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Benedict Cumberbatch is "Patrick Melrose" 

By Spencer Coile 

Patrick Melrose is incredibly frustrating. This speaks to both the title character (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the mini-series itself, new on Showtime. The series, based on the semi-autobiographical books by Edward St Aubyn, follows the titular character working to overcome his drug addiction. This is no simple feat, considering the history of abuse that was inflicted upon him by his father, David (Hugo Weaving). 

The opening scene, of the first episode titled” Bad News,” is a single shot of Patrick answering the phone, being told that his father is dead. Patrick goes silent and doubles over onto the floor. What initially appears to be an expression of grief quickly changes, as it soon becomes clear that Patrick is merely reaching down to pick up a syringe he had recently injected into his arm...

Blood blossoms from his arm and onto his shirt. He is expressionless, monotone, high. It’s an impactful beginning to a tumultuous story, one that attempts to answer: who is the man hiding behind his addiction?  

Each episode of the five-part series tackles an individual book in the literary series. “Bad News” follows Patrick as he comes to terms with his father’s death – this leads him from 1982 London to New York City to collect his father’s ashes. During his two-day stay in the city, he vows to kick his drug habit. After all, as the women closest to him claim, it is time to start living. 

This is easier said than done. In his voiceover monologue, Patrick details every insignificant thought that runs through his head. Each moment is a trigger, a reminder that he needs cocaine, heroin, Quaaludes to help him cope with his loss. These scenes are frantically edited – helping place the viewer into Patrick’s warped and chaotic state of mind. Are these moments played for dark comedic effect? Certainly, but there is a deep sadness that is lurking beneath the surface of Patrick’s life. This is made evident when scenes are cleverly spliced with his childhood – featuring a mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is altogether absent from the episode (and his life) and a father whose presence looms over Patrick. 

The episode calms down when Patrick comes face-to-face with David, now deceased. At first, Patrick makes light of the situation, pulling away the tissue paper that covered his father’s face as though he were a child opening a gift on Christmas morning. But there his father is; as cold and emotionless as Patrick was in the opening scene. The voiceover now comes to life, as Patrick talks aloud to his father and to himself. He quietly states that he will not cry for a man who brought him such pain… as tears begin to pour. It’s a stunning, revelatory moment – made impactful by Cumberbatch’s performance. By all accounts, Patrick is a vile character: he lies, manipulates, and destroys. But a monster, one like his father used to be, he is not. He’s a wounded, aimless child, still looking for acceptance. 

“Bad News” continues at a pace that becomes almost too painful to experience in one sitting. Patrick uses, abuses, shoots up, injects, swallows, you name it. Never once is he sober, and the other characters he interacts with know this. Others steal glances, react audibly to his callous and reckless behavior. A pivotal scene finds Patrick at dinner with a friend from his past, Marianne (Allison Williams). The night turns sour as he tries to kiss her without consent and offers drugs that she doesn’t want to consume. As she storms away, he pleads with her to not leave – that he’s alone, that he doesn’t have anyone. She shoots him a look and tells him that he’s not alone. This moment is not affirming or tender; she is referring to the ashes of his father that he is carrying around in a plastic bag. 

And it’s true, he’s not alone. Wracked with pain and anguish, it begins to dawn on Patrick that he carries the burden of his past on his shoulders. The ghost of his father will continue to haunt him until he can take control of his life. 

Surely, the series will dive deeper into Patrick’s childhood and uncover the darkness that lives inside him. He is a man, broken by years of neglect and abuse. And it can become emotionally taxing at times as a viewer. “Bad News” does not let up for a second, nor is Patrick ever a likeable protagonist. But there is something powerful going on with Patrick Melrose: it is frustrating episode to watch and he is a frustrating character to follow. If we stick with it, will we start to feel his pain?

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Reader Comments (6)

spencer, does JJL have anything major to do in the show? i'm a huge fan of hers but am on the fence about watching...

May 15, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

We watched the first part and found it very difficult on our nerves. We love Cumberbatch and his acting is phenomenal. We decided to view one more episode and hope "it" calms down a little.

May 15, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

Cumberbatch is thrilling, but otherwise, woooofffff. Not sure if I'm sticking this one out yet.

May 16, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBenji

I'm a huge fan of the books (well, the first 3 at least) and maybe that plays into why I found this tedious, both over-played and not nearly as off-kilter as it seems to think it is. I doubt I watch the rest. I assume they started with book 2 so that you'd get almost nothing but Cumberbatch from the get go, but that does raise some of the problems mentioned in the review.

May 16, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

@EricB -- As far as the first episode is concerned, she only has a few seconds of screen time (she feels almost like a ghost, even though the character is alive). But I'd imagine we'll get more of her in future episodes

@rdf -- That's how I felt too! It was so erratic for its full 63 minute runtime.

@ScottC -- I do believe they switched the first and second book, yes. It made for a compelling opening, but not necessary of such a lengthy first episode.

May 17, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSpencer

Thanks for article, I am impressed. I want to compare films vs and to write a few notes

June 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTina

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