By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andy Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick
Series 2, Episodes 4 – 6 : “Money,” “Beer,” and “Chains”
Original airdates: Feb. 6, 13, & 20, 1986
Les: I’m sure I’m stating the obvious here, but there’s no question to me that Blackadder II was a far superior entity to the first series. I enjoyed the back half of this season as much as the first, possibly even more so because I feel they’ve finally nailed the formula for what makes an ideal Blackadder episode. Edmund winds up in an unpleasant circumstance by his own doing—lies about his fortune in “Money,” double-booking his schedule in “Beer,” his hubris re: kidnapping in “Chains”—and despite his competency and silver tongue the idiocy of those around him* drags down those plots. Small wonder every one of his “Oh God” exclamations has the weight of the world with them. There’s also more of a confidence to the way the show asserts itself, not afraid to insert some inside jokes (Edmund’s aside to the Bishop of Bath and Wells about clerical undergarments echoes his excuse to get out of the bishop’s seat in “The Archbishop”) or jokes that depend on historical background. (“Oh, shut up, Baldrick. You’d laugh at a Shakespeare comedy.”)
And while the show’s introduced its fair share of amusing guest stars so far, this block of episodes saw the absolute best in Hugh Laurie as Evil Prince Ludwig the Indestructible. His banter with Edmund was probably the highlight of this season for me, a rapid-fire cross-talk made only funnier by his garbled accent and habit of sabotaging expectations (“Yes! I was the waitress!”). He’s at exactly the right level of histrionics and supposed wit to be a foil to Atkinson — which of course bodes remarkably well for the next installment, where Laurie joins the cast full-time.
Though, once again, I have to express some displeasure with the way they clear the deck for the next season. I enjoyed “Chains” far more than I enjoyed “The Black Seal” as a finale, but the closing in the last minute — everyone stabbed to death by Ludwig, now dressed in Queenie’s garb — is a postscript that’s just dissatisfying to me. Though, perhaps that’s just because I’m not as willing to say goodbye to these characters as I’d like.
Cory: Les, you make a great point about the now-established formula of the second series. I mentioned it last week but these three episodes hammer it home even more: The show works better as a wacky (though still less wacky than season one) workplace comedy. And after watching these three efforts, I’d like to add to that by noting that Blackadder II succeeds because it’s mostly focused on episodic comedy. The first series was more interested in telling a bigger story that took place over six episodes, while this series used conceits that were admittedly more basic, but also told with more sharp confidence. A few threads continued throughout these six episodes, and obviously, we received another grim and silly ending, but it’s much easier to imagine enjoying any one of II‘s episodes if I randomly came across it late at night.
By these episodes, the show has also found its comedic rhythm as well. The tighter narrative leads to stronger jokes and payoffs to gags. The running bit in “Chains” with Laurie’s Prince Ludwig describing how various characters have already met him, only to introduce a misdirect, is tremendously funny, both because of Laurie’s delivery—he’s seriously one of the best performers alive, comedy or drama—and because of the joke construction. Although not quite as funny, Queenie consistently taking away Edmund’s resources in “Money” has the same effect where repetition doesn’t make the joke stale, it actually improves it. Even the one-off and less obvious jokes land better. For whatever reason, I laughed way too much at the scene in “Money” where Edmund asks Baldrick to go out and get like a dozen things for his next nefarious plan. The lines aren’t even read that interestingly by Rowan Atkinson, I just couldn’t get over the excessive length of the list.
And really, I think my enjoyment of moments like that come from a better familiarity with the performers and the characters. The first series kept me at arm’s length with its historical specificity and very, very broad characterizations across the board. Neither series really asks us to care about these people, but the second one does a much better job of sketching out the characters as characters instead of simplistic and mocking impressions (not that the second series doesn’t do this as well, see: Queenie). It’s telling that my relationship with the show and the characters has come this far. By the end of this series, I found myself laughing quite consistently at every episode and loving all the characters. I’m a believer, guys. I’m ready for series three.
Andy: Last week I mentioned how much snappier the farcical elements are in series. What stood out to me in these three episodes was how much sharper the satirical elements are as well. Much of it is overt, like the reductio ad absurdum of Edmund’s aunt’s religious asceticism (“Chairs are an invention of Satan!”). But there’s also an undercurrent of (quite cynical) commentary on the nature of power throughout the proceedings. The further up the food chain someone is, the bigger a jerk they are. Lord Blackadder, naturally, is a perfect ass to his underlings. Melchett is cold and officious cossetted in his station as the queen’s right hand. And Queenie jerks people around with no regard to their wishes or well-being, plays malicious pranks with childlike glee, and tosses off threats of beheading like it’s a bodily function. She’s a figure of fun, thanks in large part to Miranda Richardson’s sprightly performance, but she also embodies the casual cruelty of capricious power. In that, there’s a tiny strand of shared DNA with a graver story like Game Of Thrones.
Noel: I must admit that I’m okay with the finale’s stinger. Does it make sense? No. But since it’s just so causally tossed off, it doesn’t have the contrived feeling that “The Black Seal” ended up having. While we don’t see it play out, the conclusion of it (and Blackadder finally catching that damn minstrel*) fits nicely into the farce that Andy outlined for us.
*And there was much rejoicing. – Les
Mostly, though, I’m just glad that Blackadder II seems to have struck a chord with everyone. Far more so than the first series, Blackadder II provides the core for the next two installments. And I’m just not speaking in terms of writing or tone, though it certainly establishes that in spades. It’s mostly in the troupe. Yes, McInnerny, Fry, and Richardson all depart, but they all come back for guest spots in the third series (the first two will return as regulars in series four). The entirety of Blackadder from this point on becomes something resembling a finely-tuned playing company that stops by your town once a year to put on a great show and then leaves. Everyone has their particular stock character to play, and everyone does it with aplomb, never hogging scenes from each other or satisfying an ego. The franchise’s sense of camaraderie prevails starting here, and the show is all the better for it.