In the second episode of Showtime’s adaptation of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, patriarch and noted monster David Melrose (Hugo Weaving) keeps watch over his carefully isolated kingdom. It’s 1967, and the elder Melrose looks out over the expanse of his property in France, taking in the sunshine and the lush countryside. Later in the episode, he takes a compliment about his home in stride, noting that with only a machine gun and his balcony he could control the whole area. Descending from his spot on high, he wanders to the driveway and stares down his child, Patrick, as he runs off into the hillside. David crushes a fig under his shoe, and the camera lingers on the oozing guts and David’s firmly planted foot.
It’s the kind of visual metaphor that knocks you over the head with its bluntness, but that’s Patrick Melrose in general. The five-episode limited series, which sees each episode based on one of St. Aubyn’s five largely autobiographical novels, isn’t shy about driving home the ghastliness of its characters and the world they inhabit. With hour-long runtimes and more drugs and booze than Narcos, Patrick Melrose can be a punishing experience. Its subject matter is uncomfortable, as the show tracks the traumatic life of Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch) from a childhood defined by a sexually, emotionally, and physically abusive father through drug addiction and the eventual hope of starting over, but Patrick Melrose isn’t suffocating just because of its subjects. It’s visually and thematically suffocating as well.
The series begins with a smart creative choice, as writer David Nicholls and director Edward Berger decide to flip the order of the first two novels, diving into the frantic drug addiction of the second book in the series, Bad News, and then jumping back in time to explore Patrick’s childhood with the first book in the series, Never Mind. It’s a structural choice that makes sense for a few reasons. Firstly, it allows for the series to begin with an episode that’s easily the most distinctive and compelling of the three that were made available to critics. Secondly, the events of “Bad News” allows for a different kind of tension to emerge in “Never Mind,” as we already understand Patrick’s toxic relationship with his father while watching his younger self tiptoe around an expansive house filled with dangers. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the switch gets Benedict Cumberbatch onscreen, his role in the second episode relegated to just a few short scenes where he sweats and groans through the pains of withdrawal.
Cumberbatch is great as Patrick Melrose, a role he specifically sought out. His tall, lanky frame is perfect for “Bad News,” an episode that relies on the occupying of or shrinking from physical space to convey its message about the lingering effects of childhood trauma and the resulting drug addiction that, for Patrick, formed later in life. Cumberbatch slips and slinks into hotel rooms, restaurant chairs, and bathtubs, a man overwhelmed by the luxurious spaces he occupies, themselves a stark reminder of his privileged, violent upbringing and his current excesses. Part Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, part Barton Fink, “Bad News” is a fascinating introduction to the series and this world. It boasts all the hallmarks of a drug-fueled odyssey, and yet it never feels rote or familiar, and that’s because of Cumberbatch. His performance lends Patrick a lot of empathy, which is necessary for a story that, despite the bright colors of the visual palette and the surreal and often funny presence of outsized characters, is so incredibly dark.
The entire cast turns in one stunning performance after another. Hugo Weaving is genuinely terrifying as David Melrose, the man who married rich, feels his life has been useless, and therefore does every heinous thing he can think of to harden his son against the cruelty of the world. Jennifer Jason Leigh is heartbreaking as the tragic figure of Eleanor Melrose, a woman who can’t escape the grip of her abusive husband, even as she sees Patrick suffering. The decadence and moral bankruptcy of this particular British milieu is brought to life by these performances, which makes it all the more stirring when the third episode, “Some Hope,” set at a lavish party in the ’90s, starts to pick away at the crumbling façade that wealth and privilege affords.
With that said, Showtime’s adaption isn’t nearly as scathingly satirical and insightful as the novels, and that presents a problem for the show. Five hour-long episodes is certainly economical storytelling in this day and age, but that doesn’t stop Patrick Melrose from feeling like a little too much at times. The show does a tremendous job of capturing the raw helplessness of St. Aubyn’s prose, which resists pushing the vile acts of David Melrose and his companions into territory that feels disconnected from emotion.
What’s lost, though, is the critique of wealth and privilege. “Some Hope” certainly begins to shift the story, lampooning the postures of the wealthy as the fabulously empty displays they are, but Patrick Melrose never wades too far into the territory of true class criticism. The show certainly acknowledges that the violence in Patrick’s life, especially as a child, is a result of a system that not only protects ruthless, abusive people, but also encourages them to display such characteristics, but it always seems to pull back before really driving the point home.
Losing some of that thematic heft is disappointing, but Patrick Melrose is more interested in the story of Patrick himself, as he attempts to recover from his various addictions. Where the novels are expansive in their scope, the limited series is much more personal and intimate. Cumberbatch’s manic, vulnerable performance in “Bad News,” especially the final scene, which sees him breaking down while once again insisting that he’s going to get clean, places us in his immediate headspace. We become invested in his recovery, in his attempts to be a better person and break the cycle of violence that presumably began long before his own father threatened to break him in two if he ever spoke of the incidents of sexual abuse. Patrick Melrose isn’t all it could have been, but it’s certainly a wonderful showcase for Cumberbatch, resulting in a limited series that, for all of its flaws, still manages to tell a story that’s remarkably empathetic and emotionally nuanced.