It was at the 15-minute mark—when I realized that “Hard Times” was still barreling through its funny, fascinating, far-flung, ambitious, and all-around excellent cold open, with no apparent sign of stopping—that I really started to wonder just how far this episode could take its central conceit. Obviously, there’s more than enough history (both literal, and the sort that exists between an angel and a demon trapped in a 6,000-year-long, slightly flirtatious riff on the Odd Couple together) to fill whole episodes of television. But how long would Good Omens be willing to put its apocalyptic interests aside to focus on the material that really shows it at its best?
About 28 minutes, as it turns out. And while it’s undeniable that the rest of the show’s third episode is something of a letdown after nearly a half-hour of watching Aziraphale and Crowley bicker their way past Noah’s Ark, the French Revolution, and—in a moment that legitimately shocked me, both in its simple presence, and for its Passion-lite commitment to the grisly details of the execution—the crucifixion of a young carpenter from Galilee, it’s still enough to make “Hard Times” the first legitimately great episode of this show so far.
While I’ve heaped plenty of praise on David Tennant’s performance as Crowley already—and he really is very good here, leaning into the “tempter” aspect of the demon’s character while never actually making him seem truly nasty or evil—Michael Sheen does much of the heavy lifting in this trip down memory lane, building a sympathetic portrait of Aziraphale as a being undergoing a ceaseless state of existential anxiety. While Crowley watches humanity live down to his most cynical expectations, racking up infernal commendations just for being close to Paris in the bloody summer of 1793, Aziraphale is forced to haltingly defend an Old (and New) Testament God of sometimes unimaginable cruelty, trying and failing to square the idea of drowning children en masse with some whacked-out conception of divine good.
No wonder he’s such a twitchy, nervous mess, whether he’s dithering about helping his only actual friend (admitted or not) steal a supply of catastrophically lethal holy water, or attempting to convince his heartless, dead-eyed superiors that Armageddon need not actually occur. No wonder he’s so easy to trick into performing some easily labeled act of “good,” as with the double agent who lures him into almost aiding the Nazis during World War II. No wonder he can’t follow Crowley into his quietly open rebellion against both heaven and hell, even though it’s entirely obvious it’s the only hope either of them, or the Earth, has got: How can he really know what “good” is, after all, when the divine plan is so effingly ineffable?
Sheen manages to hit every note, whether its his world-weary acceptance of The Arrangement (an acknowledgement that since he and Crowley functionally cancel each other out anyway, they might as well be efficient about it), or in the moment when he finally hands a very dangerous thermos over to the demon, only to declare a slightly heartbroken, slightly jealous, “You go too fast for me, Crowley.” (And for those looking for subtext between these two, that’s about as textual as you can probably hope to get.)
That’s a whole hell of a lot for the rest of the episode to live up to, and unfortunately, it mostly doesn’t. We do get some backstory on Sgt. Shadwell and his mostly fictitious Witchfinder Army, though, and it’s never not fun to watch Michael McKean and his accent bulldoze over anybody in his vicinity. Meanwhile, we spend just enough time in Tadfield to see Adam start to come more fully into his powers, disassembling a nuclear reactor with his mind in a sequence that’s probably going to look very upsetting to people who currently have Chernobyl on the brain.
None of this is bad, outright—except for the bit with the horseman Famine, which seems to have been included entirely because it’s a good bit in the book that in no way translates to the screen. It’s just that Good Omens kind of stopped being Good Omens for a minute there, and it turns out that there are some much more interesting shows this series can actually be. (Having apparently summoned an “Aziraphale Crowley hang-out show” into existence with yesterday’s review, I can only assume I, myself, am the rightful son of the devil.) Like the Gaiman-Pratchett novel that it’s based on, this show has an almost-terminal addiction to plot, and it was nice to see it shake it off and slow things down for a second for a bit of actual, focused character development and comedy.
Still, the world isn’t going to end itself, right? The Antichrist is rising, Heaven prepares for war, and poor, boring Newton Pulsifer is on his way to Tadfield. We’ve had our fun, but with half the series gone, I’m honestly uncertain whether they’ll be much more time for wonderful, stylistic digressions like this one before the Big Game finally comes to a close.
- The canonical reason for the Biblical flood: “God’s a bit tetchy.” (But not with the Chinese, for what it’s worth.)
- Aziraphale watching the death of Christ: “I’m not consulted on policy decisions.”
- Out of all the historical sequences, the medieval one is easily my favorite. Aziraphale’s review of The Kingdom Of Wessex, 537 AD: “It is a bit damp!”
- The fashions in the historical sections are decidedly hit-or-miss, but I do love Aziraphale’s fuzzy white hat in 19th century England.
- “Do ducks have ears? Must do.”
- “Do not buy Beeta…Max!”
- Ugh, these horseman scenes. They’re nice digressions in the book, spread out throughout most of its first half, and really establishing the threat these entities pose. Here, they feel like hastily-tossed-together interjections to no real purpose.
- Wait, no, Crowley offering to run off with Aziraphale to…somewhere…is as blatantly textual as the subtext gets.
- For all the investment this episode puts in the pair’s relationship, their big blow-up still feels a tad forced. It still just works, but only because both actors are so committed to playing their wounded feelings
- Ineffable count: 1.