Spoilers ahead for this review of Inside No.9. We meet Zach Wilson (Noah Valentine) and his mum Helen (Jessica Hynes). Their relationship has become severely estranged, and there’s no father in the picture. Everything Helen says, and everything she does infuriates Zach. While Helen does her utmost as a mother, Zach fails to appreciate the efforts she makes in his life. A bird flies at Zach’s bedroom window, and at the same time, Steve Pemberton’s Bob Bliss turns up on Helen’s doorstep.
They use an empty cereal box for the bird to recuperate. Bob, as it turns out, studied physics in Cambridge and makes a connection with Zach, preparing for his A-Levels. Helen proposes the idea that Bob could tutor Zach in his studies. Zach agrees – using the time with Bob to get away from being around Helen. So, Zach and Bob begin to bond. We learn that Zach’s father is in Singapore with a new family.
Over dinner with Helen, Bob reveals that he has a compulsive speech habit and challenges Zach to predict the winners of the Grand National using physics. After Zach leaves the dinner table, once again angered by Helen, she makes an awkward hand-holding embrace with Bob, who’s clearly uncomfortable and exits fast. Later, Zach tells Helen that Bob is splitting his winnings from the Grand National to help pay for Zach’s university funds.
Helen, moments before, has just discovered that the numbers on the barcode of the cereal box if read upside down – read Bob Bliss. Bob Bliss is not who he claims to be. It’s beginning to feel like a psychological thriller in the making – but this is a masterstroke from Pemberton and Shearsmith to successfully steer us off course and keep us watching – and guessing.
Disturbed by the realisation, and much to Zach’s chagrin, Helen tells her son that he mustn’t accept the prize winnings from Bob and decides to cut ties with the man. A man who, in actual fact, is a complete stranger. Or so it would seem. It’s one of the golden rules of an Inside No.9 episode – there will be red herrings. In this case, the psycho-thriller angle is a neat way to deflect our attention from what’s happening.
Angered, Zach intends to move away and live with his father in Singapore and accuses his mother of neglecting him. The argument escalates into physical violence as Helen slaps her son. It’s hard to say he hasn’t deserved it, given how inconsiderate he is for his mother’s devotion and support to her son. As their relationship reaches its lowest point, Helen is distracted by a phone call about test results from the hospital.
As we learn shortly after, Helen is dying from an undisclosed terminal illness – and yet it’s the delivery of the news as the episode delivers a stunning twist – that brings about an emotional gut punch. Bob returns to the house with flowers. Angered, Zach destroys them and heads to his room. Bob joins him and unbeknownst to Zach, Bob has slipped a bag beneath the bed before he begins to talk about the Doppler effect. He makes a particular reference to the idea of time dragging when we’re young, and going faster the older we get. He ponders the age-old question of what would we say to our younger selves if we could travel back in time?. Because if you’ve not already guessed it – Bob Bliss is Zach from the future.
He compares an identical tattoo on his arm with his younger self, urging him to be kinder to his mother in light of the news that she’s dying. In Old Zach’s timeline, he lived with a lifetime of regret that crippled him despite achieving success with science. In 2062 – forty years in the future – Old Zach perfected the ability to time travel by harnessing the power of black holes. The revelation further explains Zach’s winnings on the Grand National. From the future – he knew who’d win. Not to mention Old Zach’s own mother hitting on him at the dinner table. Remember the hand-holding bit?
Downstairs, Helen answers Old Zach’s phone to hear Shearsmith’s voice. Shearsmith is playing a children’s science show presenter, Rudolph Brann, who pops up intermittently throughout the episode to discuss Newton’s various laws of motion. Rudolph warns Helen that Old Zach, or as she knows him, Bob Bliss, is dangerous.
The episode owes its title to the scene that unfolds in Zach’s room as his older self draws out a gun and prepares to kill himself. Before he dies, he encourages his younger self to appreciate his mother for the time she has left and gives him a second chance at the forty years ahead. With Old Zach dead – his younger self embraces Helen as they begin to fix their relationship. As the grisly second act ends, we jump forward to 2062. As a direct result of Old Zach’s death in 2022, the future has changed. Zach prevented his mother from dying from a terminal illness, and she lived until the age of 93.
At the funeral’s wake, Zach meets Rudolph Brann. The science show presenter reveals to Zach that the two perfected the ability to produce wormholes in a different universe. We catch a glimpse at their work as they throw a bird into a portal – the same bird that’ll hit Zach’s bedroom window in 2022. However, this timeline never existed after Zach returned to the past and killed himself.
In saving his mother from her illness, Zach never abandoned her – meaning he wouldn’t move to Singapore, eventually study physics at Cambridge and meet Rudolph. It explains the phone call Rudolph made to the past. Rudolph wants success and can only do so by changing the past. The events of the episode play in reverse as we once again see the bird hit Zach’s bedroom window. Only this time, it dies on the grass.
“A Random Act Of Kindness” is undoubtedly an episode to rewatch again. The time travel themes of the story can be hard to grasp on first viewing. A suburban family drama takes on a time travel twist that delivers a number of emotional hammer blows. The most significant moment is the final haunting image of the injured bird dying on the grass that lingers long after the credits. The implication appears to be that Zach came worse off in the fight with Rudolph in the future.
Zach’s older self never came back to help nurse the bird back to health – suggesting that his younger self will live with a lifetime of regret following his mother’s death. The episode dials back on its scale this week. However, it does continue the trend of breaking the show’s golden rule of sticking to one location per week. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, but there’s more than one in this episode.
However, it’s a skilfully woven story about regret and love with a science-fiction spin that pays off superbly. In contrast to last week’s tame hostage thriller, this episode is a gem, bristling with Shearsmith and Pemberton’s ingenuity as television writers. For more Inside No.9 content, take a look at last week’s review for “Kid/Nap”. Plus, there’s an American remake of Inside No.9 in the works. What did you think of Inside No.9? Give us your thoughts in the comment section below!