Back in March of last year it looked as though Doctor Who had delivered the coup de grâce to The Musketeers – a show originally developed to run inbetween series of the sci-fi classic – by casting Peter Capaldi as the twelfth Doctor and thus stripping the historical action drama of its greatest asset.
The show already had its head on the executioner’s block following an uneven first series that, whilst providing an entertaining romp of swashbuckling period bromance, often felt too frothy and insubstantial for its Sunday night time-slot, with action and plotting that was both inexorably predictable and ham-fistedly cliched. And with Capaldi’s theatrically mercurial Cardinal Richelieu now consigned to the catacombs beneath Paris’s crumbling façade, the show was rapidly running out of reasons for viewers to keep tuning in.
Yet, much like its handsome troupe of leather-clad heroes, just when you thought The Musketeers was backed into an inescapable corner it comes back fighting stronger than ever. The second series has seen the show not only survive but flourish in Capaldi’s absence, expanding on its previously one-dimensional characters and delivering improved subplots that tie together in surprising and exciting ways, whilst the flawless introduction of Marc Warren’s Rochefort – a performance that’s just the right side of pantomime – has ensured Richelieu’s demise has barely been felt.
Much of what was enjoyable about series one remains intact. The rousing humour, the sloshy romance, the camaraderie and companionship of the central quartet – Athos (Tom Burke), Porthos (Howard Charles), Aramis (Santiago Cabrera) and Luke Pasqaulino’s D’Artagnan – are present and correct, offering a regular dose of rollicking adventure the like of which is unparalleled on British television.
As the series has matured, Adrian Hodges and his writing team have grown more confident, daring to explore the more challenging themes present in Alexandre Dumas’s original novel that they previously shied away from. Social and political issues like the gulf between the rich and the poor are regularly worked into the plots alongside all the daring do. The series’s sixth episode, Through the Glass Darkly, in which a sadistic astrologer inflicts psychological torment on Louis in revenge for the children he lost to starvation as a result of the king’s indifference, is a magnificent example of how these weightier issues can make for an enthralling adventure.
This deeper narrative complexity has also created more space for the writers to explore their characters with greater depth and nuance, often dedicating entire episodes to uncovering individual characters’s pasts, with both Athos and Porthos having their backstories fleshed out in order to make the Musketeers feel like the real, flawed characters of Dumas’s novel.
That doesn’t just go for the men, either. Save for Maimie McCoy’s deliciously deceptive Milady de Winter, The Musketeers’s female cast members were often overlooked in series one as little more than lusty-eyed damsels in need of saving. The second series has corrected this somewhat by pushing women to the forefront of the action, allowing Tamla Kari’s Constance to finally stand up to her misguided husband and embroiling Alexandra Dowling’s Queen Anne in a battle for throne with the King’s right-hand-man, Rochefort. It appears the ladies aren’t quite so happy to sit on the sidelines and wait for adventure this time around.
What has really made the second series such a vast improvement on the first is its move towards a more serialised format – surely the hallmark of TV drama’s golden age. In its debut series, episodes were often standalone, exposing the repetitive nature of the plots – there are, after all, only so many ways to make sword fights between men in tight leather pants exciting – but the most recent series has been envisioned with a clear endgame in mind.
The writers have spent much of the current 10-episode run threading seemingly unrelated subplots – Milady’s ever-shifting loyalty, the Dauphin’s questionable paternity – and moving them into place so that events are perfectly poised ahead of tomorrow’s finale, which, with the Queen ousted from King Louis’s favour, Aramis imprisoned for treason and Rochefort essentially acting-monarch, should be one heck of an episode.
Far from having its head lopped off by Capaldi’s surprise departure, The Musketeers has taken the setback in its stride and reemerged a darker, more complex piece of work. And that makes this thrilling period romp just that little bit more satisfying.
Click here to watch the second series of The Musketeers on BBC iPlayer