Is anything ever really over? Endings and the illusion of finality they give can be found all across Patrick Melrose. Each of the episodes in this miniseries is based on a different Edward St. Aubyn novel. Each takes place at a different point in Patrick’s life, from age eight to forty-five. You’re following the same person yet so much time has passed between episodes that it’s like you’re being introduced to them all over again.
Being able to tell stories that develop across time is television’s gift but in this case those years are being traversed with huge gaps in between. Continuing the story means having to face that, while certain episodes end with Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch) in a good place, life changes. If you don’t want to find out that he has setbacks, then think about when you want to stop.
Endings are a choice, after all (at least the fictional kind). Bridget (Holliday Grainger) doesn’t die at the end of episode three but because we don’t see her again, it passes as her ending. It’s “happy” because we get to remember her at her strongest moment instead of finding out what happens next. Patrick would benefit from that ending, too, but life continues, and the show reflects that.
One creative decision that was made in adapting this series for television (as explained by screenwriter, David Nicholls, in an interview booklet that comes with the set) was to flip books one and two, so episode one begins with Patrick fully immersed in his drug addiction, and episode two looks back at his unhappy childhood. I can’t help feeling this wasn’t the right call. One of the reasons given for the change was to create mystery around what happened to Patrick but, given what happened, I don’t know that it should be used as a hook. I also don’t feel like book two (episode one) gives you a full scope of what this series is about. Witty shows about antiheros with addiction aren’t hard to find (though Patrick’s quickness to apologize puts him a notch above the rest) but Patrick Melrose is about the road to recovery, however long it takes.
It goes back to the show’s main idea of breaking cycles. Patrick has many breakthroughs over the course of the series, but that doesn’t mean he’s done healing yet, and the show is willing to leave certain questions unanswered. Lines that on a different series would set-up a reveal stay unresolved if it doesn’t make sense to bring them up again and the biggest surprises come from scenes you already thought you understood.
Edward Berger’s direction on all five episodes is superb, as is the way the show addresses class. Patrick doesn’t carry an envelope of cash because he’s conceited but because he knows it’s all he needs to ensure people don’t say anything. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Patrick’s mother, Eleanor, and in episode two it’s impossible to take your eyes off of her. Her takes on the decisions Eleanor makes are the best part of the interview booklet.
Patrick Melrose is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Acorn TV.