The Escape Artist, Ep. 1.01, “Episode 1”: Predictable but clever legal thriller shows promise

The Escape Artist two

The Escape Artist, Season 1, Episode 1, “Episode 1”
Written by David Wolstencroft
Directed by Brian Welsh
Airs Sundays at 9pm (ET) on PBS

“It was a mistake; I just made sure they paid for it”

Legal crime dramas with ace lawyers as their lead are pretty easy to come by nowadays. Most don’t have David Tennant as that ace lawyer, though. The Escape Artist, airing for two weeks on Masterpiece Mystery, is a somewhat predictable thriller aided by great performances.

Tennant plays Will Burton, a talented junior barrister who’s never lost a case. He doesn’t particularly like the people he’s defending, but his career choice has been good to him. It’s given his family, sweet and understanding wife Kate (Ashley Jensen) and curious son Jamie (Gus Barry), a modern flat in the city and a quaint cottage in the country.

The Escape Artist doesn’t waste much time introducing us to the story and that’s a blessing. It’s not overly complicated to begin with; what really matters here are our characters. Tennant plays Will as a family man who spouts of clichés like “everyone deserves a defense”, and then sneaks off for a cigarette. He leaves his son’s birthday party to take a work call and feels sick as he interviews his new client. He likes to compete but is deeply shaken by murder suspect Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell). Kebbell, so good in Guy Richie’s RocknRolla, is unnerving, twisted, and fascinating as Foyle. He’s more connected to his pet birds then other human beings and he seems to be amused that he would be arrested for the brutal assault and murder of a woman. Every twitch and smile he offers is increasingly disturbing.

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By the time the episode devolves into a brutal back and forth between Will and Foyle, the tensions have been raised expertly. There is a sense of dread from the moment Will helps Foyle get out of prison, one that culminates when he shows up staring in the window as Kate takes a bath. That scene is one of the biggest shocks of the episode, and watching Foyle and Will, polar opposites, come crashing into each other is perhaps its finest moments.

One of the biggest questions to come out of the episode concerns Foyle’s escalation. What drives him? We know he’s sick, that’s clear from the crime scene photos Will would rather not see at the beginning of the episode. We know that he has some kind of obsession with Will but why? It’s all kind of rushed and it seems like these two actually have very little interaction. We see Foyle become fixated on his new lawyer Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo, terrific). But again, why? His motivations aren’t made clear and perhaps that’s on purpose, but in the first episode it’s an issue. How and why does Foyle go from being intrigued by Will to murdering his wife? Is it really because Will wouldn’t shake his hand or because Will was suspicious of him? It all seems a bit thin.

“Episode 1”, despite this major question, is a very well made episode and benefits greatly from having Tennant and Kebbell as its leads. There are a few minor issues, but it shows incredible promise.

Tressa Eckermann

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