blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Around the World in 80 Days (2021) s01e03

During the previous episode recap, I had the hope “Around the World in 80 Days” wouldn’t be formulaic—David Tennant gets in travel trouble, either due to historical events or his inexperience and anxieties. This episode’s formulaic. It does indeed involve travel troubles and a resolution—complete with Tennant’s thoughtfulness saving the day. It’d be nice to see an episode do something else, to put the characters in some non-dramatic situation.

Not happening this time.

Tennant, valet Ibrahim Koma, and journalist Leonie Benesch start the episode two weeks since we left them in the previous one. Apparently, nothing exciting happened on their trip from Italy to Yemen. However, upon reaching Yemen, there’s some travel trouble due to pirates. Tennant and Koma can travel across the desert by camel, but Tennant isn’t willing to risk Benesch’s life on the trek. More, he’s not ready to risk his best friend Jason Watkins’s daughter’s life on that trek. Tennant very much only thinks about Benesch in those terms.

Unfortunately, in addition to not vetting the guide he hires to take them across, he also doesn’t think about how being stranded in Yemen will play out for Benesch.

Luckily, they’ve happened across another Brit, albeit a disgraced one, played by Lindsay Duncan. She’s in exile from British society for apparently being a loose woman and then marrying a poor Arab (Faical Elkihel). When Tennant abandons Benesch, she gets help from Duncan and Elkihel; they’re more interested in rescuing Tennant and Koma from the desert than guiding them across, but Benesch isn’t being picky.

She takes the time to send father Watkins a telegram, which turns out to be a problem since it was Watkins who defamed Duncan in the first place. When Duncan challenges Watkins’s account later on, it forces Benesch and Tennant to reexamine truth outside the context of being wealthy white English people. It’s a short little scene with the two of them talking about it, but it’s quite good. Not as good as when Benesch and Duncan bond and bicker, but good. Tennant gets a bunch of action this episode but no real character development. Benesch gets most of it, then Koma gets some towards the end, and Tennant provides slight support to each. It’s just not his place to provide the support, which the episode makes clear. He’s just not the right person to do it.

For Benesch, the right person is Duncan. For Koma… well, he gives Tennant the chance to step up, but Tennant’s still British, after all. I’m not sure the show’s intentionally pacing out Tennant’s character development to have him become more sympathetic to a white British girl over a black Frenchman, but it does ring frustratingly true. Moreover, the indifference puts Koma in a quandary; with fellow white woman Duncan around to provide counsel, Benesch doesn’t need Koma’s.

The episode doesn’t talk about any of it, of course—well, except Duncan, it goes into length about Watkins’s assassination of her character, and then Elkihel will get a great monologue about the repercussions—but there’s so much frustrating tragic subtext.

This episode has some terrific director from Steve Barron and probably the series’s most successful effects sequence (a sand storm). Great support from Duncan and Elkihel, and Benesch’s best performance so far.

Hopefully, they’ll stop threatening to send Benesch home because she’s a woman after this episode. They promise they will, but I think they promised it in both previous episodes. And hopefully, there will be time for a relaxed episode at some point.

But even with adhering to its formula, “Around the World”’s truly superb.

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