intrigue and suspense regarding her plans for those individuals ‘suffering’ from Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) in Roarton and (it seems safe to assume) across the world.

Over in the PDS camp, new to the scene this season is Simon Monroe (Emmet J Scanlan), the soon-to-be husband of protagonist Kieran Walker (Luke Newberry)’s returning friend and ally Amy (Emily Bevan). Scanlan does a fine job of establishing his character as an aggressive tension-stirrer whose future plans for resistance against the mistreatment of “the redeemed” (better known to the viewer and to the ‘living’ population as the undead), but it should once again come as no great surprise to Flesh fans that Bevan steals the show with minimal effort from the moment of Amy’s return into Kieran’s life. How this supremely talented actress has not been picked up by other shows and/or networks in the time which has elapsed between seasons is beyond this reviewer. Regardless, it’s nothing less than a pleasure to have Bevan reprise her role alongside Newberry and the rest of the gang, not least since her scenes in this episode alone prove to be amongst the main highlights of the show far (and given the quality of last year’s remarkable trio of episodes, that’s no mean feat).

For all of the refinements which have been enacted since Season One, though, there are certainly a couple of cracks in the show’s armour which remain particularly visible in the second half of its fourth full chapter. Success can inevitably breed complacency for a production team coming off the back of an acclaimed (and rightly so) first run, and even if complacent may be too harsh a label to bestow upon Mitchell in his approach to his latest script, a pervading sense of overly assumptive writing lingers at times, whereby the executive producer seems to have banked upon viewers new and old watching (or in some cases re-watching) Season One on BBC iPlayer in the past month or so to ensure their knowledge of the precise details of its narrative.

As such, his script occasionally falters when it comes to accessibility (even this reviewer found himself occasionally having to consult the official synopses of last year’s episodes to reacquaint himself with some of the key characters and their respective arcs), as well as containing one or two sequences where the previously intricately depicted parallels between the semi-fantastical living-PDS relationship represented here and our society’s history of branding those among us of non-Caucasian descent as the Other feel somewhat on-the-nose (a discussion regarding potential marriages between the two communities in the dining hall of Jem Walker’s school, for instance, features the rather overt statement “You’re talking like a brainless rabid!”). Throw in a bizarrely-placed final shot involving Maxine’s assessment of the PDS sufferers in Roarton which seems to serve little other purpose than to bring this week’s storyline to an abrupt end, and it’s abundantly apparent that Mitchell and those producers who assist in his script-drafting process need to come together in future so as to discuss how to wrap things up more effectively.

There’s no denying that In the Flesh has areas in which it can still improve over the course of Season Two, then, but that’s not to say that the series has returned without any of its usual gusto or unique charm. In fact, this potent opening instalment represents the show’s most ambitious (and, as a result, its most accomplished) outing yet, be it from a directorial (Jim O’Hanlon presents us with a far more cinematic take on proceedings this time around) or dramatic standpoint. For now at least, it seems that we’d be best advised to cast aside concerns surrounding the life expectancy of the show beyond its second season, and instead simply make the most of the time we’ll spend in its company over the next five weeks. Besides, who knows where the series or indeed BBC Three might be come 2015 if Tony Hall’s proposal to axe the latter falls through? A lot can change in one year…

FILTER: - In The Flesh