So I've realized what this show is so good at doing: taking very familiar storylines – in this case King Incognito and Made A Slave (how many times have we seen these plots before?) and shaping them into solid episodes that follow the usual trajectories, but which contain a few surprises thrown in along the way. They know the strengths of whatever tropes they use, when to play them straight and when to subvert them, how to mingle in enough characterization to make them entertaining, and the need for action sequences that are all unique in some way (D'artagnan "jousting" with a man on horseback with only a scarf wrapped around his hand may have been a tad ridiculous, but it's better than watching the same old sword-fights every week).
The plots are serviceable, which may sound like damning with faint praise, though it's really not. No one tunes into Saturday night family fare expecting anything too deep or complex, and it's to the show's credit that the storylines are free of any glaring plot-holes or overt contrivances.
Here, King Louis insists on enjoying the taverns of France as a simple commoner, only for him and D'artagnan to get caught up in a slaving ring and forced to hide their true identities as they're shipped toward the Spanish border. The remaining Musketeers are given solid clues to discern their whereabouts (blood on the cobblestones outside the tavern, the lack of a door handle so that victims can't escape back outside) and soon have a definite lead on where to find the missing King.
As well as this, there's a neat little link forged between the introduction of a wife/daughter searching for their missing husband/father, and the appearance of this self-same man among the other slaves that D'artagnan and Louis are chained with, as well as a subplot in which Rochefort and the Spanish Ambassador argue over whether or not to take advantage over the situation regarding their long-term goal of disposing the King.
Ryan Gage as King Louis is an unexpected gift. He's spoiled and silly (with fabulous hair), but there's an element of self-awareness in his performance that makes his ineptitude a little poignant. He knows on some instinctual level that he's surrounded by far greater men than himself, an awareness which goes against all the life-long conditioning that's taught him he's been ordained by God to rule a country and is incontrovertibly correct in everything he says and does.
His life is one long identity crisis, a constant battle between common sense and royal privilege. Plus, Gage is a good actor, which is the reason we had to deal with sooooo much Alfrid in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, but also meant that I found myself caring about Louis's safety – and not just for the sake of France.
Yet by the end of it all, the show managed to pull the rug out from under my feet. Despite leading us all to believe that this ordeal would make Louis a wiser man and a better king, it's clear that a lifetime of absolute power isn't going to be wiped clean by one bad experience. Conveniently forgetting that it was all his idea to play pauper for a night, he goes back on his word to spare one of the slavers and admonishes D'artagnan for not recognising the "honour" of getting to execute him.
This gives Rochefort the opportunity to demonstrate his obedience/ruthlessness, and the Musketeers once again fall a few notches in the court's esteem. Between this and Treville's declination of Louis's offer last week, the boys aren't making it easy for themselves.
But of course, they're our heroes, and this is depicted no more clearly and brilliantly than when they pool together their funds to take to Pierre Pepin's widow, letting her know what happened to her husband and telling her daughter that her father died in service to the King. It's more than Louis deserved, who clearly forgot about Pepin the moment he was back in his royal regalia.
It's not a direction I thought the episode would go, but it's a surprisingly mature and bittersweet one.
As with last week, this was very much the D'artagnan show with a side-order of Aramis, who has apparently struck up a love affair with Marguerite in an attempt to get closer to the infant dauphine. Oh Aramis, this has neon lights and loud sirens blaring BAD IDEA all over it, and I'm a little disappointed in him that he's capable of seducing a woman in order to spend time with his son – especially since it's putting both Marguerite and the Queen in danger. Did he learn nothing from visiting Adele's tomb last week?
I'm not sure how all of this is going to pan out. Marguerite will surely play a bigger role later on this season, but in what capacity? Is she Rochefort's spy? Will she figure out the dauphin's true paternity? Will she feel betrayed because of it? This can only end in tears, and Aramis must know that if the Queen knew what he was up to, she'd order him to back right off.
On the other hand, we did get to see Santiago Cabrera singing to a baby. So it's a tough call.
Elsewhere, Constance has some juicy material to chew on. It's a shame that Anne/Constance wasn't better setup in the first season – even if it had just been a single scene of interaction between the two of them, then all this current hand-holding and political confiding would have had a much stronger basis for development.
But it's here and it's happening, so there's no use crying over spilt milk. Power plays are always great fun to behold, and Rochefort is clearly sharp enough to notice that Constance could be an unexpected spanner in the works when it comes to exerting his influence over the Queen (it's everything that Agravaine/Guinevere should have been on Merlin).
So many significant looks!
So much supportive hand-holding!
It's also a treat to see Anne getting flustered for the first time, and as someone who is clearly still sore over Treville's decision not to join the King's council. It's up to Constance to be a source of comfort and advice, and so far she seems to be doing reasonably well – with some caveats.
Despite the awful ponytail wig, I like that Constance looks a little uncomfortable in her court clothes (I imagine that was the point, right?) and is clearly still getting the lay of land when it comes to negotiating court politics. It wasn't a good idea to speak out against Rochefort in front of everyone, and (after he fake!apologises) she makes it too clear that she isn't interested in being a spy for him. She played that wrong, because now he knows she has integrity – and is therefore even more of a potential threat.
In this sense Constance provides a striking comparison to Milady, who makes one hell of a re-entrance here. She may be living in poverty and working for slavers, but she knows an opportunity when she sees one and so frees D'artagnan and Louis as soon as night falls.
But my absolute favourite part would have to be her near-effortless seduction of King Louis – right in front of her ex-husband and one-night-stand. I mean, damn. That demands respect, I don't care what your personal feelings about her might be.
If there's a poor soul that King Louis isn't going to forget, it's the beautiful repentant sinner who saved his life, and judging by the preview for next week – she's his mistress now? Or soon will be? And the Musketeers will be able to raise no protests over it whatsoever. Like I said, damn. I can't wait until she's back in Constance's orbit. And Rochefort will surely know a potential ally when he sees one.
Constance and D'artagnan seem to have reached a truce, with a smile exchanged over the head of the dauphin as he's christened – though it's still a bit more than D'artagnan deserves after last week.
Along with Ryan Gage, Tom Burke is also excellent – though in entirely the opposite direction. If Gage is flamboyance, then Burke is subtlety, and he can convey so much with just a glance cast someone else's direction. While Porthos was brawling in the tavern, Athos just watched closely, and it's that very stillness that makes the character so compelling.
Which means I was disappointed at the lack of screen-time given to Athos in his reaction to Milady's reappearance. D'artagnan's reaction was priceless, but Athos only gets a few seconds to look sucker-punched. He deserved more than that.
I'm glad Rochefort isn't having an easy time of it. The Cardinal dealt with complications, but his position was assured and his lies tended to cover his ass right up until the final episode. Rochefort on the other hand is still trying to climb the ladder of influence, and finds it somewhat of a challenge to stay on top of his opposing loyalties. The Spanish Ambassador is argumentative, he's identified Constance as a threat, and it's clearly tricky keeping his head above water. Good thing the honourable nature of the Musketeers is making it easy for him.
Milady neglects to unlock Louis and D'artagnan's leg shackles because apparently "there's no time". Translation: "it's totally funnier this way."
That seemed a rather inefficient massacre considering the two most important characters got away, and of course – the black guy dies. It was a shame since I got surprisingly invested in the idea of a family reunion between Pepin and his wife/daughter – and instead it was all in service to pointing out that King Louis just doesn't learn.
Anne's letter to her brother becomes a Chekhov's Letter. That won't end well.
In conclusion – this was a solid episode, with a welcome return from Milady, an unexpected twist (or rather, non-twist) on Louis's character, and the introduction of Constance as a political player – or at least advisor. Let's just hope that Athos and Porthos get some focus soon.
Next week: Antonia Thomas and Colin Salmon!