This is the first episode in the series that's not based on a story from oral folklore, but one written and published by a single author. The Nightingale is not the most famous of Hans Christian Anderson's work (it's obviously not as well-known as The Snow Queen or The Little Mermaid or even The Steadfast Tin Soldier or The Tinder Box, but neither is it as obscure as Tommelise or The Swineherd). It's certainly not his best work, but unique among his stories for being the only one set in China.
But I have to admit, I misremembered the story. In my memory, the Emperor of China befriends the nightingale in his garden, only to replace her with a clockwork bird that's covered in gold and jewels. You all know that part, right? But until watching this, I was under the impression that when the Emperor falls sick, he's told only the sound of the nightingale might cure him. When it becomes clear the clockwork bird is no substitute for the real thing, the true nightingale agrees to sing for the Emperor on the condition that she's never caged again.
It turns out that's not the way story goes. The Emperor does get sick, but there's no talk of the cure being the nightingale's song. Instead the little bird turns up at the palace of her own volition, and sings away the personification of Death that's sitting on the Emperor's chest. (And then extracts the Emperor's promise that she can come and go as he pleases).
I could have sworn that my memory of the story was the true one, but nope – after watching this episode and believing that Shelley Duvall had completely missed the point of the tale, I tracked down my copy of Anderson's fairy tales and realized the show was faithful to his text.
(But I gotta say, I actually prefer my version. It drives home the theme that it's internal qualities and not outward appearances that really count).
The episode also impressed me by the amount of details it manages to incorporate from Anderson's story: that the palace is made of porcelain, that flowers in the garden are hung with silver bells, that the court ladies try to emulate the nightingale song by gargling, that the exchange of "night" and "gale" becomes a popular greeting in the palace, and even that the good and bad deeds of the Emperor appear as disembodied faces around his death bed.
(But oddly not the bit about the nightingale being kept in a cage, or a band being wrapped around its leg).
I imagine it was a challenge to expand an eleven page fairy tale into forty-five minutes of television, so there's plenty of padding throughout the episode. Everyone speaks incredibly slowly, which can get particularly frustrating when the Emperor eases out this line: "my splendid realm, my splendid palace, my splendid garden, my splendid swords, my splendid wardrobe, and of course, my splendid self..."
It's narrated by Shelley Duvall, who also voices the nightingale and – look I get that this is her pet project, and obviously a labour of love, but she's already starred in the last two episodes! Give it a rest, Shelley.
And okay, there's no point delaying this next part for any longer: the episode has actors in yellowface. It's pretty awful, and I'm not going to trot out the old: "but this was in the Eighties" excuse, as what's especially galling is that there are plenty of Asian actors in supporting roles – including Mako. MAKO! Why would you waste Mako?!
Most Surprising Guest Star: Mick Jagger. MICK FREAKING JAGGER. Yellowface aside, he actually plays the part completely straight.
And look, it's Barbara Hershey (I only know her as Regina's mother from Once Upon a Time, but she's obviously been around for a while).
Most Obvious Filler: The Emperor eats from several plates of food that are served one by one, each with a lengthy introduction.
Most Pointless Subplot: The kitchen maid is led to a ginseng root by some fairies to cure her mother, something that's never brought up again – even when the Emperor falls sick.
Worst Prop: This fake mushroom:
Least Threatening Threat: The Emperor demands the nightingale be brought to the palace, or else: "I will have you all punched in the stomach."
Cutest In-Joke: When searching for the nightingale, the court comes across this frog in the gardens:
The "They Tried" Award goes to:
Okay, it ain't bad for the Eighties; you can even see its throat move!
Hottest Background Character: The Emperor's bodyguard:
Weirdest Performance: It took me a while to realize this guy was meant to be conducting the nightingale's song instead of just flailing erratically.
Then I felt he looked a little familiar... and I realized...
He's the same guy from Rumplestiltskin!
Best Reaction Shot: After the clockwork bird breaks down:
Surprisingly Creepy Scene: The portrayal of Death: