blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Around the World in 80 Days (2021) s01e08

The season finale for "Around the World in 80 Days" punts pretty much everything except resolving the villain arc for Peter Sullivan. It doesn't give him a character arc—he and Jason Watkins's minor subplot last episode confirmed they wouldn't be going that route—and instead is just about whether or not lead David Tennant's going to lose to Sullivan again. There's some additional backstory on their "friendship," but it doesn't go anywhere; it just makes Sullivan more villainous and Tennant's need to succeed direr.

But Tennant's character development? There are four crucial character moments in the episode, but they're transitory, not conclusive. Ditto Ibrahim Koma and Leonie Benesch's romantic possibilities. It becomes about Koma's character development, and then, when they need to do something with it, the show handles it offscreen. Something else to be dealt with next season, which apparently will involve a different Jules Verne property. It sounds like it'll be fine, I greatly anticipate it, but it's a letdown from where the show was headed for most of the season.

The episode itself is a marvel of pacing. There's time for a cliffhanger resolve, some character development for Koma and Benesch, a big scene for Tennant and guest star Dolly Wells, then an unexpected, excellent fight scene, all in New York. But there's a whole other plot waiting for the cast once they get on the boat, including Koma and Benesch dealing with shitty American racists. The show went six episodes without having overt racism, then throws in Americans, and they're abhorrent. Accurate, both in characterization and circling the globe east-to-west, but the balance is off.

Especially since Tennant, who the show's finally established needs to be more cognizant of racism (having become cognizant of sexism and classism earlier in the series), has nothing to do with the scene. It's a moment for character development, and Pharaoh runs away from it.

The conclusion, which has Tennant suffering one setback after another, is masterfully timed as well. Steve Barron's back directing; it's not his showiest episode, but the way he moves the episode along is extraordinary. It's forty-five or fifty minutes and feels like a ninety-minute two-parter, the way the drama hinges on these actually short scenes from the main cast. Mainly Tennant, who unfortunately gets his season finale character development done through him remembering important scenes in earlier episodes. But when he actually gets to do scenes, they're pretty good.

Especially opposite Wells, who's a delight.

But as for his friendships with Koma and Benesch, the episode skirts dealing with their impact and importance. Actually cuts them from one of the flashbacks. But, again, there's presumably plenty of time since there's another season. And the episode does acknowledge there's been some character development in the last scene. It's not too little, too late, but it's very little, very late. Very little in the last possible moments, actually.

It's a terrific show. Uneven only because it seemed more ambitious early on, and then also deciding at the last minute to address Koma being Black and doing a perfunctory job of it. But excellent acting from Tennant, Koma, Benesch, and Watkins, and an outstanding production. Narrative punting aside, Pharoah's script is spectacularly paced and has some enjoyable twists. Especially for guest star Richard Wilson.

I just hope next season knows where it's going.

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