Okay, so it’s no secret that I’ve been looking forward to that episode ever since we heard there was going to be a Pythagoras-centric episode. Having watched it a few times (actually, four times in three days at this point!), I thought I’d share a few thoughts about the episode and the characters in general. Oh, and there might be a little bit of squeeing.
Needless to say, there are massive spoilers for episode 8, and some spoilers for episode 6 as well.
I want to squee, but in actual fact I have mixed feelings, and horrible sensation of déjà vu about the recurring complaint with Merlin – that it occasionally offered up an episode with massive amounts of potential for deep character and relationship stuff, but at the last minute pulled back from exploring it too far and felt the need to tack a happy fluffy ending and a reset button onto what could have been a powerful character development. In another, rather more complimentary, comparison with Merlin, it seems yet again that on the rare occasions when the actors are offered something meaty to get their teeth into, they grab it with both hands and deliver a brilliant performance, which is exactly what we got from Robert Emms in this episode. So kudos to the actors, even if the scriptwriters failed to realise the full potential of what they’d written.
So, to the plot. We start with the boys taking a job delivering a cargo across the desert. So far so adventure of the week. At least they are addressing the issue of exactly what the boys are doing to pay the bills, since none of them have permanent jobs. Unfortunately, considering that every single time we have actually seen them take a job they have failed and not been paid, we presumably have to assume that in between episodes they are managing to succeed in some sort of semi-regular guard duty type jobs.
The arrival of a previously unmentioned relative – in this case Pythagoras’s brother, Arcas - is a not-uncommon trope in TV shows, although it is frequently one that fails to go down well with fans. At least Atlantis has the good grace to do it early enough in the series that it seems feasible, rather than getting, say, three years in and suddenly having siblings appearing out of nowhere (yes, I’m glaring at you, Primeval).
My first main complaint about this episode is the scene in which Pythagoras goes to visit the Oracle. Why? He says he wants to know if they will cross the desert safely, but the three heroes have arguably been on far more dangerous trips into the wilderness prior to this and he has never felt the need to visit the Oracle before, so why now? Perhaps it’s because he feels responsible for his brother and doesn’t want to endanger him, but the entire reason behind the visit seems woolly and ill thought out. Essentially, from a plot point of view, the only reason for the scene is so that the Oracle can tell us what we already know – that this is going to be an episode in which Pythagoras is the main protagonist and the plot is going to revolve around him, and to make the significant comment, “I sense a darkness in your heart,” to which he replies, “It is my burden to live with, and mine to die with,” thus letting us know that Pythagoras has A Big Plot Relevant Secret. And making him cry (*squees quietly at the angst*).
“It is my burden to live with, and mine to die with.” Angst alert!
All of which is fine, but I feel the episode could have happily lived without this scene and it would have worked much better. For starters, Emms is quite capable of conveying that his character was keeping something significant secret, without the Oracle being blatant about it. Secondly, it rather gives the game away about the Big Reveal later, which reduces its impact and shock value.
As soon as we discover that Pythagoras’s father was killed when they were young, and that Arcas is still bitter about it, you immediately know that whatever Pythagoras’s secret is, it relates to their father’s death in some way. At first I wondered if perhaps Arcas was responsible, and that Pythagoras had taken the blame to protect him, but that gets shot out of the water when Arcas later calls on the Furies, because at that point it is clear he genuinely doesn’t know who the killer was. It still leaves the possibility that Pythagoras knows who it was but for some reason is protecting them, so there is still the potential for ambiguity. Unfortunately, the scene with the Oracle removes that ambiguity and leaves you with only one possible conclusion, thus robbing the Big Reveal of any real surprise. Remove the Oracle from the episode, and it could have been so much less predictable.
So, they trundle off across the desert with the compulsory odd assortment of companions - competent caravan leader Nilas, freed ex-slave who also happens to be a murderer (obvious red herring much?) Otus, mysterious woman Baucis, and bridegroom-to-be Philemon. It’s unfortunate that we get so little time with most of these extras, especially Nilas the caravan leader, because they are all quite interesting characters. That said, the entire sub-plot with Baucis attempting to steal the treasure seems fairly nonsensical (where exactly was she going to go on her own in the desert with no supplies and a big chest full of treasure that she probably couldn’t carry by herself?), and detracts from the main plot for no obvious purpose. If they had spent less time faffing around in the desert, they could have spent more time in the caves ramping up the tension with the Furies and dealing with Pythagoras’s story, rather than cramming all the important stuff into the last ten minutes of the episode.
Of course, the ‘theft’ of the treasure does give us the compulsory slashy moment of the episode, where Hercules threatens to kiss Jason when he discovers Jason has swapped the treasure into the bags. As obvious slash scenes go, it seems a little crow-barred in, but it’s almost worth it just for the look on Jason’s face. In other Jason news, there was no shirtless!Jason this week. That makes it three episodes out of eight in which he has failed to take his top off, for anyone who might be keeping count.
“I’m going to kiss you.”
Possibly the most significant relationship of the episode is that between Pythagoras and his brother. This is sensitively and believably played by both actors, the angry and bullish Arcas contrasting nicely with Pythagoras, who displays a delicate balance between quiet frustration and protectiveness towards his brother.
One of the few smiles we get from Pythagoras in this episode.
Pythagoras tells Jason early on that he and Arcas ‘don’t always see eye to eye’, and Pythagoras is obviously unhappy with Arcas accompanying them. In fact, throughout the episode from the moment Arcas arrives, Pythagoras withdraws into himself and there is a complete lack of his usual banter and sarcasm with his friends. This doesn’t go unnoticed, and on at least one occasion Jason attempts to get Pythagoras to talk to him about what’s wrong, without success.
Despite the signs that the brothers don’t really get on, all previous evidence on the series so far has shown Pythagoras to be a protective mother hen when it comes to taking care of people, and that is still true here, although rather less obviously than when he is fussing over Jason or Hercules. It’s a subtle performance from Emms, and I’m tempted to give most of the credit for this to the actor rather than the scriptwriters, who frequently give the impression that they wouldn’t know ‘subtle’ if it smacked them over the head.
Jason at least makes an attempt to find out what is troubling his friend. Bromance FTW!
So, they find themselves in a temple to the Furies, via a combat scene in which Hercules looks surprised at Jason’s skill with a sword, and Jason comments, “I’ve been practising.” This is a nice little nod to continuity re Jason’s skill with weapons, which has been steadily improving since a rather inauspicious start in episode 1. But it’s at this point that we get to my second complaint about the episode. Why does Pythagoras give Arcas all the information he needs in order to invoke the Furies, given what we later learn to be the truth about their father’s death, and the fact that we have already seen Arcas to be bitter and angry about it, even after all this time?
It’s another occasion where the needs of the plot clash with the characterisation, perhaps. Someone needs to explain the Furies to Jason, and to the audience, and Pythagoras is usually the go-to man for plot-relevant info dumps. We can only assume that he either thought that Arcas would already know all of that about the Furies, and if he was going to invoke them, he would have done so already, or that it simply never occurred to him that Arcas would invoke them in the first place. A rather foolish assumption, and considering Pythagoras’s situation at that point, surely the most obvious course of action would have been to explain it all to Jason in private, or to provide the minimum possible information, and keep quiet about the rest of it until they are well away from danger and temptation. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but Pythagoras is an intelligent man, and considering his Big Secret, you’d think he would be doing all he could to steer conversation away from such topics, rather than expounding at length about the legends of the Furies to all and sundry.
The Big Reveal, when it eventually comes, is a shocking one, even if it isn’t entirely a surprise. Having one of the main characters revealed to have accidentally killed his father while trying to protect his mother from a beating is an unexpectedly dark and mature twist, especially considering that Pythagoras has always been played as a kind and gentle man in what can frequently be a violent world. It’s another great and believable performance from Emms, combining fear, despair, guilt and genuine anguish in a short but powerful scene.
So, the Big Reveal wasn’t actually that surprising...
Except to Jason and Hercules, who apparently had no idea that it was their housemate’s turn to be battered with the whumping stick this week.
I have to admit I would have liked to see more reaction from Jason and Hercules to the revelation, although it was a nice touch that as soon as Nilas was taken by the Furies, Jason immediately grabs Pythagoras and drags him back into the middle of the group to protect him. And perhaps I am viewing it with fangirl goggles in wanting more obvious reaction, because on subsequent rewatches I have come to the conclusion that Mark Addy nails it perfectly. After Pythagoras desperately pleads with Arcas to believe that it was an accident, Hercules says everything you need to know about his relationship with Pythagoras with an expression and three words – “I believe you.” It’s an understated moment, and it’s great to see a more serious side to their friendship, which has so often come across as an affectionate, old-married-couple comedy double act in previous episodes.
“I believe you.” Awwwwwww.
In fact, it’s two wins for Hercules when it comes to dealing with Pythagoras in this situation. While Jason is the one making the big heroic declarations about not abandoning him, and that they are going to find a way to save him, Hercules is the one who actually understands his friend well enough to know exactly what he needs to do to stop Pythagoras sacrificing himself.
While Jason sometimes has a tendency to make a bit of a song and dance about it when he’s doing something heroic and noble, once Pythagoras has realised that his friends are still insisting on putting themselves in danger to save him, he takes the straightforward approach of waiting until Jason is distracted, and then going off by himself to offer himself to the Furies. Then, while Jason is the one who yet again drags him to safety, it is Hercules who achieves more with a bit of basic psychology. Despite being injured, he puts himself in danger, knowing that Pythagoras will never stand by and let him be taken by the Furies as well. In fact, both Hercules and Jason prove themselves to be manipulative bastards when necessary, because they know Pythagoras won’t leave Hercules to die, and exploit that to force him to stay with them.
For once it is someone other than Jason planning to do the noble self-sacrifice of the week.
There is a cynical part of me that thinks that if it was Jason facing off against the Furies, they would have found a way to make him shirtless by this point. Sadly for Pythagoras fans, all we get is rather more exposed collarbone than usual. And a bad hair day.
And then, rather disappointingly, it all gets wrapped up in a whirl of special effects and wirework and an inevitable last minute change of heart from Arcas. We get practically no aftermath, no mention is made of Nilas’s death (and why exactly did the Furies take him, if they were targeting Pythagoras?), and the gang are all smiles and hugs by the time they arrive in Helios.
The reconciliation between Arcas and Pythagoras is a bit too happy fluffy all-is-forgiven, considering that all evidence suggested they weren’t close to start with (although Pythagoras does look suitably surprised by the hug). And Philemon reneges on the wedding deal, leaving the boys to go back across the hostile desert on their own this time, all smiles and banter despite everything they have been through the last few days, and the prospect of not getting paid, again. Don’t mind me while I unleash my frustration by smashing the bloody reset button with a hammer.
In something of an aside, this episode also raises an interesting continuity issue. In episode 6, when Circe demands that Jason kill her sister in return for Hercules and Medusa’s lives, Jason and Pythagoras have a conversation about what to do. Jason says “I don’t think I can do it. I’m not a murderer.” Pythagoras replies, “I know I couldn’t.” We now know Pythagoras has killed someone, the distinction presumably being that what he did was an accident, whereas Jason is talking about deliberate and premeditated murder.
Perhaps with the hindsight afforded by episode 8, Pythagoras’s comment can be seen as a reflection of the fact that he knows the guilt of having killed someone by accident, so he really does know that he couldn’t bring himself to do it deliberately. I wonder what order they had the scripts in, and whether Emms knew about the plot for episode 8 when they were filming that scene for episode 6? There is no obvious sign, however subtle, that he tried to invest the conversation with any deeper meaning at the time.
Wow, that went on rather longer than I intended. Well done if you’re still reading! Essentially, I’ve come to the conclusion that I do love this show, and I love that they are exploring some darker, meatier plots, and I love even more that the actors are turning in performances like this when they get given decent stuff to work with (and please, please, please give Robert Emms more drama and not just comedy and supporting action in future, because this was an impressive episode throughout from him. Seriously, why have they waited until episode 8 to give us a decent Pythagoras episode? Why?!). But I just keep being left with a nagging feeling that with a bit more thought and a bit less needless faffing earlier in the episode, it could have been so much more.
Although they do get bonus points for riding off into the metaphorical sunset like that.