Benedict Cumberbatch’s ‘Patrick Melrose’ was one of the most highly anticipated shows of the month, and with the release of episode 1 this past Saturday, audiences got a glimpse into why there has been such a buzz around the series. Based on Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical pentalogy of the same name, the show will feature five episodes — one for each novel — with the pilot addressing Patrick battling through the throes of a debilitating heroin addiction.
There is a running theme throughout the episode: Patrick is a troubled young man. A troubled young man born into extensive wealth and haunted by something his father did to him when he was a child. What that is will presumably be addressed as the series proceeds, but the angst, pent-up rage, and resentment Patrick carries with him because of this is directed against the people around him.
And like most troubled young rich men, Patrick finds his escape in the snug arms of a drug that gives them the brief bliss that they so desperately crave: heroin. The pilot begins with Patrick being informed that his father has passed away, something that he’s been shown as eagerly wanting to hear. But caught in the middle of shooting up another round of smack, there’s little he gives in the way of a response, except for what can be described as a passable acknowledgment of grief. He soon after promises that this would be the last time he does drugs.
Titled ‘Bad News,’ episode one approaches Patrick’s struggle to comprehend the death of his father — despite his obvious hatred for him. But it’s more disbelief than trauma. More stupefaction than sadness. The man that has terrorized him his entire life and festered as a sort of a waking nightmare is no more. He wants to rejoice, but he just can’t. Why? (His childish glee at sighting the corpse of his father and giddily pretending as if it were a ghoulish present notwithstanding)
Drugs. In what has to be one of the most eerily accurate portrayals of drug addiction on television, Patrick’s rapidly spiraling-out-of-control battle with heroin and a host of other narcotics shines a light on the soul of a fractured human being. But like the books, the show depicts this expressly dark period in his life by punctuating it by a steady dose of dry humor, mostly in the form of witty internal monologues; the one he has now and then with his imaginary friend ‘Nanny’; his bitter battles with his so-called darker side; and an especially memorable one being him suggesting there was a ‘litter of kittens’ in his stomach while coming down from a heroin high.
Within the confines of this obnoxious human being, however, is a good man. He wants to change. Patrick repeatedly proclaims that he will get clean and that he does not understand why ‘people make such a fuss of these things.’ And he does give it the good old college try each time. But the temptation always proves too much.
He doesn’t have — or he doesn’t think he has — that all-important rock which will keep him afloat in his tidal wave of misery. In his drug-addled stupor, he staggers from one woman to another, declaring her to be the one, only to realize soon enough that she does not hold the answer he sought.
He sees no reason to abandon the vices that he feels keep him sane, or as he eloquently describes it ‘Why would he not want to get out of the wheelchair when the apartment was on fire?’ It’s not as though the drugs were hard to come by either. Not for someone of his means. ‘555-1726.’ The crack is always only a phone call away. Easy and accessible, only serving to compound his never-ending battle.
Despite his urges, which are growing in frequency, Patrick does manage to carry himself with a semblance of dignity. He is the epitome of a high-functioning addict. His proclivity for the hedonistic is matched only by his outspoken disdain for his father; something he makes abundantly clear to the acquaintances and friends who seem to hold the man in such high regard.
Patrick reaches rock bottom when, unable to tolerate his inner demons any longer, he decides to take his own life. But even here, he fails. He proceeds to indulge himself in another hit of smack and the episode, almost poetically, comes full circle, with Patrick promising that this would the last time he got high.
Subtly woven into the pilot are understated changes in lighting and music that accompany Patrick’s swinging mood and intermittent flashbacks into his childhood. Bright colors and peppy music for the scenes he experiences those all-too-brief and fleeting moments of joy, and darker, more brooding colors with a somber score for those where he contemplates and collides with his disquieting childhood. Given the unenviable task of compressing the contents of a rich and detailed book into just an hour, writer David Nicholls and director Edward Berger both pass with flying colors and then some.
As a viewer, you really want to root for Patrick, but you just can’t. Self-destructive, self-centered, and self-indulgent, he wallows in the misery of a past he cannot change while the present passes him by. He practically lives in a prison of his own construction. The key to which, he had in his possession, but is now lost in the wastes of the thousand needles that left his arms scabbed and veins pleading for help. It’s obvious that Patrick wants to redeem himself, but the question is, can he?
Preview for episode 2: ‘Never Mind.’
While ‘Bad News’ is technically the second novel of Edward St Aubyn’s pentalogy, and ‘Never Mind’ the first, Nicholls and Edward Berger exercised their creative licenses to switch the two up when it came to the show.
In the pilot, audiences were given a glimpse into how Patrick’s traumatic childhood manifested itself in what would turn out to be an unsettled adult life, with ‘Never Mind’ set to delve further into the details of that childhood and also explore his relationship with his mother who was supposedly distant even at the best of times. The episode will also probably look into how the maltreatment left a young Patrick emotionally handicapped and how he would come to a realization that he would have no one but himself to rely on when it came to taking care of himself.
‘Never Mind’ will premiere on Showtime on May 19, and if ‘Bad News’ was an indication of things to come, expect another emotionally-charged roller coaster of a ride.