My review of the previous episode: One For Sorrow
It's not often I'm erudite enough to recognize the names or references that flit through your average Lewis episode, but the instant a character in the opening to Magnum Opus referred to Charles Williams, I jumped out of my seat. In fact, Williams’s name had already sprung to mind when the soon-to-be-dead college don Phil Beskin referred to the Bible's injunction to "bear ye one another's burdens."
Phil Beskin, murdered and laid out in a sinister ritual, loved Williams, fashioning an ideology around the late theologian’s ideas. Williams was a treasure trove when it came to occult belief, and the murder itself seems to have something to do with alchemy (the episode alleges there was no connection between the two, but commenter Grevel Lindop assures me otherwise). Lured into the woods by a text message from a student, Gina Doran, Beskin is killed and covered in leaves and maggots in a wooden hut. As Lewis and Hathaway further investigate the case, it appears that Beskin is the first of four killings, each planned to fulfill the steps of an alchemical process known as the magnum opus.
Beskin wasn’t the only Williams fan. He had built up a group of similarly minded individuals: his sister Carina Sargent (Honeysuckle Weeks of Foyle's War fame), married couple Dax and Annapurna Kinneson, tattoo artist Jay Fennell, and Professor Wouter Eisler.
As the group is introduced, the camera drifts down from a stained glass window into a lecture room. It’s a clever and unexpected reveal, emphasizing the ambiguity of the movement - is it a church or a class? A cult or a study group?
Charles Williams was a less-known member of The Inklings, a literary Oxford club which consisted of Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield, among others. Tolkien and Lewis have already been the topic of an earlier episode (Allegory of Love). They're appeal to a pretty broad church, but Williams was (a la Morse) "quite another kettle of fish." He mixed Christianity with more arcane beliefs, including an idea that we can literally exchange sins - taking another's burdens onto ourselves and thereby atoning for them. I'm not sure the summary of Williams's theology as "we become Christ" is quite accurate, but he did believe that we could become like the Trinity, an idea known as co-inherence. Right before a second murder, Beskin’s group perform a ceremony to ritually transfer a member’s sin to another.
The fifth member of the group, Wouter Eisler, is the skeptic, and teaches alchemy. In his class are three more suspects: Nate Hedesan (sleazy), Sam Langton (having an affair with Beskin’s sister), and Gina Doran (covered in blood). They claim to have been at a shady S&M club (“I’m not a regular!” Lizzie protests when the proprietors recognize her) on The Night In Question.
As investigations proceed, a web of alibis and deceptions are unveiled. Professor Eisler (Stephen Boxer, who looks like John Hurt's long-lost twin) has dedicated all his books to a mysterious person known as "Chen." Many characters - including the dead man - bear a tattoo of a triskele spiral, the symbol of Charles Williams' original group, and Jay Fennell is lying about it. Carina Sargent lost her faith eight years ago. "It happens," she says, a vague answer which hints at deeper meaning.
Her crisis of faith is similar to Hathaway's, and for a split second I thought the easy chemistry between an unusually somber Honeysuckle Weeks and the moody Laurence Fox may lead somewhere. (It doesn't, but wouldn't that have been interesting and O so meta, a romance between detective sidekicks? And who is this "Bex" person they introduce right at the end of the episode? Will next week see another awkward Hathaway love interest?)
Speaking of Hathaway, throughout the episode, he's uncharacteristically rude to his sister and colleagues, while characteristically refusing to talk about his feelings. I'll concede that a certain amount of mystery about a character’s motivations can be interesting, but Hathaway pushes it to an intolerable extreme, seeming less profound than petulant. His chat with a shambolic monk friend tells us less about him than his father, Philip. Even his attempt to make up with Nell is eccentric and hardly revelatory: they're going to visit a silent monastery together.
Robbie and Laura's six-month holiday is to be more prosaic: they want to go to New Zealand to introduce Robbie to La Familia Hobson. And yet Hathaway's problems intrude even here (whose show is this again?) James's conflict with Joe Moody makes Lewis conflicted about leaving, for Moody makes it clear that if Hathaway doesn't get his act together, he'll be demoted. Lewis isn't particularly interested in helping out, mostly because he thinks Hathaway can handle himself. (James hasn't proved that, and at this point, would deserve everything he gets, but okay.)
Meanwhile, Oxford's latest serial killer is bumping off suspects right and left. This is probably the reason for the superfluity of characters (same problem as last week) - five members of the group, two relatives, three students - ten in all. Roughly half of these get significant character development, and a few hang around the edges of the story, looking morose and waiting for last-minute plot twists, thus to reappear and either be red-herring-ed away or tie into the central plot.
The ending itself is a neat idea, but doesn't pack the emotional punch it could have, had the crucial evidence been revealed earlier, giving us time to contemplate its effect and meaning. The lack of foreshadowing also makes the answer feel like it flies out of left field, magicking up a motive from facts to which the audience was not privy.
My review of next week's episode: What Lies Tangled
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