Last episode, it seemed very much like David Tennant, despite being top-billed, was just going to be “Around the World in 80 Days” ’s monied catalyst. He can afford this great adventure, but it’s going to be Ibrahim Koma and Leonie Benesch’s story. Koma’s a working-class (Black) Frenchman on the run from at least responsibility and maybe some other things; Benesch’s a woman in the Victorian world, where no one thinks she can do anything. Together, they’re going to help foppish, incapable Tennant accomplish his task while talking crap about him behind his back. Including Benesch going all-in on the era’s toxic masculinity, at least when it comes to Tennant. He’s a fraud, they’re sure, and Benesch has hung her ambitions on him.
Only in this episode it turns out Tennant’s very much going to be the lead. And the show’s going to directly interrogate the toxic expectations.
Tennant, Koma, and Benesch start the episode by crash landing their hot air balloon and catching an Italian train, where Tennant runs afoul of a self-made industrialist, Giovanni Scifoni. Scifoni doesn’t like British blue bloods, and he doesn’t like his son, Cristian De Vergori, bonding with Tennant. So a lot of the episode is just Scifoni browbeating Tennant into feeling like this “Around the World” adventure will inevitably fail. Koma and Benesch agree—amongst themselves—with Benesch embracing that toxic masculinity dismissal of Tennant. It makes Benesch unlikable, which the episode evens out with all the workers on the train hating her because she talks and she’s a woman. She’s hanging out with Koma, who’s hanging out with the train drivers and conductors, who like her when she’s decorative and not at all when she speaks. Well, except maybe conductor Simone Coppo, who ends up being compassionate. Mostly because Coppo’s really good.
After the initial dustups with Sciofoni, Tennant spends the episode pensive, making brusque observations about himself—while avoiding giving Benesch the background into his personal history she desires—and it’s all about the performance. Tennant’s captivating in his brooding silence. It’s an exceptional performance given the constraints of the project—it’s a TV adaptation of a Victorian novel, after all, and Tennant brings a whole new layer to it.
Of course, there are some other layers, thanks to Koma not really fitting in with the Italian working class. He’ll eventually win them over (and then reject their friendship thanks to his self-loathing). “Around the World” has layer upon layer, the eventual Tennant arc coming as a surprise, with the narrative distance gracefully shifting a quarter of the way into the episode. Again, Steve Barron’s direction is excellent.
Also, the technology aspect. There isn’t much in the way of expository dumps about how new technologies are changing lives. Instead, the show just shows the characters experiencing it and its newness. It’s very cool.
Of the main stars, Benesch gets the least material. First, she’s decorative to Tennant’s initial plotline—she’s allowed to socialize with the first-class passengers while Koma’s off with the workers. Then she’s support to Koma’s character development. Finally, both she and Koma are support to Tennant’s arc, as an unexpected crisis allows him to excel. There’s some foreshadowing with the crisis, just not with it being Tennant who’ll get to do anything with it.
Lots of good acting in the supporting cast, particularly Sciofoni. De Vergori’s a reasonably likable kid, but it’s because he’s sympathetic, not because he’s good. Instead, because Sciofoni’s an exceptional asshole of a dad.
At the end of the last episode, I was impressed with “Around the World in 80 Days”’s presentation of the time period and thoughtfulness in its characterizations, but at the end of this episode… the show’s going even more places. Particularly with Tennant. It’s probably too early to say, but this performance might be the best one of his I’ve ever seen. There’s something singular about it, which is even more impressive considering he’s doing it in an adaptation of a 150-year-old novel. Albeit an excellent adaptation.
The show’s gearing up to be something special.