I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but I think The Musketeers (BBC 2014) may have ruined me for all past and future Musketeer adaptations. Which is a hell of a thing to say when you’re partway through writing your own Musketeer story… but I love this show so much. Stating the bias up front, here. I want to eat this show with a spoon. I have literally bought the t-shirt.
The BBC Musketeers is a gorgeously made show, with full commitment to swords, swagger and scenery. The scripts are fun, irreverent and fast-paced. There are also a huge variety of female characters with agency, who make an active contribution to the story, despite the deep and necessary focus on machismo, brotherhood and other blokey things of blokehood that is part of the Musketeer baggage.
I think the proves the case that sometimes it’s the adaptations that take more liberties that can better capture the spirit of original material. This is a thoroughly modern Musketeers, and maybe in 20 years it will look at dated as Kiefer and Co. do to me now, but I don’t care.
The visual tone is striking – part French historical, part Western, part Guy Ritchie shoot-em-up movie and oh, so much leather, from the armour to the cloaks to the slouch hats. The men are beautiful and snarky, the women are intelligent and complex, and the Prague-based sets add a level of authenticity to every scene, from the filth in the streets to the ornate Palace rooms. Even the music makes me happy.
Also, there are muskets. Oh, so many muskets. The guns are characters in the story as much as the swords – and they’re shown in loving detail, all gunpowder and musket balls and reloading for every single shot.
Just in case it wasn’t clear that this show was made entirely FOR MY BENEFIT, it brings in many of my favourite guest actors in meaty one-off roles, including Tara Fitzgerald, James Callas and Sean Pertwee. And the costumes are so good that I could honestly write this post just about those.
The BBC Musketeers is not only worth watching, but worth watching in the highest resolution you have access to. The detail and the design is extraordinary, so that in Blu-Ray every scratch shows up on every piece of leather armour.
1. D’Artagnan. Let’s just stop right now and marvel at a likeable D’Artagnan. I’m still coming to terms with this bizarre notion. Played by Luke Pasquilino (formerly of Skins) he is dashing, a bit arrogant, rash and brave to the point of stupidity. He gets to be witty and sarcastic, which automatically makes me like characters more. It’s actually convincing that the Musketeers see potential in him, and take him on as a protégé.
2. Constance is written well and consistently, as a complex character. Most adaptations don’t take into account all the facets of book!Constance – notably, both 1993 and 2011 film versions of The Three Musketeers keep her as a lady-in-waiting to the Queen, but leave out the parts where she’s a married landlady, and a madcap conspirator, and a self-assured, amusing woman who calls out D’Artagnan on his protective bullshit. For this most recent, leather-clad Musketeer series, they keep all the personality and landlady aspects, and ditch the connection to the Palace. It works very well for the show, but I’d love to see this Constance build a friendship with the Queen in the next season. Tamla Kari has all the facial expressions in the world, and wonderful comic timing.
3. Milady de Winter is allowed to be a proper villain, utterly without redemption, while still compelling at all times. Murder, death, revenge, seduction, and anger. I love how rage-filled she is in her stories, and how justified she feels in all her actions even when she’s talking about cold-blooded murder. Her hatred for and conflict about Athos drips off the screen whenever she’s near him, and her relationship with the Cardinal is all about power play, rather than just him eyeing off her boobs.
4. The Three themselves are wonderful. I could watch them all day. There’s a strong sense of the history that Athos, Porthos and Aramis have together – and yet, they don’t tell each other everything. As a fighting unit, they’re brilliant to watch thanks to some amazing choreography (highly recommended; the documentary extra on the Blu-Ray about their fencing and horseriding boot camp, and also the one about all the work and thought that the designers put into the individual costumes), and strong performances. All three of them are my favourite versions of the characters now. Athos is reserved, deadpan and (of course) a melancholy drunk; Porthos is loyal, tough as hell and self-mocking (Howard Charles rivals Tamla Kari for hilarious facial expressions); and Aramis is the soulful tart with a heart of gold and occasional religious tendencies. They’re all really good with the swords and the guns and they have the best hats. Seriously. THE BEST HATS.
5. Cardinal Richelieu, or as my friend Liz calls him, Capaldieu, is a fantastic, nuanced take on the character. Wicked and power-obsessed, but subtle about it, and genuinely wanting what is best for France – though obviously him continuing to have most of the power and influence over the King is what he thinks is best for France. Also his clothes, OMG his clothes. His Twelfth Doctor is now going to have to be extra bloody good to make up for him not being able to be in Season 2, that’s all I have to say.
6. King Louis is a tough and thankless character to portray – but this version of the King is so much fun. Petulant, vengeful, capricious and erratic, he feels the most historically authentic of the bunch and not only because his clothes are a bit more period-proper. What’s most interesting about this king is that everyone in service to him genuinely thinks he is the best current option they have to rule France – and this is supported by various hints and callbacks we get to the civil war that preceded this time of relative peace. He’s a weak king, but he’s way, way better than the horrors that came before him.
7. Another excellent Queen Anne – though I’ve liked all of the Queens from the adaptations I’ve reviewed so far. I do appreciate that there are no attempts to present the marriage between Anne and Louis as anything other than a business transaction with occasional fondness mixed with their various issues of conflict: religion, infidelity and political differences. Even though the diamond plot is not enacted in this season, we still see that the Musketeers feel loyalty and protectiveness towards the Queen, at times more so than towards her husband.
I have been told that I must review individual episodes. There are too many for one post, so I will split it up.
The first episode of a show should tell you exactly what you’re going to get in the series – and also barely scratch the surface. From the opening scene, we learn that this isn’t going to be a note-for-note adaptation. D’Artagnan’s journey to Paris touches on familiar notes, but then chucks them all into a blender.
A group of masked Musketeers hijack the tavern where D’Artagnan and his D’ad are staying on their way to Paris. The one called Athos murders said D’ad. D’Artagnan then runs all the way to Paris in a vengeful frenzy, shags Milady in a dodgy tavern, gets framed for a murder, jumps out of a window on to the clunky part of his sword, runs from an angry mob and snogs Constance, all on his way to declare vengeance on this Athos chap and duel him to death.
Seriously, all these things happen, and I still really like this D’Artagnan.
We’re introduced to the real Musketeers one by one – first a beautifully filmed scene in which a hungover Athos awakes in his dodgy apartment, soaks his head in an ice-crusted rain bucket, and then slowly pulls himself together, one piece of choreographed leather at a time. By the time he has his slouch hat firmly on his head, he’s ready for a day’s work.
Porthos we meet in a tavern, where an accusation of cheating leads him to duel a stringy-looking Red Guard armed only with a fork. Yes, it’s cheesy, but he pulls it off by dint of charisma and violence. Athos, meanwhile, poses at the bar with his leather collar pulled up, Elvis-style, ready to back up his friend if necessary.
The two of them then go for a stroll, where they discover Aramis hanging off a beautiful Prague window ledge, because he’s been sleeping with the Cardinal’s mistress and the Cardinal came home early.
I don’t know why these intro scenes were so enjoyable despite being ridiculous cliches. But my love of Musketeers is not always a subtle thing.
The classic three way ‘invitation to duel’ scene is played for more speed, drama and intensity than accuracy to the book, with D’Artagnan hurling himself at Athos and then taking on the other two at the same time when they try to talk sense into him. There’s a lovely moment when all three use their swords to pin D’Artagnan’s to the table… and he still won’t give up!
Athos has been framed for the murder of D’Artagnan’s D’ad, of course, thanks to the ongoing anti-Musketeer campaign of the Cardinal and his secret agent Milady. D’Artagnan teams up with Aramis, Porthos and Constance to save their melancholy friend from the firing squad – while Athos wallows in his own angsty death wish thanks to his sad history with a mysterious woman from his past.
The format of the episode pretty much tells you what we’re getting here – a mystery/caper of the week show in which the answer is almost always going to be ‘The Cardinal did it’ with a side helping of ‘Milady did it’.
Also in this episode, we are introduced to the cheerfully maniacal King, his gravely intelligent Queen, and the ongoing political tussle between the Cardinal and his Red Guards, vs. Captain Treville and his Musketeers. There’s gunfights, fancy dress, assassinations, politics, swords, swords, more swords… and of course, eternal friendship.
D’Artagnan has been well and truly taken under the wing of not only the Three, but also Treville. Having been training him around the clock, the Musketeers now figure out a way to use his loyalty and lack of formal attachment to their regiment, sending him on an undercover mission in a prison. He ends up taking part in a prison riot, prison break and a Guy Fawkes style explosive plot against the king and queen, generally getting into trouble along the way.
It’s the relationships that make this episode worth watching and rewatching. I like that Constance is a practical ally to the Musketeers, instead of just a hot lady for D’Artagnan to flirt with – she has a strong sense of civic responsibility, and thinks nothing of hosting a conspiratorial meeting in her kitchen no matter what her husband thinks about it. She and Aramis are also developing a pleasantly platonic friendship that revolves around her beating him up for being reckless with D’Artagnan’s safety, and him cheerfully writing D’Artagnan/Constance fanfic in his spare time.
Milady and the Cardinal don’t do much in this episode except some generic scheming – but I enjoy that the Cardinal and Treville aren’t in opposition to each other as a matter of default. Their interests are often aligned and in this case, with an enemy in common (the criminal Vadim with his elaborate plot against the King) they support the King as a unit. It’s a far more complex and subtle arrangement than you often get in Musketeer adaptations, especially with the Cardinal who tends to be portrayed as BWAHAHAH maniacal laughing villain. I also like that we see how much the Musketeers value and respect Treville as their boss.
In between assassination plots and jewel heists, Aramis gets a miniature sub-plot about rescuing and impressing the Queen during the prison riot, and Athos develops a slightly adorable protective streak towards D’Artagnan. Porthos brings the snark, and gets to pull out some marvellous “I have a bad feeling about this” facial expressions when Aramis is discreetly rewarded for his valour by the Queen. D’Artagnan gets to pretend Constance is his mistress, and claims a few more Espionage Snogs from her, with those big innocent eyes of his.
[SPOILER WARNING: I spoil the hell out almost every tiny bit of this episode because I couldn’t stop talking about it, please keep that in mind if you choose to read without having watched the show]
I knew as soon as James Callis stepped off the ship in his pirate hat that this was going to be a good episode. Since he finished up his run as the snivelling Gaius Baltar in Battlestar Galactica, he’s made a habit of scene-stealing guest appearances in other shows.
Here, he’s Emile Bonnaire, a charming international trader and scoundrel whom the Musketeers (plus D’Artagnan, along for the ride) have been charged with escorting safely to Paris, despite the many people who want to kill him. His experience in the Americas, Africa and the Caribbean is a good excuse for the show to raise the relevance of slavery in this time period, and how this affects Porthos in particular, our black Musketeer.
Apparently some viewers were a bit non-plussed by the casting of mixed-race actor Howard Charles as Porthos, and at least one review went so far as to claim it was a tokenistic nod to modern tastes for multicultural casts. Actually, it provides an interesting twist to the least dimensional of the Musketeers – Porthos is generally played for laughs and/or thuggery, and in the books and the film adaptations alike, he has the least amount of backstory and character motivation.
They didn’t just “colour-blind cast” the character for this production, but gave him a history that honours Alexandre Dumas’ father, a Haitian who was the son of a white aristocrat and a black freed slave, and rose through the ranks of Napoleon’s army to become a celebrated general. Porthos, we learn in this particular story, grew up on the streets of Paris after his mother (a freed slave) came to a bad end, and eventually found his own special talents in soldiering.
Porthos discusses his history openly with Bonnaire, and enjoys the trader’s stories of adventure and profit on the high seas and in distant lands. He might be proud of his life as a Musketeer, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t dream of something bigger – and after he is wounded in a skirmish with one of Bonnaire’s enemies, he starts thinking about life after soldiering.
Which makes it all the more of a betrayal when Porthos discovers that Bonnaire’s massive profits comes from the slave trade, leading to an awkward exchange with Athos who agrees that slavery is vile and disgusting but has to remind Porthos that it is not in fact a crime.
That doesn’t mean that they’re going to let Bonnaire get away with it, of course! All for one and one for getting revenge on the slave trader, because that’s what friends do.
This isn’t just a Porthos episode. Quite unexpectedly, we also get blindsided with a whole lot of answers to any questions the viewers might have about Athos and Milady. The adventure with Bonnaire brings the Musketeers uncomfortably close to Athos’ estate, something he only admits reluctantly when they need somewhere to repair the wounded Porthos.
So Athos’ closest friends learn for the first time that he was the Comte de Fere in his life before the Musketeer:, a wealthy aristocrat with a mansion now closed up and abandoned.
The buildings they have found to use as interior sets in Prague are extraordinary, and the House of Athos steals the episode almost as dramatically as James Callis, which is quite a feat. Tom Burke comes into his own in the role of Athos in this episode, especially with the dramatically sombre opening of window shutters and doors, as he reacquaints himself with the house he left behind and the memories buried there. We see flashbacks of his happy marriage to Milady in nearly every room, indispersed with the much less happy memory of that time he had her hanged from the tree on the hill.
(Honestly, you hang ONE wife…)
Everyone else is so busy dealing with the chaotic A-story involving Porthos’ injury, Bonnaire, Bonnaire’s awesome if surprisingly violent wife, and Aramis’ skills as a field surgeon), that it’s up to D’Artagnan to notice that there is something more than usual wrong with the highly depressed Athos.
Athos holds it together for most of the story: leading the team, punching Porthos unconscious when he needs anaesthesia, making the decisions and that sort of thing, but having quietly gone through a houseful of emotional turmoil, he sends the others back to Paris without him just so he can torture himself a tiny bit more by catching up on old times with the blacksmith and town executioner. Who has been recently murdered, thanks to Milady getting wind of Athos’ return to the region, and deciding it’s time for Closure.
Being the detective genius and effective crime fighter that he is, Athos’ response to the mysterious murder is to go back home and drink himself to death in the house he hates. He awakes to find the house on fire, as his dead wife walks from room to room with a burning brand clasped in one hand, for all the world like she is inventing the gothic novel from first principles.
Other series might have stretched out the whole Athos and Milady subplot for the entire first season, with a dramatic reveal at the end, but no, not these Musketeers, they’re holding nothing back! Athos and Milady have their first rage-filled, drunken, still-kind-of-hot-for-each-other reunion in five years, as their marital home burns around them. He learns she’s still alive, they yell at each other until they are exhausted about whose fault it is that he hanged her from a tree, and they have pretty much collapsed into a suicide pact when they are interrupted by the young D’Artagnan who has returned unexpectedly to the house on the grounds that Athos is probably going to need a designated driver.
The Basic Manual of Musketeer-wrangling goes thus: when Athos is sad, he drinks too much, and someone has to make sure he gets home safely; Aramis should not be left alone with pretty ladies who are married to or otherwise attached to the most powerful men in Paris; you don’t try to sew up Porthos’ wounds unless you’ve punched him unconscious first. Apparently D’Artagnan has been keeping a list.
Milady escapes unseen and Athos pours his poor wounded, slightly-charred heart out to D’Artagnan about his whole tortured history, without either of them putting together that D’Artagnan is intimately acquainted with the wife in question. Awk-ward.
There’s a coda to this – while Athos puts his big boy hat back on and joins in the ‘let’s thwart the slave trader’ final act of the story, Constance receives a visit from Milady which is utterly chilling. (Especially if you know how things end in the book between Constance and Milady, the part that rarely gets included in the movie adaptations)
When D’Artagnan returns home, casually changing his shirt without closing his bedroom door, because apparently getting occasional flashes of half-naked Musketeer is part of Constance’s rental agreement, she tells him about his visitor… But he’s never even heard of Milady De Winter, so doesn’t take it seriously until Constance describes the woman in question, and tells him how scared she was.
No wonder Milady is able to be such an effective secret agent! Changing your name regularly is almost as useful as those fancy silken hoods for staying under the radar, in the days before Google was invented.
Musketeer Media Monday is brought to you by the Musketeer Space project, and the supporters of my Patreon page. Previous installments include Musketeers in an Exciting Adventure With Airships (2011) and Musketeers Are All For Love (1993). Thanks for reading.