Spoilers ahead for this review of Inside No.9. Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, and Mark Gatiss, whose flagship sitcom The League of Gentlemen placed them on the map in 1999, reunite for the first time since Psychoville for the opening episode of Inside No.9, BBC2’s dark comedy anthology series.
For those unfamiliar with Inside No.9, each episode takes place in one location with the number nine. In their seventh series, the opening number takes place on a pedalo. The story limits its cast between four to six characters, and there’s always a big, often dark twist at the ending.
Three university friends, Laurence (Shearsmith), Callum (Gatiss), and Darren (Pemberton), reunite after thirty years. However, Laurence’s well-laid plans go awry with the arrival of Darren’s ditzy better half Donna, (Diane Morgan).
First, we’ll set the scene. The four set out onto a lake, and we take a few beats to establish the quirks behind our characters. Laurence is a subdued man who looks like he’s lost all zest for life. Laurence is prone to self-reflection and teaching at the same university they attended. He’s holding back information regarding his wife Bonnie, who he says will make an appearance later in the trip.
Callum is a self-absorbed gay man, a gynaecologist. He has a husband, Pablo, and two dogs. Callum has risen to the top of the career ladder but wants to hit the reset button on life. Then there’s Darren. With surface dyslexia and few career prospects, Pemberton has a knack for bringing these types of characters to life. Dazza is not too dissimilar from Pemberton’s performance as Pete in the Series 2 finale Seance Time or Stan from Hurry Up And Wait.
Diane Morgan’s Donna lives on cloud nine (no pun intended), failing to understand the difference between a psychology course and Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, Psycho. She tires of peddling the pedalo after two minutes and inadvertently causes the pedalo to become entangled in weeds. The episode sprinkles the seeds of mystery with a spooky hooded man watching them from land. Curiously, he can only be seen by Laurence. Soon enough, conversations of love stories in Five Guys to aspirations to become an author of children’s books sour.
As Callum and Darren argue over their life choices and careers, Laurence reaches a breaking point. In the episode’s first big twist, Laurence explains that Bonnie died a year to the day from a short illness. His plan was to scatter her ashes with Darren and Callum, whom he regards as his best friends. With Bonnie’s urn, he rolls off the pedalo into the water and swims ashore to a riverbank concealed by trees.
On land, Laurence creates a shrine to his late wife. To celebrate her life, Laurence sets off ‘memorial fireworks’. Out on the pedalo, Callum and Darren have a moment of self-reflection. Callum admits to hating his job and wanting to hit the reset button, while Darren reveals his dyslexia. He hopes his book, made up of words and pictures, will help others. Laurence lies down next to a photograph of Bonnie and presumably falls asleep. He awakes on a boat the following morning with the hooded man from the embankment.
He spots the empty pedalo as the stranger informs him that his friends are on the other side of the lake and perfectly fine. The stranger rows him to land before Laurence, bizarrely, produces a silver coin from his throat as payment. As the stranger leaves, Bonnie’s voice calls to Laurence. There’s a tearful smile, and we hit the credits. As you sit with the ending for a few beats after the credits roll, it becomes clear that Laurence had crossed over to the afterlife to be with Bonnie, confirmed by the stranger’s remark that his friends were on the other side of the lake.
The decision to cast Gatiss in the role of Callum is the perfect way to create an authentic story of three friends reuniting after so many years, and not only on a story level. The episode perfectly balances its comedy and poignant moments with a flair Pemberton and Shearsmith have mastered for six years writing Inside No.9. The episode’s big twist was haunting. The atmosphere of the finale is spooky but gives Laurence’s troubled character a sense of closure and a reunion unspoiled by uninvited guests.
Highlights include Gatiss and Morgan’s chemistry. There’s an inside joke in reference to Gatiss’ character from Game Of Thrones, as Shearsmith remarks that the series was ruined by it’s ending. Gatiss nods and says nothing, but the meaning behind the line is obvious. Gatiss played Tycho Nestoris, a representative of the Iron Bank.
The episode litters an abundance of jokes on the word pedalo throughout and a quip about the fast-food franchise Five Guys between Morgan and Gatiss. Perhaps “Merrily, Merrily” is far from Inside No.9’s best, but it’s a sincerely spooky episode. Ultimately, it’s a story of love, loss, and reuniting with those you miss. It’s also a reminder that university is basically horrible. What did you think of Inside No.9? Give us your thoughts in the comment section below!