“Potato” (season 2, episode 3; originally aired 1/23/1986)
Blackadder gets his sea legs
“Potato” opens with Lord Blackadder in a bit of a mood and Edmund being Edmund, he manages to turn one grouchy morning into years of toil. Whereas “Bells” introduces the character as fairly likeable, a victim of circumstance, “Head” shows him to be callous and extremely self-involved, happy to execute a man ahead of his appointed time so he can have a day off. “Potato” finds the middle ground between these extremes and in doing so, delivers the season’s best episode yet.
The establishment and undercutting of pomposity is an element frequently employed in Blackadder, but it’s on particularly fine display in “Potato.” Edmund is feeling jealous and sour throughout the opening scenes, whinging about Sir Walter Raleigh’s return, but his moaning is lost on Baldrick, whose blank-faced, “Nah, it’s a potato” is hilarious. The two make for a great double act, with Baldrick’s cheery inability to indulge Edmund’s disgruntled ramblings undermining them, just as Lord Blackadder’s cutting asides temper Lord Melchett’s saccharine sycophancy. It’s telling that thus far, there has been no evidence of Edmund seeking other companionship. Lord Flashheart is introduced as an old school chum, but Blackadder doesn’t actually seem to want other friends—he likes spending time with Baldrick and Percy, no matter what he might say, and it speaks well of him that he surrounds himself with people who keep him grounded, even if it’s because they can’t follow his narcissistic digressions.
The entire first scene is great, from the ridiculous hats to Edmund shooting a child with his bow and arrow (and based on the opening of “Bells,” likely hitting his mark), but entertaining as Percy and Baldrick are, the highlight is Lord Melchett and the focus on his and Blackadder’s rivalry. It’s one of the most consistently successful aspects of season two, with Melchy acting as somewhat of a dark mirror to Edmund, who shares Melchett’s intellect but is far less conniving. Lord Blackadder’s, “You utter cretin” is perfectly timed to match the audience’s eye-roll and while Melchett takes a back seat once Raleigh shows up, Stephen Fry’s reactions throughout Sir Walter’s conversation with Edmund are an absolute treat.
If there’s one disappointment in “Potato,” it’s Simon Jones’ Sir Walter Raleigh. The character works well enough and Jones has a nice rapport with the rest of the cast, but Wally ends up being rather forgettable, and perhaps that’s the intent. Glancing at a description of the episode, one would guess that Raleigh is the episode’s colorful guest star (most Blackadder II episodes have one). Instead it’s Tom Baker as Captain Run who drops in and steals the show. By the end of the episode, Raleigh has revealed himself to be just another of Queenie’s interchangeable entourage, a Melchett without the craftiness that keeps Fry’s character constantly on Queenie’s ever-shifting good side. Rum, on the other hand, is wholly unique. Eccentric and more than a little mad, Rum shares the bombast of Lord Flashheart, but Baker—along with director Mandie Fletcher—keeps Rum’s quirks and potentially exhausting demeanor from taking over the show. Baker is a distinctive and memorable actor, beloved to generations as one of Doctor Who’s most popular leads, and the matter of fact delivery he gives a descriptor like, “a beard you could lose a badger in” is a big part of Rum’s charm.
After the delightfully escalating farce of “Head,” this episode sticks to a clear narrative, with Raleigh’s arrival and Edmund’s inability to keep his mouth shut putting events into motion. There are no reverses or miscommunications; rather than spending most of the episode trying to get out of a bind, Lord Blackadder spends the first two thirds of “Potato” getting himself into one, led by his hubris. Like “Bells,” there’s a gradual build to the climax, in this case the voyage, but where this episode bests its predecessor is in its denouement, which is the best of the season so far. “Bells” closes with the episode still reeling from Lord Flashheart and “Head” peaks in its final, absurd moment. “Potato” instead sits with its final scene, enjoying its characters and giving them each one more moment. After Queenie’s hilarious reaction to her boomerang, the episode ends with Lord Blackadder perhaps having learned a lesson about pride and falls (temporarily at least) and using this insight to get one up on Melchett and Raleigh. Edmund plays to the pair’s egos with his Emperor’s New Wine, which they are quick to regard with confidence, reversing the earlier, pre-voyage scene between the three. It’s a satisfying conclusion to an excellent and at this point, season-best episode.
Historical Hairsplitting: Sponsor of Roanoke, the first English colony in America, Sir Walter Raleigh was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth’s. She helped him secure land, a number of monopolies, and positions of influence in Ireland but he lost her favor when she discovered he had married one of her maids of honor in secret. Elizabeth had the pair thrown into the Tower of London, but they were eventually released and Raleigh continued to explore, going on expeditions to find the legendary El Dorado. Raleigh’s luck changed with James I, who succeeded Elizabeth. James sentenced Raleigh to life imprisonment on charges of treason before releasing him and, after an unsanctioned attack on the Spanish, recharging and executing him.
Skewed Shakespeare: Shakespeare gets a shout-out from Queenie, for his help with the title of her farewell poem, “Edmund.”
Cunning Plans: “Potato” has several attempted cunning plans, none of which work. Baldrick conceals the aquaphobic Percy in a trunk, but forgets to lie about having done so in one of the episode’s best moments. Then there’s the sailing itself: None of the characters actually expects to journey to the Cape of Good Hope. Lord Blackadder plans to sail to France, relax and work on his tan, then return to England after the allotted time and Captain Rum plans to sail around the Isle of Wight several times before heading back. Given the lack of any crew and Rum’s inability to actually navigate, it’s fairly shocking any of them return alive. They may not make it to France and they certainly don’t seem relaxed upon their return, but Lord Blackadder, Percy, and Baldrick all make it back to England and with tans, so that’s at least a partial success.
- Speaking of sunbathing, the makeup for the episode is well done, with a clear progression in skin tone and general griminess for Edmund, Percy, and Baldrick over the course of their journey. By the time they return, they’re absolutely disheveled, with Percy’s hair a particular highlight.
- Queenie has a number of fantastic lines, but her best is the fabulous, “Do I look absolutely divine and regal and yet and at the same time very pretty and rather accessible?” Miranda Richardson is always wonderful as Queenie, but she particularly shines in that moment, as well as with Queenie’s skeptical and potentially dangerous response to Raleigh’s claim to have brought her more presents than she can imagine, “Are you sure?”
- There are disappointingly few Nursie moments in “Potato,” but Patsy Byrne’s touch of mouthing the words to Queenie’s poem along with her is great. So is her exchange with Captain Rum, whose beard weirdly suits her.
- Tom Baker’s reading of, “You have a woman’s…” should get old. He says it time and again and always the same way, but the creativity that always follows it makes the line an exciting tease for the craziness that’s coming next, rather than a tired repetition.
“Money” (season 2, episode 4; originally aired 2/6/1986)
Blackadder interviews for the clergy
Though it starts off slowly, “Money” quickly finds its feet, becoming one of the season’s best episodes thanks to its focus on the central trio of Lord Blackadder, Lord Percy, and Baldrick. While the episode’s guest character—Ronald Lacey’s Baby-eating Bishop of Bath and Wells—is entertaining and memorable, he’s primarily a functionary, applying pressure to Edmund and forcing the trio into action. With Lord Melchett and Nursie occupied by Queenie’s discovery of comedy, “Money” is free to center on Blackadder and his friends’ quest to save him from death by hot poker.
Rowan Atkinson is in top form as Lord Blackadder. As his desperation climbs, Blackadder becomes increasingly sarcastic and cutting, barely bothering to conceal his disdain even in his interactions with Queenie. This is by far the least guarded Edmund has been with the Queen, as he doesn’t have the time to tiptoe around her, and pairing his frustration with near record levels of immaturity from Queenie works very well. Tony Robinson is great as Baldrick as well, giving his physicality as he stands by the docks a cheeky flourish and committing fully to Baldrick’s faith in his disguised bull scheme.
“Money,” however, belongs to Tim McInnerny, who gives his best performance yet. After starting with one of the more entertaining examples of Percy’s gullibility (Blackadder’s, “Oh my God, Percy—a giant hummingbird is about to eat your hat and cloak”), the episode turns serious, allowing McInnerny to stretch his legs. His sincerity is touching as Percy offers to sacrifice his life’s savings to help Blackadder and his taking up of alchemy and discovery of green are without a doubt series highlights, if only for McInnerny’s infectious enthusiasm. Percy’s obsession with green is an entertaining running gag throughout the rest of the episode and his final costume is downright hilarious.
In the end, in a move absolutely fitting for the character, Lord Blackadder is spurred into action not by the looming and imminent threat of his death but by his vanity. It’s surprising that Edmund needs to be pushed to consider blackmail, as it would seem like a natural choice for any of the other iterations of the character, but as discussed previously in season two, this Blackadder is a (comparatively) kinder, gentler incarnation. Or at least, he was. Whether he’ll back away from these more underhanded methods remains to be seen, but considering the potential the Bishop must see in Edmund to prompt his query, “Have you ever considered a career in the church?” it seems unlikely. Overall, this is a funny and overdue return to the series’ core trio and another strong installment of Blackadder.
Historical Hairsplitting: In “Money,” Lord Blackadder describes his sewage system as, “the very latest in front wall, fresh air orifices combined with a wide capacity gutter installation below.” While during the Elizabethan era chamber pots and outdoor privies were the norm, during the 1590s Sir John Harington, the Queen’s godson, invented the flush toilet. He installed one for Elizabeth’s use in her palace in Surrey, but it didn’t catch on and the technology remained undeveloped until much later.
Skewed Shakespeare: The mad peasant who grabs Edmund calls himself poor Tom, which is a reference to a similarly titled beggar from King Lear. Also, Percy quotes Richard II with his line about sitting down on the carpet, “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the carpet and tell sad stories…”.
Cunning Plans: Even by Blackadder II’s standards, Baldrick’s latest cunning plan is a stretch. Baldrick wants to find a mad, wild, killer bull, douse it in feathers, and disguise it as a bird. Then they can bring it to a cock fight and get good odds on their bizarre-looking (and bull-sized) bird. It’s ridiculous, but Baldrick seems taken with the idea and tries harder than usual to convince Edmund to try it. After selling his house fails, Lord Blackadder’s initial counter is to run away, but the scheme he ends up going with, blackmailing the Bishop, manages to go off without a hitch.
- Despite its connection to King Lear, the scene between Lord Blackadder and the Bishop of Bath and Wells at the grave is an odd choice. It doesn’t fit visually or narratively with anything else that happens in the episode and the marked change of setting is jarring after the narrowly defined spaces of the rest of Blackadder II .
- Queenie’s immaturity reaches new levels with this episode, but the show never forgets for a moment how dangerous she can be. Stephen Fry’s withering glance, after Melchett briefly thinks himself in danger of an execution order, speaks volumes.
- This episode has many fantastic, brief moments, from Percy’s, “nugget of purest green” to Baldrick’s reaction to Lord Blackadder’s, “I’d rather die,” but the highlights are Edmund’s interactions with Queenie and his responses to the couple interested in purchasing his home, including the following clarification, “This is a different thing—it’s spontaneous and it’s called wit.”
- Poor Edmund doesn’t want to go. When Queenie and Lord Melchett have taken the money from the sale of his house and Blackadder has resigned himself to death (or perhaps life in exile), he bids adieu with three unheeded goodbyes, followed by a final, “Byeeee” that fans of the series may find familiar.